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St. Louis’ Ballpark Village Changing Mix, Includes New Centene HQ

September 26, 2007 Downtown, Local Business, Parking, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy 22 Comments

This past Summer the Missouri Supreme Court told the City of Clayton and the Centene Corporation their project area doesn’t meet the qualification of “blight” — therefore they could not force adjacent property owners to sell. Rebuffed by the state’s highest court, Centene began opening the doors to any and all offers. Using their number of employees — both current and projected — as a major bargaining tool, Centene had the upper hand in negotiations with those who were interested.

bpv - 01.jpg

So this past Sunday Mayor Slay and Centene’s President jointly announced that Centene would be building a new corporate HQ building in downtown St. Louis, and in a portion of the mud hole formerly occupied by Busch Stadium II (1966-2006). This is, without a doubt, a very big deal. But to hear the Mayor and others talk about it the decision was reaffirms past decisions — such as the convention hotel and razing the historic Century Building for a parking garage. Downtown didn’t empty out overnight and the recovery was certainly underway before Mayor Slay was elected in 2001. Developers Craig Heller, John Steffen and others were already converting warehouses to living spaces. The nationally known City Museum opened in 1997 due to the vision of one elected and affluent artist, Bob Cassilly. The wheels were already in motion when Slay moved down the hall from the Board of Alderman to the Mayor’s office in 2001.

What we cannot do is create a laundry list of past decisions and definitively conclude these are all responsible for downtown’s turn around. Take the convention hotel, for example. I’m really glad the old hotel at the SE corner of 9th & Washington was incorporated into the project. The former lobby makes for a stunning restaurant (An American Place). But did we have to close off St. Charles street with the monolithic parking garage in the process? The convention hotel has struggled to make its debt payments and reserves have been nearly depleted. Occupancy rates, however, are increasing. In the end it probably was a good decision to supplement the convention center with a hotel — we had to do something to save it. But this does not mean that the final design was the best choice to make — that different design decisions might have connected more of downtown together and had better results.

We are in a time when people are simply bored with their lives in the suburbs. The baby boomers dutifully raised their children in the ever expanding suburbs — it was perceived as the right thing to do and their parents certainly approved. But now their kids have families or are perhaps off to college so those boomers don’t need the big house on a half acre lot anymore. They are finally ready to have some fun, travel, walk and see things. The kids of the boomers, having grown up in the burbs, are also seeking a more interesting lifestyle. They are staying single longer and waiting to have kids longer than their parents and grandparents generation. As a result, suburban municipalities across the country are scrambling to build walkable town centers to keep a hold on their tax base. These suburban areas, like Creve Coeur in the St. Louis region, is realizing they cannot survive simply on large single family detached homes, the occasional apartment complex and the arterial lined with generic strip centers. Suburban communities that once placed minimums on the size of residential units are dropping or lowering them so that people can stay in the area but still be able to downsize. St. Louis’ Mayor Slay did not create these conditions.

Of course you can’t blame the Mayor for attempting to put a good PR spin on changing demographics that are naturally working in the city’s favor. Part of his job is to market the city and a major past obstacle has been about perception. The Slay administration, to their credit, has been working overtime to change the perception of downtown and the city. Unfortunately, they’ve done nothing to change the perception of how business is conducted. If anything, they’ve reinforced negative ideas about back room deals and he with the most money gets what they want.

Back to Ballpark Village and Centene. We all knew, several years ago, that something was going to get constructed on the site of the old stadium. The Cardinals would never leave a big hole next to their new stadium. The Cardinals, developer Cordish, the City and the State have been in continual discussions about the various components and how much of the tab the tax payers should fund for developing this private land.  One of the things that has annoyed me is the claim of it being six city blocks in size.  I took exception to that, saying it was only 3 city blocks — 3 blocks east to west and one block north to south —Broadway (5th) to 8th and Walnut to Clark.  I wasn’t around when the street grid changed back in the 60s so I looked at a map from a recent used book to prove my point.  Turns out, I didn’t know about Elm.


I’ve circled the area above that is the Ballpark Village site.  Clark used to jog a bit at 7th.  Clark, if you recall, was closed from 1966-2006 with the previous stadium.  With the current stadium Spruce, formerly open, is now closed.  But as you can see in this pre-urban renewal map, a street called Elm used to run between Clark and Walnut.  So originally it was divided into five blocks, not three and not six.  Given the shape of Clark today — going around the north edge of the stadium, the total area is a bit less than it was back in the day.  Also, I suspect that Elm was sorta like St. Charles Street or Lucas St — more of a wide alley.  Elm was obliterated during the massive urban renewal project in the 1960s when basically everything in the area was wiped away.

The difference however, was that back in the days of active cities the buildings turned outward toward the public streets.  All the indicators I have of BPV is that it will be like a mall only without a roof — it will focus inward.  But who can blame it?  To the east and west are the sterile stadium parking garages. To the north is the back side of the two-blenders on a base hotel.

Ballpark Village, with or without Centene, was going to need delivery areas.  Where will this end up?  Not in the center food court!  And certainly not along Clark next to the stadium.  No, Walnut and Broadway will likely take the brunt of the docks and trash receptacles.  Walnut will likely be no more pleasant than it is today.

And a year ago we were told of the 250 condos and 1,200 parking spaces in Phase 1 (view PDF of handout).  Now it is zero condos and 1,750 parking spaces!  The city’s new math.  And are these spaces underground?  Of course not, they are out in full display along the north edge of the inwardly focused site.   The jobs created was listed at 1,969 with salaries totaling $54.5 million (an average of just under $28K/year).  Why was this important?  To illustrate how much additional tax revenue the city would bring in due to earnings tax — $545,000/yr based on their estimates.

So now with Centene’s 1,200 jobs the city will bring in zero additional earnings tax because while Mayor Slay bent over he dropped an agreement to exempt Centene from the city’s 1% earnings tax.  Nobody likes the earnings tax but every time it is mentioned to do away with it the city claims it is necessary.  Maybe this is a clever way for Slay to eventually eliminate the tax?  Why?  Well, you think that Wachovia (A.G. Edwards) is going to bring all their new jobs to the city without a similar deal?  And the brewery, they are not going to like this.  AT&T and all the other big players are going to scream foul and they’d be right.  The little guy, however, will keep paying the tax for a long time.

I think the Mayor is right, some of these new 1,200 jobs may well translate into new city residents.   They’ll buy places with 10-year tax abatement!  Still, new residents means new local shoppers which, in our city, will be justification for new big box developments like Loughborough Commons.  Ugh.

Still I am concerned about all the cars this project will bring to such a concentrated area.  How backed up will the streets be at 8am and 5pm?  How vacant will the streets be on a Sunday afternoon?  The city should have asked for more.  For example, Ballpark Village/Centene HQ is an excellent location for a downtown bike station — a small area with showers, lockers and bike storage.  This allows office workers to bike to work, shower and get dressed for a day’s work.  A.G. Edwards provides such facilities for their employees but downtown needs this in the bigger picture.

The city could have also could suggest to Centene they not offer free parking to employees — going so far as to tell an employee they’ll get an extra $50 and a transit pass each month if they don’t take up a parking space.  It is called parking management, St. Louis study the practice sometime.  Cities like Portland OR actually set maximum numbers of parking spaces for new construction — a limited supply creates higher demand, driving up prices and encouraging alternate modes.  St. Louis is still in the ‘we can’t have too much parking’ mode of thinking that has ravaged our downtown for decades.

So while I am pleased the Slay administration & the Cardinals/Cordish team managed to land the Centene HQ for downtown I’m wondering if the price was too high.  If you give enough away we could attract many more jobs, residents and retailers but at some point the numbers don’t add up to a net positive.  Once the initial hype and popping of champagne corks settles down perhaps we’ll get a clearly picture of the deal.


Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Curtis says:

    That first picture looks like it was taken from my old office window! When I first started at that job I drove to work as my contracting firm paid for my permit in the Stadium West Garage. After becoming a full-time employee however, I was required to pay for my own. At a price of $92 a month to drive and park, I opted for the $60 bus pass (paid at a reduced price with pre-tax earnings). That allowed me to sell a car and cut my family down to just one. My first day riding the bus to work full-time was 1 year ago yesterday.

    I agree that the more incentive to use public transportation is given, the less need we have for parking and the less congestion. It will save people money, gas and insurance cost. The city will have less maintenance for roads and we can reclaim some land from becoming garages. Not to mention the added ridership on Metro would do nothing but make the system more profitable and more convenient because they would also have the incentive to add more routes/buses.

    I now work a few blocks further south but the vivid picture of that hole in the earth remains. I understand the politics going on, it’s just a shame politicians can’t do more for the their city than just give away everything to lure businesses in. Once you start that, it’s hard to turn back. I at least look forward to the increase in taxes when those 10 year tax abated homes start to pay their fair share. Maybe then the income tax won’t seem so necessary.

  2. margie says:

    Centene, 1,200 jobs, and a “real” BPV is great news. I do hope they will look hard at the horrendous design of the street-faces all around them and work carefully to create a more friendly, active streetscape. When I lived downtown, I had a membership at the fitness center at the Westin (which I can recommend). But walking to and from it from my place at 10th and Washington, I often felt alone on the streets S of Market and E of Tucker. Years of bad decisions had created a truly desolate landscape in that area. I couldn’t see into the Darth Vaderish buildings (or loading docks as the case may be) in the area, and I wasn’t sure if anyone saw me, which led to a feeling of insecurity, even in mid-afternoon. First-floor, outward-facing retail should be mandated by the city. And PS, nothing justifies the Century building demolition. Shame on the mayor and the various guilty parties for continuing to allege that the Century garage contributes to ongoing progress.

  3. Chris says:

    The piece I saw on the news (FOX) showed underground parking… Are you sure it will be surface? Can you provide a link to your source? I can’t seem to find the story I saw this morning.

  4. adam says:


    It doesnt say that they will NOT build the condos….

    I am pretty sure no one else is/was knocking on downtown St. Louis to build a headquarters here. So why not give them tax incentives?
    I do not see what we could lose by giving them the incentive.

    Centene not moving here = no tax revenue.
    Centene moving here = no tax revenue. (for X amount of years)

    If I were Anhesuer Busch, I would WANT Centene to come downtown. Why is NYC so popular.. because all the businesses are down there.

    Why is Ernst & Young located in Clayton and not downtown like Deloitte/PWC/KPMG… because all their big clients are there.

    The only “cost” I see is which you pointed out, is the risk of poor design.

  5. ballots says:

    What’s the deal with the earning taxes? It sounds like the employees will still pay the tax, it’s just that the proceeds will be going towards retiring the TIF bonds to develop the project. If that’s the case, then I think I can support it. An outright exemption from earnings taxes would seem a tough sell in the Board of Aldermen. I pay earnings taxes, but Centene workers don’t? Explain to me the rationale for that.

    [SLP — OK, using the earnings tax to pay off bonds is a new twist — the details have been sketchy.   Still, everyone else considering moving into the city can justify doing the same thing — the issue is that city services are required on day one.]

  6. steveo says:

    “Still, new residents means new local shoppers which, in our city, will be justification for new big box developments like Loughborough Commons. Ugh.”

    From this it would reason that a solution to the problem would be no new city residents. Please don’t descend into the “oh, woe is St. Louis” clique.

  7. constituent says:

    The city established redevelopment ordinances for Washington Avenue to become a residential loft district before any developers started doing big time loft conversions. Let’s give credit to the city for starting the process. This was all pre-1994, and before the Missouri historic rehab tax credit.

    1991 to be precise. Marit Clark was alderman of the 6th Ward. Good people including Vern Thurmer and Julia Hoffman were doing the staff work on these projects.

    [SLP — Yes, good point.  This reinforces my point that Francis Slay being elected in 2001 didn’t create the momentum we see today — it started long before him and as a result of many people.]

  8. steveo says:

    Has Slay every claimed that he started and is responsible for the downtown revival? I don’t know, I’m asking.

  9. dude says:

    Hi Steve, as long as we’re on the pessimistic streak, why try to stop it! Here come some people working in the city that may want to live in the city. They could take up residence in a gated McKee-town of vinyl sided two car garage houses lined along cul-de-sacs on the north side. May be if we’re lucky we’ll get a Loughborough Commons North to compliment McKee-town. Bawahahahahah.

    I’m glad their building in the city and not plighted old Clayton.

  10. ballots says:

    I love reading these anonymous comments. By the way Steve, congrats on being the Reader’s Choice for Best Blog in this year’s RFT. Ya know, Marit Clark would have been mayor if it wasn’t for Clarence Harmon. And Francis Slay was alderman of the 23rd ward when downtown planning was underway. Surely he voted for the ordinance introduced by Marit. Would folks fret if 5,000 new residents moved into the 5th ward in suburban style tract housing? Probably. There’s lots of good happening in the city and lots of credit to go around, starting with the people who are good neighbors and simply maintain their own property. Nonetheless, St. Louisans spend too much time navel gazing and not enough time blowing our own horn. We all should get on the bandwagon and cheer on the mayor, the aldermen, the developers, the neighborhood organizations, the Cardinals, Centene, the Mississippi River, the Arch, the ONSLRG, Steve Smith and his new Cherokee Place, all of it. Let’s give this year’s “Kick Ass” award to St. Louis. Enough patting individuals on the back. It’s about the place, and St. Louis is “the place to be”.

  11. GMichaud says:

    The design of the project is an issue. Look at the failure of St. Louis Centre. It is true all of the previous bad planning is catching up with the city. So what will be visible to visitors is parking lots backing up to parking garages, Ah, so inviting. Encouraging people to take transit is a great idea. It is still another reason to improve transit, transit times and the transit experience. Taking transit should be a desirable alternative to the auto and not a situation where people are forced to take a drab, uninviting transit system to work.

    While it is great Centene is going to move downtown,(and that St. Louis Centre will be redone, sans the indoor mall). These enormous tax breaks are questionable. Aside from the argument everyone across the country is doing the same thing, just who is really benefiting? If these projects can’t be built market rate then something is seriously wrong with this country and its economic system.

    Just what happens to this subsidy? More than likely much of the subsidy is going into the pockets of the already wealthy developers. Does that make sense? I realize this is politics as usual, but this is a skewed economic model.

    I have to agree with Steve that the city leaders should require some of this public money be used to create public spaces, good urban design, bike centers, affordable housing, or other uses in the the public interest.

    The free money may be another reason the design of these projects turn out poorly. They have their profit up front so they don’t have the incentive to compete in the real world with an attractive project.

    The subsidies are a failure of the capitalist system.

  12. LisaS says:

    The free money may be another reason the design of these projects turn out poorly. They have their profit up front so they don’t have the incentive to compete in the real world with an attractive project.

    The subsidies are a failure of the capitalist system.

    Bingo. The earnings tax deal just underscores it.

    I’m not even going to talk about the design.

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    I’ve said it before, we need to stop the “arms race” when it comes to subsidies. Nobody like paying taxes, but when everyone’s stuck in the same boat it hurts less than knowing the guys in the next building are getting a free ride . . . Still, I think landing Centene was both a coup and a great way to kick off BPV. Having over a thousand employees there every day will help shape the service businesses away from catering purely to tourists/sports fans to something more sustainable and more of a benefit to downtown as a whole. As for parking, it’s the old chicken-and-egg conundrum with public transit – it’s hard to convince relatively-well-paid workers to give up their cars when there are relatively-few other options, and you can’t grow transit here until you attract more riders, which requires both higher taxes and a change in attitudes, especially toward buses . . .

  14. john says:

    No doubt that the failure of the state to define blight aloud the City to get what Clayton failed to secure. Bottom line, Clayton’s loss becomes a gain for the City, but the region has gained nothing. The fact that a subset claims victory for such is not a good or healthy sign about the region’s future or attitude. The issue here is clear, as long as this divisiveness exists, decision making by governmental entities are being manipulated by commercial interests at the expense of the public.
    Perhaps it needs restating again that the critical issues in deciding where a family should plant their roots are these: 1) good schools, 2) low crime, 3) livable community, and 4) strong commercial job base. Hopefully the addition of a successful corporation will address #4 but I have my doubts in this situation. To think that a promise of adding just 1200 new jobs over many years can get a company preferential treatment demonstrates how desperate local leadership has become.
    Even worse is how tax incentives are being used to create an uneven playing field. Converting potential living space into retail-parking fails to address issues 1, 2 and 3. This story also proves that given too many powers (particularly the anti-capitalistic earnings tax), officials will overplay their hand to define their definition of “success”. Giving away future tax revenues will create greater problems,… but still there are many acres in Forest Park to be leased (or ignored) among other failures that the public cannot recognize or refuses to acknowledge.

  15. Thor Randelson says:

    While there are many things to be concerned about with this project (for example why 3,000 parking spaces rather than getting development fees in lieu of the parking to be use for light rail development), I am not sure making Walnut a dead zone is one of them.

    Sad to say, but given the “progress” made in downtown since the mid 1960’s, everything from the hotels, the General American Building, the Bank of America structure, and even the new court house all have their loading areas facing out onto Walnut. Given the existing development pattern, I am ok with the Ballpark Village loading up Walnut street with such uses. Better for these uses to be located along an already dead Walnut, thereby freeing up important connector streets such as 7th, 8th, and Broadway to include street level retail.

  16. GMichaud says:

    The real question with Walnut street and the dead zone of parking and loading areas is how does this work with the general planning of the area? We have seen developers are not going to solve that problem, nor is it in their power to do so.
    It is the job of the city to develop an overarching plan that everyone works with and addresses the street level experience of the pedestrian. As Margie points out in her post above, this desolate area is not friendly for walking, and as more and more people move downtown, the idea of biking and walking everywhere is not out of the question, or shouldn’t be, except for the fact so much of the area is almost a moonscape.
    In well designed cities, especially in central areas such as this, there is a continuous landscape that is pedestrian friendly. Loading zones, parking and the like are carefully tucked in to become part of the environment, so as not to disrupt urban street life.
    Walnut Street is an unplanned environment that has just happened.
    The urban experience is disjointed and the end this hurts further redevelopment in St. Louis.
    Government officials need to be more proactive in helping shape these environments, otherwise you end up with whole streets like Walnut, in the center of the city, as wasted space. It devalues property and the urban experience for visitors and residents alike. There are far too many wastelands such as Walnut Street throughout St. Louis.
    In other words, poor planning also represents a failed economic policy and discourages and hinders future projects. (Massive tax subsidies seems to be a tool that is used to compensate for this lack of vision)
    This lack of understanding of how to form coherent urban environments is a city wide problem. Previous posts on this site outline many instances of this oversight. Until city officials come to grips with how to properly guide urban design and development, these urban wastelands will be common and continue to hinder economic progress.

  17. Chris says:

    Speaking of the old Busch Stadium garages, isn’t it time that someone propose better land usage of the vast areas that they occupy? Certainly the Cardinals and the city would like to extend the Ballpark Village’s crowd overflow into neighboring blocks, but right now they’re bracketed in by those two huge monsters. Likewise, the two garages facing Kiener Plaza have outlived their usefulness; while I am happy they have restaurants on the first floor facing the street, they are an ugly reminder of the 1960’s facing the Gateway Mall.

  18. jeff says:

    “Certainly the Cardinals and the city would like to extend the Ballpark Village’s crowd overflow into neighboring blocks, but right now they’re bracketed in by those two huge monsters.”

    Are you sure about that?

  19. Thor Randelson says:

    The sad truth is that while the grages, stadium, and team were sold as a package back in 1995, the Cardinals quickly sold off the garages thereafter, so the Cards no longer own either site, which is a shame because any logical person can see that the Stadium East Garage has some of the best views into the new stadium and would make a terrific extension of the Ballpark Village.

  20. jeff says:

    All it will take is someone to offer enough money to make it worth their time… which also includes not pissing off office workers in at least three office building and a hotel (not sure what the dollar value on that is).

  21. Goldie "Progress" Wilson says:

    So I guess our subsidized loft dwellers will team up with the subsidized Centene workers and guests at our subsidized convention hotel to shop at the subsidized retail in Ballpark Village and Mercantile Exchange? Hurray capitalism!

    [SLP — Yes, I’m so glad the free market system is hard at work!]

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