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The Loop: Eclectic Stores vs. National Chains

Recently I read about two chain restaurants taking over the Streetside Records building on Delmar in the Loop. The store was not closing but the building owner made a deal to lease the space to two chain restaurants when the Streetside lease expires. To everyone upset about the loss of “record” stores, don’t be. When was the last time you passed a typewriter store? Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes. Hell, I can’t even recall the last time I purchased a physical CD — certainly before the iTunes Music Store opened.

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This week the RFT had a follow up story on the subject of chain stores in the loop, it seems some local merchants want to set a limit on the number of chain establishments:

Spearheading the move to institute a cap on chains is Patrick Liberto, owner of Meshuggah Café, who says the incursion of two new restaurants spurred him to action.

“We are going to lose our eclectic qualities. We’re going to look like Clayton,” Liberto complains. “The Loop is going to get a lot less interesting to people if they see the same things here that they see in their own neighborhood.”

Liberto wants to set a limit that no more than ten formula restaurants and ten retail chains be permitted in the Loop, and that none can occupy a space greater than 4,000 square feet. The Delmar Loop is home to seven retail chains, including Footlocker and Blockbuster Video. When Chipotle and Noodles & Company arrive, the number of chain eateries will rise to thirteen, versus thirty-four independently owned restaurants.

The irony here is Streetside Records is part of a chain of stores! 

I personally hate chain places, especially chain restaurants. We have so many wonderful locally owned establishments in our region, why go generic. That said, I’m not sure I believe in artificially creating such a cap. First, we must define a chain. Is locally owned Pasta House a “chain” because they have muliple locations? Do we distinquish between a locally owned & operated franchise (say a Subway) vs. a company owned store from a non-local national operator? The St. Louis Bread Co. is most definintely a chain — they had two locations at one time on the loop (disclosure: my investment club is a very minor shareholder in Panera).

The Loop is quite unique to the region but not just because of the mix of the stores & restaurants. The architecture and scale of the place is unique as well. I’ve been to the Noodles & Company at South County mall twice now and I can certainly say the experience is totally unlike going to the Loop. Sure, the food might be the same as well as the interior decor but the Loop still has the right feel I am looking for when I am out and about.

I personally am not a fan of regulating uses, my usual concern is building form which creates the feel of the public space (aka the street). Some franchise places have very strict standards on their signage & storefronts while others are more flexible, allowing adjustment for local flavor.

I think it should be noted “The Loop” is often considered that portion of Delmar in University City — up to the lions heads on the west end. However, over the last few years the portion of Delmar in the City of St. Louis has become quite interesting. I consider them together to be the Delmar Loop or simply the Loop, I never say the U-City Loop. But, it is the U-City portion feeling threatened by the influx of chain stores.

if the merchants want to be concerned about the character of the area and attracting people they need to look at doing something about the bad buildings such as this one:

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These cars are all in for repair. Across the street, within the city limits, is another old gas station that has been boarded for years and the lot is simply used for additional parking.

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At Skinker we have this horrible gas station, hardly a good anchor for a pedestrian district. The next rebuild should require the convenience store functions to be moved to the corner to create more urban context, leaving the pumps in the back less visible to the street.

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The Church’s is no gem either. I believe these types of buildings, not their uses, do more to detract from the loop experience than the addition of a chain noodle shop in an urban building. I’d have not problems with the Church’s in a more urban building form sans drive-thru.

But let’s say you want to make sure you keep attracting the eclectic crowd, not minivans full of suburban families? The Loop merchants need to take a look at the street and see what is missing for their core market. Warning, this is morphing into a brief bike rack rant:
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I stopped by the loop earlier today just to briefly snap a few pictures of the Streetside Records building and in the few minutes I was there I noticed four bicycles in front of several shops across the street.

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Two parking meters, a sign post and finally a tree. Wait, what is that in the background? Yes, an old fashioned “dish drainer” style of bike rack. These are horrible, no wonder none of these cyclists decided to use it. First, it doesn’t look well secured — someone could steal the bike & rack. Second, when you put your front tire between the smaller vertical bars it can warp your front rim. Place your mountain bike tire in the wide opening and the bike easily falls over (I don’t think most of these bikes had kick stands). It also makes it hard to lock the frame securely – especially when using U-shape locks as the first three are. The Loop group needs to think about proper bike racks if they plan to keep their core customers.

But the debate really isn’t about chains, gas stations or even bike racks, it is about money. As owners of buildings decide to retire or when they die the buildings get sold for current market value. As such, new owers seek to recoup their investments with higher rents. Chain stores with deep pockets or local franchisee’s seeking to establish a business seek out thriving areas like the Loop.   Do places that can’t afford the newer rents need to think about relocating to other commercial districts in their price range? Of course, if many of the local places leave that will hurt the chains as well as they moved in because of the foot traffic the area generated. Areas can become so popular they hurt themselves.

The RFT article talks about a “tipping point” of having too many chains to the point where people stop coming because a place has become too generic. The problem is, in my view, is that is so hard to quantify. What number of chain restaurants or retailers is the right number? Is it simply quantity or a percentage of the streetfront or square footage? Maybe some retail experts have done some research but then I’d want to know who paid for the reseach.

My advice to the smaller local merchants: get a long term lease, buy your building, plan for higher rents in the future or think about options for new locations.


BJC/Forest Park Lease is Simply Par for Course

St. Louis has a serious lack of leadership at the top. Following the lack of a second yesterday on a motion to accept the BJC/Forest Park Lease Mayor Slay indicated he was “disappointed.” Well, Francis, welcome to my world. I am disappointed daily by you and pretty much every other elected official out of city hall.

I am disappointed in fellow members of the Board of Estimate & Apportionment, Jim Shrewsbury and Darlene Green. I’m not disappointed because they wouldn’t go along with the current deal, but because they, like the Mayor, are reactionary. Board President Candidate Lewis Reed and all his followers on the Boad of Aldermen are no better. BJC is not really the bad guy here, nor is Shrewsbury or Green. The culprit is how we do business in this town.

The notion of having to maintain Forest Park cannot possibly have been a new concept in 2006 when BJC floated this idea past the mayor’s office. Forest Park Forever, the non-profit group that raised so much money for the restoration of the park, was started in 1986 — two decades ago! Did nobody stop to think, “hey we are going to need to find a way to maintain all these improvements” along the way?

The lack of leadership from City Hall has brought us to this point today. BJC is now issuing threats to the citizens that they will look elsewhere if they don’t get their way. Maybe BJC is the bad guy too. Don’t threaten me, I don’t care how big you are. Take your ugly buildings, your closed off streets and those aweful parking garages you’ve littered the landscape with and hit the road. Yeah, that’s right. Get lost you big f*cking bully. I’m calling your bluff — something the spinless folks at city hall would never do. Proof? The St. Louis Cardinals got a new stadium downtown.
Sometime in the last 20 years we should have had a discussion about paying for Forest Park, and all our parks frankly. Does anyone recall Mayor Slay making this a priority during his 2005 re-election campaign? What about Ald. Roddy? Nope.

Good leadership would have said, “OK folks, we’ve invested millions in the renovation of Forest Park but now we need to find a good way to keep it up for the long haul.” A panel could have been formed to investigate options, a town hall could have been held. Something, anything. Instead they waited until re-elected and then turned BJC land-grab into a immediate crisis, designed to scare voters into submission. You know, something President Bush might do.

I’ve never come out fully against the idea of BJC getting that land for future expansion — it was the process I disliked, not the basic land concept. Again, good leadership from city hall would have told BJC, “We can’t take this to the people until we figure out how & where to replace the open space lost and ammenities.” You can’t take away over 9 acres of park used by nearby residents without figuring out how to accomodate their needs. Yet, when this came up last year the issue of replacement park land was one of those “oh we’ll figure that out later items.” Uh, no! We’ll figure it all out or we won’t do it at all. The Kiel Opera house was one of those “later” projects that still hasn’t happened.

Our city operates in a vacuum, looking soley at a project at a time. Whether it is paying for park maintenance or a master plan for a blighted section of South Grand we simply don’t plan ahead. We sit back or wait for a sweet-looking deal to arrive and push for it. Ald. Florida was all in favor of a McDonald’s drive-thru without once doing a master plan for a mile-long stretch of Grand blighted some 10 years earlier. What is the true cost to maintain our parks and if we did the BJC lease would that solve everything? Doubtful. We need to have discussions about commercial cooridors and park funding before we have an impending proposal on the table.  Only then can we possiblly hope to have a rational discussion about the future of our city.

Given the way our leaders continue to operate, I don’t give this city much of a future.  The potential is here, but we continually squander what we have and push those with creative thinking to other cities.  This region is not growing, at least not by much.  Sure, we are building stuff on the edge of the region but that is not the same — I’m talking population and jobs, not sprawl.  The city has to fight with the Census annually to show we’ve stabilized our population rather than continue the decades-old downward spiral.  Other regions in the U.S. have their act together while this region sticks its collective head in the sand.  We are so far behind and all the folks we elect can do is point fingers at each other.  Well, I’ve got a finger for them…


Cherokee Street: Big Controversy Over Tiny Place

You’ve all heard the story by now, Ald. Craig Schmid has a moritorium on liquor licenses for the 20th Ward. You want to sell beer, then you need to have 50% of your revenues from food. In other words, restaurants are OK, bars are not. Enter Steve Smith, owner of The Royale on Kingshighway near Arsenal. Smith wants to open a bar along Cherokee street and and serve no food in the space located at 3227 Cherokee known as “Radio Cherokee.”

The controversy has escalated to the point that Schmid, a 12-year veteran at city hall, is being challenged by resident and business owner Galen Gondolfi in the election for alderman to be held on the 6th of March. This issue has some fun little twists and turns that I have not seen in the media.

First, opponents cite a number of concerns. One is parking, another is food sales. Of course, I fail to see how Smith getting 50% of receipts from food sales lessons the parking issue any — it might in fact make it worse? Parking too seems like a red herring, the city has literally thousands of corner storefront places but we cannot expect them to each have a dedicated parking lot without destroying the character of our neighborhoods.


Above is the location in question, located on the NE corner of Virginia (street on left) and Cherokee. The very tiny storefront can only hold so many people and quite a bit of on-street parking is available along the side of the building above (on Virginia). Similarly, more cars could easily be parked on the west side of Virginia.

The neighborhood is not ready,” was one comment I heard. Well, what defines ready? What is the plan to get the area ready?  Granted, this property is much closer to Gravois and is therefore not part of the main commercial area we think of as Cherokee.  This is outside the Cherokee community improvement district.  Still, every block between here and the main section of Cherokee contains at least a single storefront, in many cases several.


On the same block as “Radio Cherokee” is the former Cherokee Auto Parts with a greenhouse/nursery business on the end of the block.  In the background of the picture you can see a corner storefront on the next block.  Back to the site in question.


The small place is actually part of a 4-unit building, with one residential unit above and two attached but set back from the street.  The building lot is only 24ft 8 inches wide.  So as you can imagine, both the residential units and the bar space are narrow.


Peaking inside through the front door glass we can see a place basically ready to go.  No major build out or extensive rehab required.  Currently the space is simply sitting empty, not being productive for the neighborhood or city.  Now, I’ve never been in the food services business (well, except those 4 days at Arby’s when I was 16) but logic tells me you need a certain volume of business to operate a restuarant.  With such a small place and lacking a kitchen space it seems unrealistic to expect this space to be anything but a bar.

Sure, I suppose it could be gutted and turned into a retail space of sorts but that seems even more likely to fail.  Retail operations would do better in the main commercial district.

Currently, to my knowledge, Cherokee street has no master plan — no vision has been established.  In looking at the blocks on this end with a mix of storefronts of varying sizes, flats and single family homes I see a small bar fitting in nicely, nothing too big.  A block or two east is the old Black Forest restaurant which has been closed for sometime.  That is a very large space with a large kitchen (I’ve shown the building to prospective buyers so I’ve been through the whole thing).  It is even complete with a parking lot.  But the pro-forma to buy and renovate that place relative to this is night and day.  In reality, both spaces need to be open and active.  We just can’t fault Steve Smith for not having the cash/credit of a say Joe Edwards.   The old Black Forest space will make an excellent restaurant once again.  As a bar only, it would be way too big.

So my solution to this issue is this — for Cherokee Street only:  Set up a sliding scale, the very tiny Radio Cherokee space that Steve Smith is interested in should have a zero percent food requirement.  On the other end, spaces like the large Black Forest should be required to have 50% food.  Other storefronts, such as the old Auto Parts place, might fall somewhere in the middle.  What this does is set up a guideline along Cherokee only where small bars can be introduced and have a chance to succeed while the larger spaces cannot be bars only.  This should be implimented along the length of Cherokee from at least Jefferson to Gravois while the area works on a master plan for Cherokee.
In the interest of disclosure, I have not spoken with either candidate about this concept but I did happen to run into Steve Smith yesterday and he seemed to think it might be a good compromise.  In researching this post I discovered that Galen Gondolfi owns the property in question along with another person.  He also owns the old auto parts place on the same block.  He owns larger buildings in the next block east where he lives, has a gallery space and leases out a storefront to a cafe.  He clearly has a vested interest in seeing this section of Cherokee street succeed and prosper.


State Rep. Mike Daus Begins Blogging

Missouri State Representative Mike Daus (D-67th) has started a new blog, 67thdistrict.blogspot.com covering issues in his state house district. Daus has two years left on his term in Jefferson City so expect to see speculation about him seeking another office. But why wait for the speculation, I’ll get it started.

Daus lives in the 4th State Senate District where Jeff Smith was just elected in 2006 so that leaves out a run for another job in Jefferson City unless he were to attempt a state-wide office. Daus ran for 15th Ward alderman in 2001 against Jennifer Florida, who narrowly defeated him by something like 20 votes. Will Daus return to the aldermanic arena after having served eight years in Jefferson City? Interestingly, campaign finance reports for both Florida & Daus show them each having roughly $19,000 in their respective campaign accounts.

To learn more about blogging see my FAQ About Blogging.


Advertising Blocks Public Sidewalk

Over the weekend I drove across the newly rebuilt and just reopened Chouteau bridge. At the end I pulled into the parking lot for Bellon’s Market Deli & Pizzeria, owned by the family which razes much of St. Louis’ history. I could not believe my eyes, a big cheap sign ugly blocking the public sidewalk.



I will be contacting Bellon’s as well as Ald. Joe Roddy, asking them to immediately remove the sign. If you spot other situations where the public space is being abused let me know.

UPDATE 1/22/07 – 2:45pm:

I received the following email response back from owner Carrie Bellon:

“I am very sorry about the sign. MODOT workers have been moving it around for several months, while all the road construction was going on. We will move the sign asap. Sorry I did not notice that it had been moved to the sidewalk.”

I’m glad they are on top of the situation now but I guess I am a bit confused why MoDot workers would be moving a sign that should be contained on private property, not in the public right of way where they have been working.

UPDATE 1/24/07 – 2pm:

The Potato, not to be confused with The Onion, did a really funny posting today mocking this post:  Newspaper Blocks Public Sidewalk