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Prohibition is Alive, But Not So Well, in the 20th Ward

I’ve known Ald. Craig Schmid (D-20th Ward) about as long as I’ve known any other alderman, a good 8-10 years. He is very hard working and genuinely concerned about his ward. The problem is he continues to act as though it is 1995 — the year he was first elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. At that time every corner had a bar, and not the charming “Cheers” sort of place. No, these bars were the collection place for sorts of bad behavior.

To rid his ward of such places Schmid began a moral crusade to close down the ones that could be closed and to prevent the opening of new ones. This has generally served the ward well but in the last few years it has come under fire from those seeking to turn once fashionable shopping areas like Cherokee Street into a new hip area not unlike “The Loop” along Delmar both in the city (28th ward) and in University City. Much has been written about this controversy and the latest, before this, was Antonio French over at PubDef.

Schmid stubbornly sticks to his no bar ban, with an exception for an establishment with 50% of sales in food. I’m no restauranteur but I have read a few things. Namely, the failure rate among restaurants is high. The trick is figuring out the right mix to make the place succeed. The 50% of sales from food rule seems rather arbitrary in my mind. I can see a corner tavern that sells food & beer with say 52% coming from food sales being a bigger nuisance than a place that perhaps does only 48% of its sales via food. In legislation you must draw the line somewhere. But what is so magical about 50%? Is this based on some great research that shows a distinction at this point or was it just pulled out of thin air?

Steve Smith, owner of The Royale on Kingshighway, wants to open a new place on Cherokee. Given the debate it would seem he is admitting that less than 50% of his total sales would come from food. Looking at his menu I see a burger costs $8. Have a couple of beers with that and you are probably at 50/50. I’d probably order the $14 Ahi Tuna and water so that would offset a few drinkers. Still, others will come in and order an appetizer and have a few drinks over the course of a few hours. I’d be curious what percentage of his sales are from alcohol. Frankly, I don’t really care it is is only 10% or if it is 80% — he does a damn nice job! So do many of our other local restauranteurs. The Royale is exactly what we need on Cherokee along with a City Diner, a Mangia, and a few others.

Of course, the many Mexican restaurants and stores are wonderful and they should stay and thrive as well (I simply need to learn a bit of Spanish so that I can order something vegetarian). For Schmid I don’t think he is concerned about gentrification — making the area so trendy current residents are forced out. As long as he continues having this ban on bars, we may never have to worry about gentrification and rising real estate values.

Cherokee Street in the 4-6 blocks west of Jefferson probably has the highest potential of any of our underperforming old commercial districts. The scale is excellent and only a few buildings have been lost. The current ethnic diversity is great. What this street is lacking is vision. I don’t know that Schmid has any vision for this street or others. If he does have a vision, it most likely doesn’t include any bars — dirty old taverns or hip places such as The Royal. This is really a shame. Schmid’s prohibition on bars is really a prohibition on revitalizing the area.

My vision for the street is an eclectic mix of shops and patrons. While the Loop is very college crown and Euclid is very upper crust, I’d like to see Cherokee be the green crowd, the young and old hippies: the Haight-Ashbury of St. Louis. Well, not today’s generic chain store Haight-Ashbury but the bohemian version of not that long ago. I don’t really want to see a Gap store on Cherokee. I can see Cherokee having various artists selling their painting on the street and in small storefront galleries. I visualize people doing street performances on the corners. The trick is not to make it such a destination that you make it a tourist trap that attracts a Gap store. Future problems should be lack of parking. Solutions should be planned now — a rubber tire shuttle bus to eventually be replaced by a modern streetcar. Run along Cherokee and connect with South Grand on one end and take Jefferson & Gravois to connect with downtown (and MetroLink) on the other end.

As much as I like Schmid, I think his 12 years have been well served as a ‘get rid of the problems’ type of aldermen but now I we need an ‘I’ve got revitalization solutions’ type of alderman. If Schmid can transform himself then great. But, I don’t see that happening.


I’ll Meet You At the Kiel Center, err I mean Savvis Center, oh make that Scottrade Center…

September 11, 2006 Downtown, Local Business 16 Comments

Remember the good ole days when a facility was named for the folks that donated the most money or perhaps worked hard to see it built? That was before the phrase, “Naming Rights.” From STL Today:

Town and Country-based Savvis Inc. signed a 20-year naming rights deal in 2000 for $72 million.

But in June 2005, Savvis, plagued by financial troubles, paid $5.5 million to end the naming-rights contract.

So now Scottrade, located in the suburbs of the St. Louis region, is stepping up to have their name on the building. Could the name be any more boring? Scottrade. Don’t get me wrong, they are a fine company (my investment club uses them), but it just doesn’t invoke any excitement. Scottrade. Repeating it does not help.

I can tell you where I’d like to see the Scottrade name — on a local branch actually located in the City of St. Louis. Right now downtown Clayton is the closest branch. It they can be on one of our prominent structures they can at least have a real life presence in our city.

What are some other names that would have been interesting to see instead of Scottrade?

The “You Don’t know Jack Schmidt Center?” No, too long. Also car related we could have the ‘George Weber Johnny Londoff Center’ only here the tag line would be, “We don’t own our building and lot.” My favorite might be the ‘Weekends Only Center’ or ‘Dirt Cheap Center.’


Greater Number of Smaller Grocery Stores the Key to Revitalizing St. Louis?

Last week a couple of seemingly unrelated posts converged here. Discussions about walking to the new Schnuck’s store coupled with a new book by a former St. Louisan on living car-free or at least car-lite and the usual discussion of mass transit.

As one commenter noted, it is regular grocery shopping that increases the apparent need for many of us to own, maintain and drive a personal car. Food is the one item we cannot defer making a purchase. That computer, new shoes or artwork can be put off but on a very regular basis we are all making a trek to the grocery store. The exception is my non-cooking friends but they still make it to the store for prepared meals and beverages.

I have some theories about grocery stores, sprawl and auto use. At this time I can offer no real evidence to prove or disprove my theories. But, I wanted to share and get your feedback.

This will be a cause-effect debate. Starting in the 1950s grocery stores moved from the small storefront to bigger stores with parking lots (Schnuck’s, Brentwood, 1952) and in the decades since each new store has grown larger and larger. As a result the total number of grocery stores serving the St. Louis region, relative to population, has probably decreased. The percentage of population within walking distance of a grocery store has also likely decreased.

So while most would say we fell in love with the car and shopping centers and grocery stores simply responded I don’t think that is the full picture. That may have been true initially but what has morphed over the last half century is the other way around: due to the travel distance required to get to a grocery store we have continued to need cars. At some point, as generations past, I believe the cause-effect reversed themselves. We don’t buy cars now because we want to, but because we must do so if we expect to feed our families.

While in Toronto this summer I was amazed at the lack of large chain grocery stores in the central core of the region, roughly the size of the City of St. Louis. Instead, every major street was a buzz with smaller markets and produce stands. For the person living in Toronto, the need for a car to buy groceries was nil. Instead they were offered numerous choices on where to shop. If they wanted to make some purchases at a more conventional grocery store a number of them were located along the subway lines further away from the core.

So my theory is that part of what is holding back St. Louis from repopulating as an urban core is partially the lack of grocery stores within walking distance from residential neighborhoods. Certainly, schools and mass transit are related issues but for those seeking a more urban and mostly car-free existence, it is a challenge to walk to the grocery store in the City of St. Louis unless you choose your place of residence carefully.

To this end, can we see a correlation with neighborhood density not around a transit stop but around grocery stores? So my theory goes that to rejuvenate and repopulate this city we need to have a reputable grocery store within a 1/4 mile walking distance of everyone. That is a lot of stores. Naturally, it would not happen overnight but you get the idea.

What wouldn’t work is the mammoth stores such as Schnuck’s (63,000sf), Dierberg’s, Shop-N-Save or even Whole Foods which are now approaching these other chains on store size. These chains will all claim they need to be bigger and bigger to compete. But does this only hold true in the far suburbs where they are competing to fill up a suburban family’s SUV? Chains like the locally based Save-A-Lot and Straub’s survive with smaller formats (granted, quite different from each other). California-based Trader Joe’s (owned by a trust of the brother that owns Aldi) also operates smaller format stores, roughly 15,000sf.

Can a chain operate more smaller stores and be as efficient as a single bigger store? It would seem the answer is yes. Is there a market for both type of store? Absolutely. The problem, as I see it, is we all assume the stores will get bigger and that we must drive to do our shopping. A good urban balance is not achieved locally between the bigger stores and the more reasonable sized stores.

Coming into the picture are other places to buy food such as Walgreen’s, CVS (in Illinois), Target and Wal-Mart. Locally-owned stores such as City Grocers, J’s International and numerous ethnic markets do serve a local need. And we have places like 7-11 and QT that supply basics on a convenience basis (24hrs, close by, cha-ching). And finally we see a resurgence in public markets throughout the city and region.

But, back to my theories and auto use. I believe that if we managed to locate a larger number of smaller stores (Aldi, Trader Joe’s, City Grocers, Straub’s, etc..) along with more farmer’s markets we can begin to break the auto habit. This would accomplish a number of things. Those on the lower end of the economic range, assuming they could use public transportation to get to work, could function in society without the huge financial burden of a car. This could very well improve their financial picture. The same holds true on up the economic ladder. By having fewer people driving within the city we’d have less need to build more parking structures. Our priorities would shift from road building projects to narrowing roads, widening sidewalks and constructing new buildings (local stores) where surface parking once existed. Demand for localized mass transit would increase substantially as more people lived within the city and more and more of those did not own personal vehicles.

Car sharing services would also be able to do well in such a market. In these cases, we could simply rent a car for a few hours to make that trip to the winery for the afternoon or to run to that business meeting out in the burbs not served by mass transit. That new TV, purchased with money saved by not owning a car, can be delivered.

Grocery shopping is keeping us from living a more car-free, walkable lifestyle in this city. Granted, if we were to subsidize the construction of 25 new stores in the city we would not see an immediate change. The correlation is there but it is not a direct cause-effect. But there is no denying that for many car ownership is required to lug home the week’s worth of groceries from the mega grocer.

– Steve


A Review of the Actual Site Plan of Loughborough Commons

I’ve finally seen the approved site plan for Loughborough Commons: Pedestrian access off Grand at the south end near the Lowe’s? None. Public sidewalk along Grand? None. Sidewalk along the west side of the main drive? None. Public sidewalk along Loughborough? Yes. Sidewalk along the east side of the main drive. Yes. Bike Parking? None. Parcel A (aka big pile-o-dirt)? Scary!

Let’s look at each individually:

As indicated earlier no pedestrian access is planned at the south entrance to Loughborough Commons. This secondary entrance is a wide 35ft and is near many homes to the west of the project as well as other homes where someone might walk along Koeln under I-55. Again, the drawings do not indicate any accommodation for pedestrians at this end — those walking will need to walk along the grass, walk in the auto drive or just get in their car. You can say that someone won’t walk to Lowe’s to buy drywall which is true enough. However, hardware stores of all sizes have many small sales. Furthermore, someone living in this area would naturally go this direction to get to the Schnuck’s grocery store.

Any pedestrian walking along Grand will need to be on the west side of the street as no sidewalk is being constructed along the east side of the street. While not serving any building entrances I am a firm believer in city streets having sidewalks on both sides.

At the main entrance on Loughborough the project drawings do not indicate any internal sidewalk along the west side of the entrance. This is the most logical side for those coming from all the houses to the west of the project. There will be a sidewalk leading to Parcel A but I will discuss that in greater detail later in this post.

Desco is replacing the sidewalk along the length of Loughborough. In an early post from this week I may have suggested this was not the case but in later posts was clear they were indeed replacing the sidewalk.

And finally, as Ald. Villa indicated via email and engineer Dennice Kowelman indicated via phone, they will have an internal sidewalk along the east side of the main drive. The drawings indicate it will be 5ft wide and run adjacent to the drive itself. While this is indicated on the construction documents it was not shown on the public drawings to the public in January 2005 nor does their current construction suggest such a sidewalk. I’m at a loss why the sidewalk was not poured when they did the driveway. I’m also baffled they have graded the soil and planted grass seed if they are going to do a sidewalk. They also have some access covers that would appear to be placed in a manner that will present some challenges. Again, it does not appear they will be putting a sidewalk here but the construction documents do show it. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and presume it was a matter of construction phasing.

The drawings indicate at the bottom of the hill they’d have a crosswalk taking you to the west across a 24ft drive to a striped corner and then south across a 33ft drive to a sidewalk along the front of the as yet to be built additional retail spaces north of the Schnuck’s. While I am happy they have at least this much shown it is simply not enough given the size of the project (30 acres, $40 million) and the size of the public tax breaks ($14 million). So the expectation is someone must follow a maze to get from A to B. But human nature just doesn’t work that way, pedestrians naturally take the shortest path unless the longer path is far more compelling. A plain sidewalk abutting the drive on the east is not more compelling. It dumps you out at the parking and intersection of internal drives. What will happen is people will most likely continue walking along the west side of the drive either in the drive itself or on the grass — we will probably see a worn path next year similar to those at places like Gravois Plaza.

Bike parking? Sorry, you’ll have to lock your bike to the cart racks and hope someone doesn’t hit it as they pull up in their Hummer. And yes, you can bike to a hardware store and buy supplies —- my storage on my bike is more capable than that on my scooter. It is possible some of the outparcel buildings may have some bike parking as they are not yet detailed. Well, I take that back. Parcels B, C, D and E where the current Schnuck’s is located (yes four individual parcels) are not detailed. Parcel A, where homes once stood and where you now see the great mound of Carondelet, is highly detailed. And that is the scary part.

The 13,800sf strip building is facing north toward the park but it is not located along the Loughborough sidewalk where you might expect an urban building to be. No sir, it is set back as far as it can be on that parcel with 85+/- parking spaces between it and Loughborough. Cars coming and going to this section will use the main entrance of the center. A sidewalk is shown from Loughborough where the grass is now but connecting up to this strip center, not down to the main walk in front of Schnuck’s.

Let’s assume for a moment that the St. Louis Bread Co is planning to lease space in the strip portion on this parcel rather than construct a free-standing building with drive-thru in the lower section. And you are there having your “pick-two” lunch and decide to walk over the Schnuck’s to get a few things. Following their sidewalk plan you’d walk back up to Loughborough, cross the main drive to the east, head south along the sidewalk, cross back over the main drive again this time to the west, and then cross another drive before reaching the sidewalk heading to the Schnuck’s store. Or, you cut through the grass and save roughly 350ft in distance. If you are in a wheel chair you’ll be forced to take the longer route.

So maybe Loughborough Commons isn’t the lowest form of development. It is one tiny step above the lowest because of the yet to be built sidewalk on one side of only one entrance. Yet the strip center look facing Carondelet Park will be a horrible sight and perhaps keeps them at the lowest level regardless of the final tenant(s). I’ve made a formal request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law for copies of the site plan — once obtained I will publish them here for you to review and come to your own conclusions.

– Steve


Urban Economic Development

Last night was my class in Urban Economic Development. We did a quick overview of what we will look at this semester but the professor did touch on TIFs and Eminent Domain. He also talked about job creation. He encouraged us to consider a career in economic development, indicating one of the key areas that has been lacking is a review of wether or not various incentives actually work. Do they bring in the dollars and jobs claimed?

Well, the St. Louis Business Journal had a story Monday on my favorite new development, Loughborough Commons, talking about economic development:

The $40 million Loughborough Commons retail development by The DESCO Group is expected to bring more money to St. Louis city coffers and create 300 permanent jobs when completed in 2007.

Clayton-based DESCO Group has worked with the city of St. Louis to create a retail center that is expected to generate more than $2 million in annual sales tax revenue, up from an approximate $425,000 generated by businesses located at the site prior to the redevelopment, according to DESCO, which is the real estate arm of Schnuck Markets.

“This is a very good example of a public-private partnership,” Sachtleben said. The company began discussing the redevelopment plans with the city in 2004 and will receive an assistance package of $14 million. The deal consists of an $11 million sales tax and real estate tax incentives package, and a $3 million community improvement district package, he said. The assistance will be generated by the new tax dollars from the development and will not be taken from the city’s taxing districts, he said. Sachtleben said the company has been thrilled with the cooperation of the city, noting that “without this kind of assistance, this kind of urban redevelopment could not happen.”

The development is expected to create 100 to 120 construction jobs during the building period and at least 300 permanent jobs.

The reporter clarifies the sales tax revenue increase; from $425,000 to “more than $2 million.” What is not clarified in the story is if this is before or after the tax incentives. What will the net increase in sales taxes be after the incentives and for how many years? Also, is this $2 million based on other stores being open besides the Schnuck’s and Lowe’s?

And we get to one of the favorites in economic development, job creation. “At least 300 permanent jobs.” Is that 300 in addition to the number from the old Schnuck’s on the site? Doubtful. Most likely it is a total of old jobs plus new. How is this figure calculated? How will we be able to measure the success of the project in say five years to determine if we need to continue with such incentives? We can look to past suburban style shopping center failures such as St. Louis Marketplace for answers. Loughborough Commons in less than 20 years will be the tired old stepchild of South City. Hopefully by then we can get the MetroLink expansion to come through on the adjacent tracks and take another crack at a true urban project that brings long-term economic stability, not just short term developer profits.

– Steve