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Competing Visions for Forest Park Avenue Corridor

Forest Park Ave from Kingshighway to Grand (map) is 1.6 miles long with the potential to be a dense urban corridor. Developers, however, would like to make it a typical low-density big box chain retail corridor. I’d like to show you why I believe two big box retail developments at Forest Park Avenue & Vandeventer are out of character, why these will undo the work others have done recently.

I had enough photos of various buildings along Forest Park Ave to write this post, but Saturday I spent about 90 minutes taking around 150 photos as I traveled the entire length in my wheelchair. Why go to such trouble? I believe cities can’t be properly understood driving through in a car, or worse, relying on Google street view. You’ve got to hit the pavement to really get what an area is about.

I got off the bus on Forest Park Ave at the first stop east of Kingshighway and returned downtown from the Grand MetroLink station, about 2 miles of travel.  Don’t worry, I’m only going to show you a small percentage of the images I took.

Looking east toward Euclid Ave we see numerous multi-story buildings, including medical, hotel, & apartments
Looking east toward Euclid Ave we see numerous multi-story buildings, including medical, hotel, & apartments, all recent structures
One low-rise strip center exists on the NE corner at Taylor Ave. If the St. Louis Streetcar gets built expect this 1985 building to be replaced with something more dense
One low-rise strip center exists on the NE corner at Taylor Ave. If the St. Louis Streetcar gets built expect this 1985 building to be replaced with something more dense
The Parkview Apts next door contain 192 units on a lot just 65% bigger than the strip center.
The 1972 Parkview Apts next door contain 192 units on a lot just 65% bigger than the strip center.
This 3-story apt building was built in 1930, it contains 24 units
This 3-story apt building was built in 1930, it contains 24 units. The building next door was built in 1908
Across Forest Park is the Rehab Institute, I had some outpatient physical therapy here.
Across Forest Park is the Rehab Institute, I had some outpatient physical therapy here.
Back on the north side of Forest Park we have a 242 unit building built in 1977
Back on the north side of Forest Park we have a 242 unit building built in 1977
This block contains older buildings as well
This block contains older buildings as well, all 2-3 stories
Same is true on the south side of Forest Park Ave
Same is true on the south side of Forest Park Ave
This is a very pleasant place  to be a pedestrian even with many cars passing by
This is a very pleasant place to be a pedestrian even with many cars passing by
The 3-story Cortex building from 2006 faces Forest Park Ave
The 3-story Cortex building from 2006 faces Forest Park Ave
Unfortunately this 2-story structure at S. Boyle, built in 1919, will be razed for a wide pedestrian mall leading to a new MetroLink station to be built 2 blocks south
Unfortunately this 2-story structure at S. Boyle, built in 1919, will be razed for a wide pedestrian mall leading to a new MetroLink station to be built 2 blocks south
Across the street a similar building was successfully renovated for an independence center and upscale resale store
Across the street a similar building was successfully renovated for an independence center and upscale resale store. This was built in 1931.
One of the few 1-story buildings, this one dates to 1912 and has many windows on the street-facing   facade. Currently a dialysis center.
One of the few 1-story buildings, this one dates to 1912 and has many windows on the street-facing facade. Currently used as a dialysis center.
The general rule, however, is 2-levels up to 6 or more at times. All front Forest Park Ave
The general rule, however, is 2-levels up to 6 or more at times. All front Forest Park Ave
Former Ford plant is now apartments with street-level retail
Former Ford plant is now apartments with street-level retail
Two of the four storefronts are still available.
Two of the four storefronts are still available.
The 3-story warehouse from 1901 is now part of the Center for Emerging Technologies
The 3-story warehouse from 1901 is now part of the Center for Emerging Technologies
A long-time Salvation Army facility, 3-stories facing Forest Park Ave
A long-time Salvation Army facility, 3-stories facing Forest Park Ave
A 2-story Laclede Gas building
A 2-story Laclede Gas building
A 2-story firehouse at Vandeventer
The 2-story firehouse at Vandeventer was built in 1965
A former warehouse facing Forest Park and another facing Laclede are apartments geared toward SLU students. The parking garage was set back enough to permit a shallow liner building.
A former warehouse facing Forest Park, and another facing Laclede, are apartments geared toward SLU students. The parking garage was set back enough to permit a shallow liner building.
At Spring Ave millions have been invested in existing urban buildings
At Spring Ave millions have been invested in existing urban buildings
Microbrewer Six Row is in the urban building on the SE corner at Spring Ave
Microbrewer Six Row is in the urban building on the SE corner at Spring Ave
Finally at Grand we have one of SLU's residence halls
Finally at Grand we have one of SLU’s residence halls, though not oriented to Forest Park Ave

As you can see each block for the last 1.5 miles from Kingshighway has buildings fronting Forest Park Ave, nearly all 2 or more floors. Seems like every decade since the early 20th century new buildings have followed this pattern. But now Pace wants to change the pattern drastically, a new vision.

Pace Properties wants to build a retail center, called Midtown Station, on Forest Park Ave. between Vandeventer and Spring.

Pace says the site is ideal because of its proximity to St. Louis University and Washington University, as well as major employers like Ameren Missouri, BJC and Wells Fargo. (KSDK)

From the development flyer:

Pace wants to have the backs of big boxes facing Forest Park Ave & Vandeventer Ave
Pace wants to have the backs of big boxes facing Forest Park Ave & Vandeventer Ave
This big box development (yellow) coupled with another to the west purple will completely undo the hard work and investment of  others along the Forest Park Ave corridor
This big box development (yellow) coupled with another to the west (purple) will completely undo the hard work and investment of others along the Forest Park Ave corridor

Next to Saint Louis University should be walkable retail shops, not the blank walls of the back of big boxes. I’m not opposed to retail, I’m opposed to the form these developments will likely take. I’m gathering examples of how this could be done much better, look for another post next month.

I don’t want this new suburban big box vision to reverse the urban corridor.

– Steve Patterson

  • guest

    Informative post, but your last sentence begs the question:

    What do local residents, area stakeholders, and the alderman for the ward want?

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      Certainly those in the immediate area should be part of the planning process, but we can’t limit input to only that group. You don’t build a great cohesive city by catering only to a few in a given area. For example, the big picture of connecting neighborhoods must be considered.

      • JZ71

        Yes, but big box retail appears to be what many people want, including many who live in the city and shop in the suburbs. If the big boxes don’t go here, where should they go? On Olive? Washington? Grand? Kingshighway? The big box retailers may be “ugly”, but they generate both taxes and jobs that the city desperately needs. This site used to be an industrial plant – pretty much anything would be an “improvement”. Instead of just saying “no!”, how about pushing for liner buildings here? Small-scale retail, facing FPP, could complement big boxes faces parking lots and elevated I-64 beyond . . .

        • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

          Because a developer proposes something isn’t evidence it is desired. Many municipalities are struggling to find uses for vacant big boxes. St. Louis Marketplace is an example of big box retail in the city that failed.

          • mark groth

            Steve definitely has a point. We need these retailers but the buildings do not have to be “big boxes.” I think the architects can think of a way to build beautiful buildings that honour and protect St. Louis’ architectural heritage. Just pressure Pace to make sure that these buildings are able to generate foot traffic and fill up metered on-street parking spaces. The buildings should be built in a way that when the retailers go out of business one day in 40-50 years, they can be re-used.

            We need IKEA to come to St. Louis. But we must pressure IKEA to build an environmentally friendly and beautiful building that enhances the central corridor.

            St. Louis needs to start thinking 50 years down the road. We are creating our history.

          • tpekren

            Steve, St. Louis Marketpace is a terrible location for retail all around and to say big box failed here means that there is no room for big box in the city is a stretch. It also become home to some employers who found the space desireable even though it wasn’t the original intention. Also, I’m confused by your response to JZ71. I expect your background in Real Estate would at least recognize the fact that location matters. Instead, you seek the first thing that failed and tie it directly to your point. Believe Lowe’s doing well in South City and that is as big of big box store as you can get. So to reiterate JZ question, where do you want city residents to shop if they desire a name brand store like everyone else??? I doubt that you move into or live in the city and say to yourself. I really don’t want to shop at a Target, or a TJ Maxx, and so on, So far city residents are getting Dollar Stores and Walgreens.

          • wimp

            I’m moving to NYC to shop @ TJ Maxx, hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahhhahahahah

          • JZ71
          • Wump

            any Manhattanite who shops @ tj maxx is a joke and no one would ever move there to shop @ tj maxx. its a piece of crap. no one would ever move any where because of tjmaxx. i am sure the tj maxx’s “on manhattan” as you so put it probably make real new yorkers want to vomit. there is a fucking kmart “on manhattan” too, doesnt mean i want (another) one in the city. I hear denver has 17…

          • JZ71

            I doubt they “probably make real new yorkers want to vomit”. If they did, they wouldn’t stay open for very long. Stores need customers. If they have them, they stay open, and may even build more. If they don’t have customers, they close, end of story. The real question is why we don’t have any in the city? Are we too sophisticated? Too unsophisticated? Or they just don’t see the city as a profitable market, even for their “cheap crap”?! But I do agree, no one would move anywhere just to be near a TJ Maxx.

        • larry

          I think Steve’s point is not that Big Box retail is bad, but
          transplanting a suburban sprawl-style development in the middle of a
          neighborhood in the midst of a transformation is possibly not the right
          approach. I have seen urban renewal create density and excitement via
          big box (Columbia Heights in DC – http://tinyurl.com/mahs98a); you just
          need the right approach to the development.

          • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

            I’d add the CityTarget concept at Sunnyside/Broadway in Chicago’s improving Uptown neighborhood as an example of sufficient attention paid to the pedestrian experience: http://bit.ly/1feBFv7

            The first floor windows look into the store (an interior Starbucks actually), while the second floor ones are pretty much there for show (that’s storage/backroom space, Target customers see no windows from the second floor. The main entrance straddles the corner, providing equal access to those walking and those parking in the rear garage.

            And if you go a bit further south, there is the kind of development Steve’s asking for…namely shallow (depthwise, not content wise — for the most part…) street-level retail “stalls” with 2-3 floors of residential above.

          • JZ71

            Density happens when land is expensive. Land becomes expensive when supply is scarce. We live in a city that has lost well more than half its population, so land in St. Louis is neither scarce nor expensive. Yes, in certain neighborhoods, demand is increasing, but it is still far from the levels one sees in the examples you cite.

            The real point of discussion here should be what is FPP? Is it an urban boulevard or is it (or should it become) a major commercial street? Most of the examples Steve used to illustrate this post are not retail uses (and one that he does use he doesn’t like!), they’re “medical, hotel and residential uses” as well as institutional uses. While on-street parking is currently provided, should it be encouraged or relied upon as the primary source for multiple new businesses, ESPECIALLY major retail uses that typify big box tenants? I’d argue that FPP is, and should remain, more of an urban boulevard, designed to move traffic at reasonable speeds, with major retail happening on the intersecting streets – Grand, Spring, Vandeventer, Euclid, Kingshighway, etc.

            I’d also argue, that as Cortex grows, that Duncan Avenue (a block south of FPP) will/should evolve as the primary pedestrian connection into this site from the west, much like how pedestrian circulation has evolved around the BJC complex. There will be no pedestrian access from the south (I-64 blocks it) and little from Grand on the east. There will be some pedestrian access from the north, but that will and should occur only at the signalized crosswalks at Spring and Vandeventer. Given those assumptions, the current plan actually works well for most pedestrians – the only ones that it wouldn’t work well for are the few who would actually venture the entire 1.6 miles along FPP “from Kingshighway to Grand”.

  • Tom

    If it’s the “blank walls of the back of big boxes” that you object to, have you considered approaching Pace and asking them to redesign those blank walls? Would you be satisfied if Pace created a false facade at the Forest Park elevation, adorned with architectural details to compliment adjacent buildings, in lieu of those blank walls?
    I can’t imagine that a competent architect couldn’t create a false wall that would address your concern. This is the sort of “opportunity” that brings most architects back to the office each morning!

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      False walls don’t generate foot traffic, nor do they fill up metered on-street parking spaces.

      • Tom

        Forget your preconceived ideas, and think “outside the box, ” so to speak. There is no reason why a false wall couldn’t be constructed with an inviting “entrance way” with doors that would provide access to an exterior courtyard of sorts. Walk thru the doors, walk through a well designed outside garden area, maybe something on a lesser scale to city garden, then into the core where store entrances are located.This would provide an inviting street entrance “into” the complex/core for both pedestrians and motorists. I’ve worked on structures that, if left to do-gooders and engineers to design, would have been architectural nightmares. This would be a very do-able project mod for a building architect and a landscape architect, and one that I suspect any legitimate developer would embrace JUST to avoid negative neighborhood reaction. But’cha gotta bend just a little!

  • guest

    What do city zoning and the Planning Commission permit. Wouldn’t we expect the developer to build within whatever allowable zoning restrictions permit at the lowest possible cost to achieve the highest possible return? Need to think like a developer.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      That’s the problem, the city allows anything & everything a developer proposes even if in conflict with decades of dense/urban pattern.

      • archie

        You are correct Steve. St. Louis must set standards.

  • Eric

    So what if this development would be out of character? Someone could equally say “I don’t want black people to move into my neighborhood. They would be out of character.” Give a more substantive reason.

    • Wump

      they have that in midcounty, its called “driving while black”, works pretty well

  • guest

    Here’s the thing. This project is another classic STL example of comparing the “actual” to the “what if”. The actual is what’s proposed, not the what if. It seems like we are endlessly debating the downsides of real projects with what we wish they were instead, all the while forgetting that we are getting things off the ground in STL city that haven’t been seen in more than a generation.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      The public doesn’t have to accept something just because someone proposed it. We need to get ahead of developers and work on a clear community vision for the city, articulated through form based code.

      • guest

        That’s happening in some areas. Why not for the whole city? Guessing it’s because of various differences at the grass roots level and a lack of resources to pay for all the planning costs.

  • Jim McCollum

    I am anxious to see your alternative proposals, but I think the introduction of big box retail to the area might serve a lot of residents who are dependent on public transportation. Certainly, you can’t get less PT friendly than Brentwood, and a properly designed pedestrain-friendly big box retail center may be a good thing for the residents of Midtown and thereabouts.

  • Prof. Wumpenstien

    The City could force them to make a faketown like BLVD St Louis(County). Everyone would still drive there, but it would be more pleasing to the eye (I guess) and for the two people arriving on foot/chair it would be more pleasant(Steve and I). Its exactly what they did @ North and Clybourne in Chicago, they have a great faketown there, this strip of store fronts where everyone who actually uses them parks and enters in the back (save maybe a few min wage earners who take the El or bus there). I am sure it is like that @ blvd st louis co, but I dont know cause I would never go there. My bet is the City would rather have the retailers than risk forcing them to the County because of “smart planning” (Im not convinced these faketowns are all that smart). I agree with you in principal steve, but making this part of midotwne/cwe into a ped friendly place is gonna be tough, and these aren’t exactly ped freindly retailers that will be moving in there anyway, people who shop @ big boxes need a big box (a whip) to cart all the chinese crap they just bought.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    Generally, I have no problem with the overall orientation of the big boxes here. Realistically, the alternative would be to push them up against I-64, have “outbuildings” (see: Applebees, Autozone, etc.) along Forest Park Parkway and fill the center with parking. At least in this configuration, parking is pushed to the rear rather than acting as an ugly void between the surface streets and the retailer.

    We can’t really speak to the individual orientation of retailers until we find out who those retailers are and what they’re intentions may be. I’ve seen several “city-centric” examples of big box retailers where they allow for street-level access — Best Buy, Target and Kohl’s among them. You won’t see 2nd/3rd floor residential or a grand facade, but there are at least points of access and at least some fronting windows.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      You’re thinking is too narrow. The big boxes can still face the highway. Small storefronts can mask the back of the boxes. These can have smaller tenants like a Subway or even a local business. A 2nd level might have offices or residential units.

      • JZ71

        I see four different discussions going on – one, are big boxes appropriate here / along FPP / anywhere in the city? Two, can the city realistically mandate certain, more-restrictive, urban design standards, things like bulk, modulation, setbacks, materials, glazing, etc.? Three, how much leverage does the city actually have with developers or major retail users? And four, who gets the final say? The local residents? The aldermen? The Planning Dept.? Outside urban design advocates / experts? The developer? The retailer? The customer?

        These questions pit historical precedents against contemporary design solutions, autocentric development against pedestrian-focused, and visions of better against the reality of who’s actually signing leases for available spaces. All of us in the world of design have ideas on how to make everything we see and touch “better”. Do we all agree on everything? Absolutely not! So, who’s “right”? Or, are there actually multiple “good” answers? Are we too focused on perfect at the expense of just making good a little bit better?

  • John R

    An example of what may work for the site, if perhaps in need of better execution, is the newer commercial building in the Highlands. Most of the parking is in the back, but there are dual entrances from front and back — there is street parking and storefront entrances on Chouteau as well from the lot behind. FPP would be built out with rather narrow two-three story building fronting FPP with a street-level coffee shop or cafe and complimentary businesses with office on top. Pedestrians could also access the big boxes behind through landscaped paths between the frontage buildings. Likewise, drivers going directly to the big boxes could access the FPP fronting businesses through the dual entrances If anyone has gone to Comet Coffee in the Highlands, you get the general idea.

    • dempster holland

      At the rear of the gallaria, where there is a parking garage, there are entrances at the rear of some
      stores, and in other cases, there are hallways leading to the main concourse of the gallaria. In the city.
      there may be some concern of security, but this is one way to soften up the wall which may otherwise
      face Forest Park. Another would be decorative brickwork as is found in old s st louis buildings. But
      a question would be how much the city could push a developer to these or other concepts without him
      throwing up his hands and saying “enough”, I’m off to Chesterfield

      • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

        Chesterfield is pretty full with two new outlet malls. Retailers know the suburban markets are saturated — retail growth means moving toward the center

        • moe

          Or further out. It wasn’t so long ago that Chesterfield Mall was built literally in the middle of nowhere, down a 2 lane highway 40. Everyone thought they were crazy…

          • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

            I’m sure that was the case, but 37 years is a good amount of time. Many people reading this weren’t even born in 1976. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesterfield_Mall
            One of the largest malls in Okahoma, Crossroads Mall, was built in 1974. Today all four anchors are closed, the mall has faced issues for the last 15-20 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossroads_Mall_(Oklahoma)

          • moe

            Well thanks for making me feel old! But one does have to hand it to the Mall, they’ve managed to stay relevant while many others have closed and they’ve had competition right on their doorstep. Well in their case, their flood plain.
            But it was built out there in the ‘boonies’ the 40 corridor was nothing but a 2 lane highway with trees as far as the eye could see. It was a “Destination” mall and land was cheap and building codes were minimal considering it was unincorporated.
            So I wouldn’t discount big box retailers or saturated suburban markets or, for that matter, cheap vacant land. The fact that many people in power now barely remember the building of the mall is all the more relevant. History is deemed to repeat itself??? We’ll see how saturated suburbia is as they finalize plans for the old Crestwood Mall, the Hadley township area, etc. …..Plenty of areas saturated, but still looking towards big boxes.

          • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

            Big box retailing isn’t what it was just a decade ago! “To survive, stores like Best Buy will need to kill their own category, remaking themselves into what might be called “small-box stores”: more intimate, accessible, with a unique mix of products and expert personal service that the Internet simply can’t provide. Other retailers have shown that it’s still possible, even in this day and age, to get people to buy things in stores. But can the giants of yesteryear cut themselves down to scrappy, nimble competitors? Can Goliath transform himself into David before the money runs out?” http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/02/megan-mcardle-on-how-luxury-will-win-the-shopping-wars.html

          • JZ71

            If that’s true, why is Menard’s coming to town and why has Deer Creek Center in Maplewood successfully filled its empty spaces with typical big-box tenants? Why is Staples talking about moving into the St. Louis market? I agree, retail is rarely static, concepts come and go (lifestyle centers, open-air malls, enclosed malls, strip malls, big boxes), just like how some retailers flourish and some fade (Venture, Borders, likely JCP). But to say that one idea is completely dead makes about much sense as saying there is only one right answer. Context is critical. Demographics plays as big a role, if not a bigger role, as urban density or suburban sprawl. There will always be niche retailers, just like there will always be big, boring chains. The best we can hope for is a successful synergy, where everyone thrives; the worst we can hope for is what we see in parts of our fair city, a virtual retail wasteland.

      • John R

        I think that the retailers that would be considering the Midtown Station site already are in Chesterfield and the question for Pace is could it still make money with a more urban site plan. I think it is quite possible that in fact they’d make more if they are able to fit some more stores and office on FPP.

        As for the new outlet malls, I suspect that the Meadows in O’Fallon is going to be hit just as much as those to the east. More folks in the Chuck will make the short trip across the river.

  • imran

    Steve, are you sure the Brauer building is to be demolished? Most of the renderings I have seen so far show the green space stopping at Brauer and not extending to Forest Park Pkwy.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      No, I’m not certain. Early drawings I saw showed it gone but others are saying it will stay.

  • tpekren

    It will be interesting to see how this site deveops. For one, the best description given to date of the rendering is that this marketing brochure first and foremost and what happens here could be very very different. First though, Pace does have to make a pitch to if retail is interesting in coming into the city and what is it really looking for.
    .
    I for one think that this area is a prime area for box store development for a couple of obvious reasons. Retail except for some very dense areas in NY, Chicago, San Fran will seek visibility and space to park vehicles. This area can offer both. Second, it has all around good access from vehicle to the new Boyle street metrolink station to metro service for city residents and employees. Third, the area is located between the city largest employer, growing research park and sizeable campus population. I honestly believe Pace will find demand dictating a lot more square footage from mixed use/residential along Vandy and structured parking with more street facing structures then what the original rendering is showing. Density is about square footage and demand dictates how much square footage will get built out. Finally, Pace even recognized in PD Building Blocks that their might be some benefit in keeping raised industrial track spur to tie into future greenway. How big box store developers in the St. Louis area would have admitted anything like that.
    .
    Also, Steve you completely ignore the previous use of the site. This whole area was light and heavy industrial from a by gone era. While I hope the city can find ways to attract industry to match recent success along the riverfront. I think this area due for a change that should include big box retailers. The question, is what will work best!! Not what can you limit development too because it is not urban enough!!

  • Chaz69

    Add ordinance to require new builders to comply with certain design criteria.

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