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Undoing a huge mistake from the 1980s

ABOVE: St. Louis Centre bridge over Washington Ave
ABOVE: St. Louis Centre bridge over Washington Ave connecting to the former Dillard's (right)

At 5:10pm Today a wrecking ball will take a swing at the 4-story pedestrian bridge over Washington Ave.  The bridge, and it’s twin across Locust St, were certainly a mistake but the real mistake was the construction of an indoor mall downtown.  The grand scheme to revitalize downtown by razing an entire city block between two large department stores to make a massive 3-block indoor shopping mecca was so amazingly flawed. The large blank walls of the pedestrian bridges  distract from an entire city block razed and the land assembled into a monolithic mall.

“St. Louis Centre, built in 1985 for $95 million, was once the largest enclosed urban shopping center in the country with 120 stores and a food court with 20 restaurants. The mall has deteriorated in recent years and now only a handful of stores remain.” [St. Louis Business Journal 2007]

“In April 1981, [Mayor] Schoemehl hit the office running. He continued the work begun by his predecessor, Jim Conway, on the St. Louis Centre shopping mall downtown and pushed to completion the long-discussed St. Louis Union Station renovation.” [St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11/1/1992]

Some would say the city was just responding to the market, that retailers wanted to be in indoor malls so we had to build an indoor mall to attract those retailers.  I don’t believe in chasing every trend in suburbia (malls, houses with front garages, etc) to attract that market.  I believe in working toward the best urban public streets and spaces as possible and people will follow and the retailers will follow the people.

ABOVE: St. Louis Centre bridge over Locust connecting to Macys
ABOVE: St. Louis Centre bridge over Locust connecting to Macy's (right)

Older urban centers can’t  — and shouldn’t — try to compete with new suburban areas on their terms — large parking lots, huge setbacks, etc.  No, the urban core needs to provide an urban experience.  Suburbia can build all the New Urbanist developments on greenfield sites or even retrofit a “downtown” into an once auto-centric suburb but they can never offer what an older core has to offer.  The core tossing aside what makes it unique to capture a suburban audience is just foolish.

But St. Louis and nearly every other city in America did just that — ignored existing urbanism to chase the suburbanite.  So we can take comfort knowing we were not alone — other cities were just as stupid as we were.

U.S. Bank is sponsoring a big street party tonight as the wrecking ball hits the bridge.  The event is timed for live coverage on the local TV news.  The bridge will take 3 weeks to remove so don’t expect to see down Washington Ave Saturday morning.

ABOVE: West side of St. Louis Centre bridge over Washington Ave
ABOVE: West side of St. Louis Centre bridge over Washington Ave

But what about the rest of the shuttered mall? Retail will finally face the direction it always should have — the sidewalk.

“When considering the future of vacant and underused space downtown, it is important to consider what I believe to be certain realities. Among these are the following: …. (2) Given the presence of world-class shopping at St. Louis Centre and Union Station, we cannot hope to fill all of the ground floor space downtown with retail shops.”

– Richard Ward in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 30, 1989

How times have changed!  The spaces are not full and it will be many years before they are full but building the “largest enclosed urban shopping center in the country” set us back at least a decade if not more.

The upper levels of the mall will be occupied as well — by parked cars, not people.  750 cars I believe! These spaces will help keep some firms located downtown but we really must get a handle on our supply and demand of parking.  To me our allowance of parking spaces is excessive except where it is really needed — on the street in front of sidewalk-level storefronts and restaurants. Those going to work for 8 hours shouldn’t park on the street just as those just hanging out downtown should be able to park on the street near their destination.  Arriving at a street with zero on-street says “good luck parking” whereas arriving at a street with on-street parking spaces — even if full — says “this is a popular area.”

ABOVE: Parking garage across 6th Street from St. Louis Centre
ABOVE: Parking garage across 6th Street from St. Louis Centre
ABOVE: former street-level retail space in use for more parking!
ABOVE: former street-level retail space in use for more parking!

I’m glad we are finally at this point but we still have a long way to go to undo the many mistakes made over the last few decades. The “Bridge Bash” will be held on Washington Ave (7th-9th Streets) from 4pm to 7pm tonight.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    Too bad they couldn't implode it – now that would be fun! 😉

  2. JZ71 says:

    Seriously, you may want to keep an eye on “San Francisco to Smarten Parking Meters for Demand-Based Pricing” and how well that works.


    Also, with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, it's pretty clear that urban malls, both retail and pedestrian, have rarely worked well or as envisioned. But given the context of when they were created, I don't think that it was a “stupid” choice. Retailers WERE moving out of downtown in increasing numbers, following their customers to suburban locations. The existing model of downtown, as retail core, was failing. The expectation, if nothing were done, was that soon all would leave, so, it should be no surprise that building a mall downtown was seen as eminently logical.

    With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, I see three interrelated issues to keep in mind as we move forward. One, free parking has become so ingrained with shopping for both hard and soft goods that charging for parking, even if it's reimbursed, is a huge hurdle for urban retail, in the traditional sense. This means that some types of stores simply won't do well, while other types will – the market has simply evolved.

    Two, retail succeeds when it's the right product in the right place at the right price. Every chain does extensive research to pick the best (most likely to be profitable) location to open an outlet. Government has limited ability to alter these assumptions, so “build it and they will come” also has only a limited chance to succeed (just because you want a Kohl's or a Build-a-Bear Workshop doesn't mean you'll get or keep one, even if you build place for them).

    And three, retail is not static. You can't follow the typical government model of building somthing, then ignoring it for ten or fifteen years. Successful retailers and retail districts are continually reinventing themselves, offering new surprises to their customers. Add in that most malls only have a usefull life of 30-40 years, and it's no surprise that St. Louis Centre is coming doiwn.

    Bottom line, downtown is a different retail animal than it was 50, or even 20, years ago. Don't regret the changes, embrace them. There will be fewer shoe stores and more restaurants, fewer hat shops and more boutiques. fewer newsstands and more cell phone stores. The goal should be maintaining vibrancy, not any specific business or business type. The population has changed and evolved, and retail MUST evolve, as well. And moving from the mega mall to smaller storefronts will allow this evolution to occur in more organic and sustainable manner . . .

    • Sorry, indoor urban malls in a downtown were always stupid decisions. If successful the mall would destroy sidewalk retailing. No matter the time, no matter the context, no matter the circumstances — a large indoor mall in a CBD is a bad idea.

      • a.torch says:

        People flocked there in the mid-1980's. I saw that place packed for awhile, but that was the trend in those years, in the CITY and county. Around the same time Crestwood Mall was expanding and connecting everything with one long indoor corridor, this was what developers were doing circa 1985. Now we can look back and see what a large mistake it was but nobody could see it in 1985…I am thrilled this bridge is coming down and will be there to watch!

      • JZ71 says:

        Monday-morning quarterbacking. The “logic” behind their construction in the '70's “made sense” to most people. Real-world experience proved that logic to be wrong. Trying and failing is better than doing nothing, especially if we learn from those mistakes. Plus, it can also be argued that keeping retail downtown, in whatever flawed form, is better than having none at all – would we still have a Macy's, even in its atrophying state, if we hadn't done a St. Louis Centre?

        Explain why/which cities of our size that did not build downtown malls are actually doing better. I can think of Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Cleveland, Atlanta, Las Vegas, San Diego and Salt Lake City (who did similar projects and still have parts in operation), the 16th Street Mall in Denver and Watertower Place on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, that are all “succeeding” to some degree or another. I can't think of a project in Portland, Seattle, Charlotte, Tampa, Detroit, Phoenix, Cincinnati, KC or Pittsburgh. Doesn't mean that they didn't try, I just can't think of one. A few of those cities are doing worse than us, but many are doing better. Do we blame the malls? Or is it much more complex?!

        I agree, a successful “large indoior mall in a CBD” can impact “sidewalk retailing”. It can only “destroy” it, however, if it sucks up ALL of the retail dollars in the surrounding vicinity, But if the mall attracts more shoppers to the CBD, and they venture outside the confines of the mall, sidewalk traffic actually increases. Using your logic, downtown retail here should be absolutely dead because of St. Louis Centre. If anything, the opposite appears to be true – SLC is dead and non-mall retailers are doing better! Yes, the blank walls suck, but they're slowly going away, and they're not significantly worse than the non-show windows in other former retail buildings and the lifeless lobbies on the ground floors of too many office towers.

        • The answer is never any one thing. For St. Louis the Washington Ave road diet and the historic tax credits were the winning combination. A CBD trying to be anything other than a walkable urban area is a mistake — that was true in 1965, 1975, 1985 and today.

  3. Double J says:

    Any idea how the downtown mall in Indianapolis is performing? It seems like that mall was successful along with Water Tower in Chicago and another mall down the street on Michigan Avenue that is anchored by a Nordstrom. Granted Chicago is a completely different market but Indianapolis has many similarities.

    • As with pedestrian malls you can find examples where the mall and the sidewalk retailers co-exist. I haven't been to Indy in a while but I doubt the sidewalks are very busy, certainly not like those on Michigan Ave. Taken as a whole, downtown malls were a massive failure.

  4. Hey, I'm not the last person to get a blog in about it!

    I'm with you, JZ…there's no reason (well, I'm sure there's some), that they couldn't tactically take down the whole thing this afternoon. They've cleared out the inside for the most part and I'd like to think it's as easy as closing off the access points to the Dillards and St. Louis Centre buildings to have a clean two or three hour demolition. I wondered over on YAStLBlog why the destruction of this bridge will cost upwards of 450K, but now I'm just sad that during this bridge bash today, we won't get to see the complete removal of it. Kind of anti-climactic.

  5. G-Man says:

    The glass portion looks ok, but I wonder who thought that hideous green and white cladding was attractive. The effect of that against the delicate Laurel building is like a visual sledgehammer.

  6. Douglas Duckworth says:

    They should keep the parking and charge every car entering the City a toll in order to fund transit (this would be a variable rate depending on car type and size). They are thinking of doing something like that in Toronto in order to fund 2 billion in transit expansion. We should also have a parking tax at every garage and surface spots. We should also remove our meters and charge by the hour. Parking should be extremely expensive. People then would actually walk, bike, and choose to live in the core near where they work. But hey it's St. Louis and everyone in power here has no capacity to understand how things work, or if they do willingness to implement change.

    • JZ71 says:

      See my responses to Steve's May 18th post, “Walkable environs still seeing investment”. See also http://www.govtech.com/gt/articles/761720 “San Francisco to Smarten Parking Meters for Demand-Based Pricing”. St. Louis is not Toronto or San Francisco. We don't have a thriving urban core that's attracting people from hundreds of miles away, except for sporting events. We have many more jobs in the region outside the city limits than inside. Do you really think that “extremely expensive” parking will convince people here to “actually walk, bike, and choose to live in the core near where they work”? I see parking taxes as just another reason for people to abandon the city. Sure, a tiny minority will “drink the Kool-Aid”, like they do now, and embrace utopian transportation alternatives. But most, including most on this blog, will continue to own cars and trucks, continue to drive and continue to resist higher taxes. You allege that “everyone in power here has no capacity to understand how things work, or if they do willingness to implement change”. I disagree, I think most know full well how things “work” – you keep the majority who drive happy, and you get reelected! Want to change behavior? Give people a positive reason to do so, like safe neighborhoods, great public schools and low taxes!

      • Mike says:

        St. Louis city can double it's urban population if they had the sense to follow your plan. More people would bring in more business. More business would generate more tax revenue for the city. Dreaming up punitive taxes is the work of Satan and small minded bureaucrats.

        • samizdat says:

          Satan? Please don't bring mythology into this one. The small-minded bureaucrats (these types were called “apparatchiks” in the old Soviet Union) are bad–and real–enough.

    • tpekren says:

      Doug, You probably just convinced everybody who works at Centene, Edward Jones, Scottrade, Express Scripts that they are glad that their employer choosed to expand outside of city limits. All successful local companies that have put significant resources into building and expanding their St. Louis workforce. None of them rushed to move downtown nor do I think their employees would have any desire to pay a toll to get to work on top of the earnings tax taken out of their paycheck. Urban Idealsim doesn't necessarily make good economic sense let alone a good business plan.

      • Douglas Duckworth says:

        Really? So we should continue giving hand outs to every shark that demands one? Or issue taxes and get some public goods like transit?

        • JZ71 says:

          There's fine line between directing growth and killing growth – see http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_15148290 The city of St. Louis is only a part of the larger region, and the city is also very diverse. The issues facing our wards vary greatly, and limiting access to many of them, by non-residents (through new taxes), would be extremely counterproductive. What might help downtown or the CWE could just as easily harm the north side or south city. I have no problem with trying to eliminate surface parking lots from the CBD, but I see no reason to try and ban them from our part of town.

  7. Med says:

    The decline of St. Louis accelerated from the 1950's on to the present at alarming rates. It's root causes, since the Civil Rights Act, are not construction or geographically based. The fact of the matter is that no crossover demolition of a couple of defunct buildings is going to change that, at all. St. Louis is the only city in the history of the modern world that was to go bigtime, like New York, Los Angelos, etc. and didn't. It went reverse. Look what the city has. A derelict inner core population base, with no public and private investment to counteract it. The outer rim of the downtown district and beyond, is a massive collection of vacant lots and derelict social/housing fiascoes. The core values and asthetic attractions are not anywhere near what a thriving city should offer. They are miniscule in number and attractive draw. I can go on and on, but will stop here. In the St. Louis 2010 show on TV, Tucci was stated as saying, “We need new money in this town.” WRONG. You need new people in this town. This city is down for the count, DEAD BABY, unless a massive draw of immigrants, filled with vision, financial capital and futurists are placed in it's very life core center. I'm talking about millions of people, not this pitiful vision that I've heard about maybe 500,000 people by 2035. The core of the downtown district must greatly expand, on BOTH SIDES OF THE RIVER, NOT ONLY ON THE WEST SIDE. Without the city expanding it's borders BIGTIME in all directions…….well take a looksy and get more of what you're looking at. I could go on and on about this dilemma, with more facts and more problems, with this city, but…….. Finally, the bigshots think that they are going to project their small time construction prowess, on the area as it involves them IN THEIR LIFETIMES. Well, that's fine and dandy, but this city transcends you people and your projects. You bigshots think you're going to live in the county and take back the downtown district and BYPASS THE INNER AND OUTER CORES AND SURVIVE IT. Wrong, again. I predict that this 'transcending power' will incorporate you bigshots, while taking this city where it needs to be. How rediculous the small time thinkers are, having parties and big news writeups about a couple of lousy building crossovers coming down. But, then again, that's ALL THEY HAVE TO TALK ABOUT.


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