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What To Do With 1.2 Million Square Feet In The Railway Exchange Building (UPDATED)

Downtown’s Railway Exchange Building, completed in 1913, occupies an entire city block. From the 2009 National Register nomination:

The Railway Exchange Building was recognized as an architectural and engineering wonder even before it was constructed. But the building’s rich history was built more on the shoulders of the companies it was designed to house than the structural supports and ornamental flare it boasted in its design. The building has been a commercial asset to the St. Louis downtown since its construction, housing what became the city’s largest department store. In addition, many local businesses operated on the upper floors of the building, and the building’s official moniker derived from the abundance of railroad company tenants occupying the building when it opened.

The Railway Exchange Building was designed in 1912 by Mauran, Russell and Crowell as a home for the newly merged Famous-Barr Company. By the time Famous and Barr were merged, each had established themselves as a prominent department store in St. Louis. William Barr & Company opened as a drygoods store in 1850. Located on Fourth Street between St. Charles and Vine, the drygoods company grew rapidly, and by 1876 boasted over 300 employees and 32 departments with a separate manager for each division. In 1880 William Barr moved into the Julia Building, a four-story construction that occupied half the block at 6th an Olive Streets. As the city’s first department store, Barr’s took advantage of the mail-order trade as well as the in-house sales. The company remained in this building until it was replaced in 1913 by the Railway Exchange Building.

May Department Stores was bought out by Federated Department Stores in August 2005, a year later Famous-Barr became a Macy’s (Wikipedia). In 2011 Macy’s consolidated into the lower 3 floors, from 8, but still couldn’t make it. Macy’s closed in 2013 (Post-Dispatch).

Railway Exchange building in 2011, before the consolidated Macy's closed.
Railway Exchange building in 2011, before the consolidated Macy’s closed.

Tuesday morning I attended the public presentation by ULI St. Louis’ Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) on their recommendations to the developer that owns the structure. Unfortunately, their presentation isn’t yet online. Here are some highlights from memory:

  • With 1,000 parking spaces in the block to the South they didn’t recommend including any parking within the building.
  • Reskin/update the parking garage, remove the ramp off 7th
  • Consider a plaza for the surface lot at 6th & Olive.
  • The building would get sectioned into various zones for development into many functions. Different developers could then work on their portion, without any single developer having to take on the entire project at once.
  • The total square footage would be reduced some by opening up floors at various spots — such as creating 2-story volumes in some residential units.
  • Remove the roof and create an outdoor walk around the perimeter of the 21st (top) floor.
  • Residential units on the floors just below. Various sizes could be offered.
  • Two hotels on floors below the residential, one a boutique hotel like 21C and one an extended stay.  With new startups downtown they indicate there is demand for such hotels. Each hotel could have large volume spaces.
  • Recreational space, like a gym or basketball court.
  • Street-level retail like Urban Target, CVS/Walgreens, a fresh produce market, etc.

The building would still likely be over a million square feet after the reductions in floor area. With four primary facades you could have separate entrances for each function.

I still don’t like the existing garage, it’s old & ugly. The flow inside is awful. The garage needs to be replaced with a new garage if parking is excluded from the building. I’d love an Urban Target, a 24/7 CVS or Walgreens, and a Trader Joe’s. The developer already has interest in a couple of the pieces, but not enough to move forward just yet. The TAP felt if broken up into pieces it could be marketed nationally to interest developers from outside our region.

UPDATE: 5/14/15 # 7:40PM — the ULI presentation wasn’t available online yesterday as I finished the post, but thanks to a reader this morning who posted the link.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. John R says:

    Thanks for the update. I agree about the parking garage…while the removal of the 7th St. ramp and a re-skin would be an improvement, I’d love to see starting from scratch. (Same thing with the two monster garages facing Keiner Plaza.) Also, I’m not too keen on another plaza… it would be great if a thoughtful infill building would rise from the ground and further enhance the uses across the street.

    Was there any ballparking of how many apartments might be possible to carve out of the building with the general concept presented? If we got 300+ units, a bit of office, two hotels, street level retail and miscellany that would be awesome.

    • Yes, it wasn’t online yesterday as I finished this post. Thanks!

    • John R says:

      good stuff. I see actually there are 3 separate hotels and about 200-250 apartment units… I would prefer more apartments and less hotel but whatever works. I like the idea of the staging and potential different ownership, but I wonder how much square footage would have to be committed to before redevelopment makes sense to proceed even on just part of it.

  2. gmichaud says:

    Some very good ideas, I hope something happens. Still, there is a role for city government, east west gateway, modot and the rest can help encourage redevelopment of this site. One example is the plaza, can this plaza be a place to collect transit? Can it relate in a meaningful way as a people place? People (ie customers) should encourage potential tenants like Target, (although I would like to see something other than a chain, but that’s just me).
    Maybe the first floor should be a public market, the old Union Market was successful in downtown St. Louis until all of the vendors were chased out. Every downtown should have a good central market space providing a path for success to a wide variety of economic classes.
    In other words urban planning complements economic development. This does not happen in St. Louis to any significant degree.
    Instead St. Louis has a random, meaningless transit system without identity. Hey, lets meet at the Railway Exchange Plaza and we can talk about it.

    Thanks for your reporting Steve, appreciate the effort you make in this regard.

  3. Quinta says:

    These are all good comments. The Railway Exchange Building, along with several other buildings downtown, is absolutely stunning. Its presence is a nod to the glory days of the Lion of the Valley, when it was home to large corporations, the owners of which had deep pockets. Now, we don’t have those corporations or owners with deep pockets. The suggestions made in the comments, while all well intentioned, do not contemplate 1.) how expensive it is to develop a new parking garage or the hotel, or 2) what a nightmare it is dealing with St. Louis City government and its board of aldermen (neither of whom have any idea how to keep businesses happy who are already downtown – look at Hardee’s). Basically, the propositions below are unrealistic given what type of profits need to be expected to fund such a project. Ultimately, development of this hotel will be a labor of love, by some guy like Joe Edwards or, possibly, a Rex Singuefeld-type who has the resources and time to spend working on a proposal like this. Another idea might be to crowd-fund the entire project by St. Louisans, but that might be impossible given the minimum threshold for being an accredited investor is so high. Sigh. Ultimately, it comes down to money. St. Louis has got such amazing potential, but it will require a ton of money to get the ball rolling. Would love to hear ideas from the crowd on how to convince able investors to front the necessary money to transform downtown.

    • John R says:

      There’s formidable challenges ahead for sure, but I think you are way to pessimistic… the Arcade/Wright project is nearing completion as we type and at 750,000 sq. ft. (I believe) it is somewhat of a model for what the Railway Exchange can look like. The building was split up into two components (one for the commercial components and one for the residential) making financing easier and the ULI TAP is contemplating even more for RR/X, possibly even with differing ownership to spread risk. Think of it as potentially 3 or 4 buildings in one, each with different financing packages. I don’t think there is any doubt that 200-300 apartment units is possible, my only question is whether it would have to have other components to go along with it for it to make sense for construction to commence.

      Will it be difficult? Sure, and it may take every tax credit known to mankind thrown at it to make it work, but plenty of developers both local and national are investing in downtown Saint Louis and I a remain optimistic positive things will be happening with the building in the next few years.

  4. Han_Trollo says:

    If you transform it, they will come


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