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Steffen’s Plate Too Full?

In April the St. Louis Business Journal ran a cover story on John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies titled, $609 million in projects on John Steffen’s plate:

City of St. Louis officials say Steffen’s done everything he’s promised downtown. The city unquestionably has the most at stake with Steffen’s plans. The mostly vacant St. Louis Centre is a dark spot in the midst of downtown’s booming development activity. But Deputy Mayor of Development Barb Geisman said the city is confident about Pyramid’s ability to redevelop the mall for retail and residential use. The city set aside $8 million in federal New Markets Tax Credits for the redevelopment of St. Louis Centre. Steffen has also requested $34.3 million in tax increment financing from the city of St. Louis for St. Louis Centre and $8.75 million for the redevelopment of the Jefferson Arms building at 415 N. Tucker.

But it seems the TIF financing for St. Louis Centre (to be renamed 600 Washington) and the Jefferson Arms may have run into a bit of a delay. I received, anonymously through the mail, copies of letters sent from Ivy Neyland-Pinkston, the City’s Deputy Comptroller for Finance & Development, to John Steffen indicating a “reminder” of payments due for “administrative expenses” on both projects. The amounts, per the letters, were “due 10 days prior to the Public Hearing which was held on May 10, 2006.” The 600 Washington project has an initial installment of $51,450 while the Jefferson Arms installment is $13,125.

Both letters are dated June 20, 2006 and indicate the second installments are due for the same amounts on each project prior to the signing of the TIF Redevelopment Agreements. So on the surface this may mean very little, just a slight delay until the full financing package is pulled together. It may also mean the closing on both will be delayed.

Today I spoke with Ivy Pinkston of the Comptroller’s office who declined to speak to the “press”, directing me to instead to press liaison John Farrell. Farrell confirmed the Comptrollers office did send out the letters on June 20th but, due to the holiday, was unable to confirm if the balance has been brought current. He further indicated these letters are fairly routine.

This does raise a few questions: Is it normal to approve TIF financing for a project when the fees are not paid in advance as required? Also, does the city hold their ground and not sign the agreements until the fees are paid or are they lax on that as well. Try getting a building permit without first paying the fee.

At the very least we know part of the reason why construction has not yet begun on St. Louis Centre. But the bigger issue might be whether or not Pyramid is overextended. The city does have a lot riding on Steffen’s projects.

[UPDATE 7/1/06 @ 4:15pm – I received a call at the end of the business day yesterday from John Farrell of the Comptroller’s office to answer another of my questions — the city does collect the fees before signing the final agreements. That is good to know!]

– Steve


A Few Downtown Observations

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


Revised Prediction for St. Louis Gas Prices

Back on December 30th I predicted that by the end of 2006 “a gallon of regular gas will exceed $3.00, not due to a natural disaster or terrorism.” I think that prediction might turn out to be a major understatement. At the time regular gas in St. Louis was around $2.20/gallon.

Yesterday when I left my house for dinner regular at the two stations near me was $2.69/gallon. Just a couple hours later the price was $2.88/gallon (shameful I didn’t have my camera with me). Today I noticed the price has settled to $2.84/gallon. This is all for regular. Premium fuel, like my former Audi required, is now over $3.00/gallon. Places in metro East are seeing regular in the $2.94 – $2.99/gallon range.

So today I’m revising my estimate, I think we’ll see regular gas at $3.50/gallon before New Year’s Day 2007. And I don’t mean some spike brought on by a hurricane or such. Just normal everyday pricing.

What we must remember that the cost of this increase is not simply what we pay at the pump. While the average driver may be able to pay another $750-$1,000 for gasoline in 2006 than they did in 2005 that aggregate cost will mount. Many will be unable to juggle this increased expense with their incomes. Far suburban areas will continue to find it challenging to attract service workers because it simply will not be cost effective for someone to drive 20 miles for a minimum wage job.

Our entire economy is dependent upon oil, cheap oil.

Employers & employees located nearest to mass transit will be the best off. Ironically, it will be more and more costly to operate our bus system as fuel costs surge. Increased revenues from new riders and rate increases will not keep pace with fuel prices. Meanwhile, our government will likely continue road expansion projects rather than providing efficient mass transit where needed to keep the economy moving.

We may elect more Democrats to Congress in November but I don’t think that will help much, if any. Democrats have controlled the White House & Congress and still failed to do anything about sprawl, dependence on oil and auto fuel standards. Republicans are more cozy with oil interests but Democrats don’t seem willing to make any real change, presumably out of fear of not getting elected.

Locally things will be interesting as fuel prices increase. The City of St. Louis will actually be positioned well to deal with a slowing economy. I hope we can actually utilize some of our industrial buildings to once again manufacture goods to replace those we can no longer cheaply import from China. Our retail storefronts should again begin to open up as locally made goods are sold locally. Local farmers markets will see continued growth as the big grocery chains struggle to stock shelves with reasonably priced merchandise that has to be shipped cross country.

People will naturally gravitate together in the core. Sprawling suburbs with massive McMansions will become liabilities. Owners of those 3 acre lots may have to resort to growing veggies where they have the manicured lawn now.

This is not going to happen overnight but it has already started. The shift is taking place. How quickly the economy changes is hard to say as is how rough it will be.

– Steve


Celebrate Your Independents Festival July 1, 2006

I’m passing along an announcement from my friends over at Business United for Local Independent Development, aka BUILD St. Louis:

BUILD St. Louis would like to invite you to our annual Celebrate Your Independents Festival! The party starts at 3 p.m. and goes on into the night on July 1, 2006 in the lot at the Schlafly Tap Room, located at 2100 Locust St. at 21st Street (map). What do we have going on this year?

The Big Tent – 50 independents business showcasing everything from Fair Trade Jewelry to home baked dog treats. Food to inspire the palate and colors to delight the senses. Build some community while you shop!

On the Stage – Set your feet to tapping and your hips to swaying with City Folk, the Red Headed Strangers, and Folknbluesgrass. If you haven’t heard them yet in the local music scene, then you don’t want to miss out on this Festival.

The Art Corner – Join Jenna at SCOSAG and let your imagination fly. If you’re the only one over 12 covered in finger paint, we promise not to tell. Bring the kids and get ready for fun.

Locally Grown Pie Contest – Do you know what’s in season here in Missouri? Can you whip up a mean pie? If the answer to both questions is yes, maybe, or I’d like to, then prizes may be in your future. Visit with the GreenMarket and the Clayton Farmer’s Market to pick up supplies and meet local farmers, then get to baking. If you just like pie, maybe we’ll let you help us judge. Email us at [email protected] or call (314) 808-8032 for information on how to get your pie in the running.

Downtown Bike Tour – Join the St. Louis Bike Federation and BUILD St. Louis for a 6-mile bike tour of some great St. Louis neighborhoods. Don’t worry, even novice riders can make this one. Three stops at mystery independent businesses provide breaks and a history of the area. Bring 2 dollars if you’re not a Bike Federation member. We leave at 5pm from the Tap Room, so make sure to get to the festival early!

If you are an independent business and would like to get a booth for the festival, email us at [email protected] or call (314) 808-8032. See you all at the Tap Room!

Many things to like about this event: locally owned businesses, pie, good music, pie, art, pie, and bicycles. And what is better after a six mile ride? Pie! Well, and some Schlafly beer! Sounds like a great event.

On an aside, can you believe the Tap Room has been open since 1991? They’ve done a great job with their building over the years but despite all the events and such they have always been this little island in the area. Slowly the area has seen other development such as the Sporting News Lofts at 2020 Washington. Next year many other buildings in the area will have new residents. Just goes to show that sometimes it takes a while for a seed to germinate.

The BUILD St. Louis Celebrate Your Independents Festival will be held on the Tap Room’s parking lot. I hope to see this land become so valuable that surface parking no longer makes financial sense. Building new on their surface lot would be a nice evolution for the local brew pub.

– Steve


Tower Grove Farmer’s Market a Huge Success!

towergrovefarmersmarket20061The speeches haven’t even begun opening the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market but if the first few hours are any indication, it will be hugely successful.

Occupying a small paved area west of the Pool Pavilion (which itself is on the West side fo the traffic circle), the market was full and vendors and paying customers.

Organic produce, live plants, eggs and meats. Other local items such as handmade soaps, bread, and pasta rounded out the selection.

The only problem was really a good one, lots of people and bicycles. It was crowded but that added to the feeling of success. Had the same number of people and vendors been spread over a wider area it wouldn’t have been as good.

Bike parking was an issue so some secured their bikes to the fence of the nearby tennis courts or light poles. Hopefully before the end of the market in October some bike racks can get installed nearby. Joining the Friends of Tower Grove Park might help that cause.

I noticed many residents walking to the farmer’s market both from Tower Grove South and Shaw neighborhoods. That is really great as I’d hate to see so many cars in the park that someone starts thinking a parking lot is needed.

Big kudos to all the organizers, sponsors and elected officials (including Ald. Jennifer Florida), for making this happen.

See additional photos on Flickr.

– Steve