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A Few Downtown Observations

June 25, 2006 Downtown, Local Business, Politics/Policy 14 Comments

The Unitarian Universalist Church is having a big convention downtown. I’ve talked to a number of conventioneers over the last week with questions like, “Where are you from?” and “Are you enjoying your visit to St. Louis?”

I chatted with a couple of women the other day in City Grocers. They were asking one of the store staff if the place was open on Sunday because, “everything is closed on Sunday.” They had arrived a week ago and couldn’t find anything open. After the clerk said City Grocers was open daily I mentioned the crepes at Washington Ave. Post.

I’m not sure the hotel concierges really know what to recommend. Brian McGowan’s Washington Avenue Greensheet does a better job directing many people to places than the high dollar glossy advertising in hotel lobbies. Wayfinding — signs to direct visitors — is the next crucial step downtown. We are getting visitors from our region and beyond but we need to make sure they know where to go. It might be obvious to those of us that spend time downtown but to an outsider they don’t always know where to find the grocery store or some gelato for desert.

City Grocers was packed earlier today with conventioneers. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the benefits of the millions spent on convention buildings & hotels but I’m sure City Grocers welcomed the traffic. Still, such conventions are not the norm. Too many cities have convention facilities and their are too few conventions to keep them all hopping year round.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a late lunch (3pm) at 10th Street Italian and I began talking to a couple sitting next to me. They were asking about a drug store. I gave them directions to the 4th floor Walgreen’s as well as City Grocers. We ended up talking for nearly an hour. They were from Atlanta and had only been to St. Louis once before, 15 years ago. In their late 50s they had lots of stories to tell about life in Atlanta. They are an interracial couple that have been married since before the days of Tom & Helen Willis but they say it has never been much of an issue even in the deep south. They are involved in city life there so we talked urbanity and such. Their impressions of St. Louis were positive (I’ll have to email them for final impressions following their trip).


A big music fest was held on Washington Avenue yesterday. I didn’t know about it until today. Not that I would have gone, I tend to avoid big events. On the 17th another big block party was held. Lots of pretty glossy literature was handed out prior but it failed to mention one thing — the event date. Yes, big event with expensive marketing and no date! It also rained that day. I think we need to reconsider such events.

I’m not saying we should not have a big even now and then but it seems like it is feast or famine. I’d love for the folks running the show (Downtown Partnership and/or the businesses) to hire some local street performers, just not all at once. Each weekend have something going on. A mime, a juggler, a violinist, a dummer (steel drums are awesome), a guy doing balloon figures, etc… Make it so whenever someone is downtown in the evening something interesting is going on. It doesn’t require a billboard, glossy literature, blocking the street, bringing in portable johns or other such issues. Maybe a saxophonist one night with a bluegrass trio another. Mix it up and spread it out. I think they all blow their entire marketing budget on a few events. By having different folks on different days and at different times it will look more spontaneous.

The drumming circles that form in the Delmar Loop are excellent. This is something that can’t really be planned. It just happens. But, you can create the atmosphere where such performances are seen as welcomed. Having outdoor places where people can play games such as Chess, Go or Pente would be nice as well.

Of course, as a friend said to me this morning as we were enjoying our crepes al fresco on Washington Ave., you’d need these performers to play near the valet stands. Customers for places like Copia and Lucas Park Grille don’t seem too willing to participate in city life by say, parking their own car and walking a block or two. I also love good performers that entertain. I once watched a couple of guys in Vancouver keep a huge audience laughing as they did magic tricks which included audience participation. Last year in NYC I saw some young men dancing and telling jokes in Washington Square, the crowd loved it.

This city has some talented folks and most probably don’t need a large stage and sound system to do their thing. For $20,000 a year or so the Partnership could get people to perform 2-3 nights a week for a few hours for the entire year. I heard the budget on the no-date event was $40,000.


The Valet companies are still being abusive, holding public parking spaces for their paying customers. I think this will change quickly when other businesses open up in remaining storefronts. I doubt Joe Edwards will tolerate Copia consuming the entire southern half of Washington between 11th and Tucker.

The city needs to step in with some leadership and create some rules to govern just how much space is needed for a single business to operate valet — the dropping off and picking up of cars. At no point should valet companies, collecting a fee or being paid by a business, be allowed to park customer’s cars in public parking spaces.


Downtown has come a long way in the last five years but it will be the next five that will likely amaze everyone. We’ve yet to see the true impact of all the new residents and local business. Downtown is only at the early stage in the recovery process. It can still go wrong but even with some mistakes just the numbers of people will make it better and better each passing year.


Last December we saw a draft CBD traffic study but things have been silent since. The plan for 2006 was to change out controllers so the city could computerize the timing and manipulation of signals from a single location. This could help in facilitating special events as well as making it easier to facilitate rush hour traffic. But, six months later I’ve not seen any real changes to the setup or even heard a word about it. Hey Barb, what is going on?


I just had to share the above so I could move on with my Sunday. What are your thoughts on the above topics or do you have your own downtown observations?

– Steve

 

Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. Margie says:

    Steve, no surprise, I agree with most of your observations.

    When Gallery Urbis Orbis was open, we would encourage and occasionally hire “buskers” to come down and enliven the sidewalk with music during art openings.

    City ordinance requires that street performers have a license, which comes with a $25 annual fee and can be purchased at the Street Dept. facility just off of 44 at Kingshighway (or is it Hampton? I can’t remember but I accompanied more than one performer there to pay their fee.)

    I agree that DSLRA would do well to encourage/sponsor this activity throughout the year, not just during special events. That requires a shift in thinking from the current focus on events that require porta-potties, and I think that would be a very valuable way to reallocate resources.

     
  2. Scott says:

    Ah yes… Downtown information and concierges… I remember a particularly frustrating Saturday afternoon last year where I was attempting to find a walk-up ATM (hard thing to do in Downtown if you are not plugged in to Downtown or new to the area). Looked for signs… none… In a stroke of genius, I figured I would ask the concierge at a hotel. She had no clue. Asked a few other employees. Nope. No one knew where even a drive up ATM was located. I can only imagine the frustration of a conventioneer if we can not provide information for even basic services.

    [REPLY Oh yeah, the ellusive ATM. Good luck! You’d think with all the bank towers and grand bank “plazas” they’d find space for a few ATM machines that are actually marked so you don’t have to be a native to find one. – SLP]

     
  3. awb says:

    I always thought the Partnership or convention hotels should send all the concierges on a monthly guided tour of downtown businesses, maybe even let them sample food at some of the restaurants.

    The visitors center can really be detrimental. The workers can only direct visitors to businesses that pay for membership, and then they give the visitors the impression that nothing else is open.

    It really says something when the Wash Ave Green Sheet is the most reliable information for downtown businesses and events. Maybe the Partnership should hire that McGowan brother. He really knows downtown because he’s always walking around and talking to people.

    St. Louis is not the only downtown with these problems, but maybe we could lead the way in making things easier for tourists. At least until we have a 24/7 downtown with open restaurants all over.

     
  4. Sam Snelling says:

    ATM at Tucker and Locust. It’s a drive up, but pedestrians use it all the time. I’ve walked up to use it a lot. It’s a US Bank ATM.

    More and more places are accepting debit/credit cards so cash is becoming less and less necessary.

     
  5. B.J. says:

    There are two visitor center organizations downtown. One that is run by the CVC and the other is all volunteer. The volunteer center is not under the limitations of organizational membership.

     
  6. Hans Gerwitz says:

    Where’s the volunteer one?

    Don’t the concierges at least have access to the guides put out by the DTSLP?

     
  7. Brian Ireland says:

    Steve,

    First, I think you do a wonderful job with this site…the detail is unbelieveable.

    However, I respectfully disagree about your assessment of downtown. City Hall–with a helping hand from 4th District police–have been less than welcoming to the poor, who, incidentally, called downtown home way before it was hip.

     
  8. Eric says:

    Don’t forget the ATM at Broadway and Pine!

     
  9. B.J. says:

    If I remember correctly the volunteer visitor center staffs the locations at 308 Washington (Gentry’s Landing), Forest Park and the booth at Lambert. They are always looking for help so this would be a great opportunity for those civic boosters who actually want to positively effect the perceptions that out-of-towner have of our fair city. Their phone is 314-241-1764 (notice how the number correlates to the year STL was founded). The CVC only staffs the desk at the Americas Center.
    In addition most hotels have ATM’s in their lobbies.

     
  10. Jeff says:

    I always get annoyed how SO MANY places are closed in St. Louis on Sundays. WHenever I try and make dinenr plans on Sunday, it’s usually a struggle to not always end up at the same few places. But then when I do go out on a Sunday, I realize nobody is out and the businesses are just making a business decision. It becomes a chicken-or-the-egg question. Unfortunately, I think it has to do with the conservative, midwestern nature of the city, something that will be hard to escape, no matter how many “hip” people move downtown. People in St. Louis just don’t go out Sunday-Tuesday. Getting friends to go out on those nights – even if they don’t have work the next day – is like pulling teeth. Maybe it’s because everyone in this town is married by 26 and, therefore, domesticated by then. I don’t know, but it’s frustrating. I get a lot of, “I ca’t go out because it’s a Monday” What about Monday makes it tough to go out for a few drinks and/or dinner?

     
  11. travis reems says:

    Kansas City has been doing a nice job of wayfinding signs in the midtown areas near Crown Center and the Cross-roads Arts district. This also goes back to a previous post about revitalizing our districts downtown and in midtown (toy district, garment district, etc.).

     
  12. Dave Eschmann says:

    Steve;

    Thank you for your thoughts on the current state of Downtown St. Louis. This is one of the most thoughtful analysis I have read. Keep up the good work!

     
  13. newsteve says:

    It is unfortunate that those who travel to downtown for dinner, whether local or from out of town, usually valet park, have dinner, get in their cars and go. I think the downtown business establishments are doing themselves a disfavor by not promoting other businesses in the area. Valet parking, while certainly a convenience and expected by some, plays a big role in this. Friends from west county told me last week that they were planning on having dinner at Copia on Saturday night. I sugggested that after dinner they stroll down Washington Ave., check out what was going on and perhaps have some gellato. Yesterday they thanked me for the tip, indicated that they would not have done so without the suggestion, and said that they had a great time and were amazed at the transformation. Fortunately, they will likely return more often. Unfortunately, had I not suggested the excursion, they probably would never have had explored the area or gained a true sense of the neighborhood. Perhaps the local businesses could do a better job of of promoting the neighborhood as well.

     
  14. John says:

    This a REALLY deep subject and as a Downtown business owner (Blend at 1113 Locust, now I expect to see you all here) I got a few thoughts/opions/bad words of my own.

    The “no date event” was a complete failure, and the weather cannot be blamed entirely. $40K was the correct budget. “Which way did it go, which way did it go, George?”

    The music event? If not for a fellow business owner I would have not known about this either.

    I have approached street musicians near the stadium and have invited them to Washington Ave area for First Fridays. It’s a start. Also where they hell does someone get something to eat without going into a full blown restaurant? Exactly, they don’t! If the few food vendors want to be on the Wash Ave area, I can guarantee the Merchants Assoc. will get it done. Send them to me.

    The convention and visitors comission? Forget it. I suggest that the CVC help us, help them. Put Downtown shopping info as standard pieces of info going to all the upcoming convention attendees. The CVC charges $400 to be members, for what I’m not sure. Want conventions to come back? Give them info on Downtown and not the friggin wineries in Washington, MO.

    The guide put out by the DTSLP? We advertise in it but were only given a dozen or so. Where can they be found? I haven’t seen one since they came out.

    Wayfinding: I designed wayfinding signage for Downtown over the Spring and Bob Ray from Wash Ave Post and myself pitched the idea to the City. We have the ok, and Mike Finan from UMA has agreed to donate the funds to pay for the signs. We (the Merchants Assoc.) are only waiting to finish collecting all the info from the businesses to get these going. It shouldn’t be long.

    I wish Steve would have never started this ’cause now my blood is boiling and I got the shakes (where’s my whiskey?). Where is Jennifer when you need her?

    I’ve only touched on this issue and left holes I’m sure, but the Merchants Assoc. would LOVE to hear from the locals. PLEASE send ideas and suggestions, or post them here. Use [email protected] and I’m bring them up in the next meeting.

     

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