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Readers: Union Station Made Right Decision To Ditch Failed Retail Mall

July 17, 2019 Featured, Retail No Comments

St. Louis Union Station, built in 1894, has an interesting history.

By the last decade of the 19th century St. Louis found itself in an increasingly important role as “The Gateway To The West” since it lay at the conjunction of the mighty Missouri and Mississippi rivers.  The Transcontinental Railroad had been finished just over 20 years prior and new lines were still being built across the Frontier.  In addition, many eastern and western trunk lines, or their future subsidiaries, terminated at the city such as the Iron Mountain & Southern (Missouri Pacific); Wabash; Ohio & Mississippi (Baltimore & Ohio), Louisville & Nashville; Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (the “Big Four” controlled by the New York Central); St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco); Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy); New York, Chicago & St. Louis (Nickel Plate Road); and Pennsylvania.  Following the Civil War, a growing St. Louis expanded to the point that it boasted the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan region behind only New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. (American Rails)

This was St. Louis’ second Union Station, the first was quickly outgrown. Additional tracks were added on the west side of the shed within the first decade — to accommodate increased passengers for the 1904 World’s Fair. The train was how people got from city to city at the time.

The beauty of Carl Milles’ work with Union Station in the background
Grand Hall in St. Louis Union Station, 2010

Passenger volume peaked in the 1940s, dropping off steadily after that as improved cars, highways, and air travel shifted how people got from city to city. St. Louis Union Station closed completely in 1978, the vacant station was then used in filming scenes from the post-apocalyptic (1997) film Escape From New York (1981).

The month I began my first semester of college, studying architecture, Union Station reopened as a “festival marketplace.” That was a fancy way of saying a speciality mall without a department store anchor(s). Though the retail mall was only a portion of the space under the massive train shed, that was a big part of the image.  At the time it was hailed as a way to reuse large historic properties.

Union Station had only been reopened for 5 years when I moved here in August 1990. I remember my excitement finally getting to experience what I’d only read about in college. The original retail mix was good — lots of well-known stores. One of my favorites was Kansas City-based Function Junction — I still have a tray purchased there in November 1990.

Also in 1985 a huge mall opened in the main Central Business District — connecting two large department stores. St. Louis Union Station’s retail mall was very different from the large St. Louis Centre mall. Like many other malls across the country, both failed. Prime tenants gave way to tourist t-shirt shops, eventually there were more vacancies than shops.

Vacant retail spaces in the midway, 2011

St. Louis Union Station’s current owners bought the property after the retail mall was on life support, they made the correct decision to pull the plug.  Not sure if the coming aquarium, Ferris wheel, and other attractions will be sustainable — but I appreciate their bold decisions.

In the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll a majority agreed dumping the retail mall was the right decision.

Q: Agree or disagree: St. Louis Union Station should’ve updated the retail mall & food court rather than switch to an aquarium.

  • Strongly agree: 1 [1.75%]
  • Agree: 3 [5.26%]
  • Somewhat agree: 6 [10.53%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 2 [3.51%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 3 [5.26%]
  • Disagree: 15 [26.32%]
  • Strongly disagree: 27 [47.37%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

I personally look forward to riding the Ferris wheel on a clear day so I can enjoy the views and take hundreds of photos.

— Steve Patterson

 

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