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

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Excise Division to Hold Hearing on Qdoba’s ‘Summer Garden’ & ‘Full Drink’ Request

The Qdoba chain’s latest store in the St. Louis region is open at Loughborough Commons. This afternoon the Excise Division will hold a hearing to determine if they should get a “full drink” liquor license and an outdoor “summer garden” permit. While the poor planning at Loughborough Commons disgusts me and I’m not fond of formula chain places I can’t imagine anyone telling them no at this point.

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The place is done, including the patio. The outdoor area will soon be ideal for watching those folks driving around the new strip center to order their latte at the Starbuck’s drive-thru window.

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What would happen if immediate neighbors all showed up at 2pm protesting the idea of people buying a bud light to go with their burrito? And further yet, drinking said bud on the patio.

So who is the excise division? Well, they are part of the Department of Public Safety — you know that department now headed by Charles Bryson. The DPS website doesn’t tell us much:

Excise Division

6 Employees
Robert W. Kraiberg, Commissioner
314-622-4191
The Excise Division is charged by City Charter with the regulation and control of liquor within the City of St. Louis. The Division is responsible for determining licensing in accordance with the City Liquor code, authorizing issuance of all liquor and non-intoxicating beer licenses, enforcement of City Liquor Laws and Ordinances and initiation of civil action to suspend, cancel or revoke licenses when violations to statutes occur.

That cannot be the extent of information about liquor licenses? So I went back to the main city site and used the search field. This is what I got:
cinliquor

The default is to search stlouis.missouri.org — the “CIN Main Site” or I could search stlcin.missouri.org which is a bit more descriptive. The third option is to the search the internet which we all can easily do from our browsers anyway. I picked the default and basically found press release information — even though press releases are found in the second search option according to the search page. So, I selected the second option and there I found a FAQ page on Liquor licenses. Why this is not linked directly from the Excise Division/Department of Public Safety site I don’t know.

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So we see a full drink license “cannot be issued if the surrounding neighborhood disapproves.” Gee, define surrounding. It seems they have a “formal procedure” that can only be obtained via a phone call from 8-5 Monday through Friday. I’d say secret procedure is more like it.  You know I think this whole web thing might actually take off so it would be OK to invest in getting more and more information available to the public via the internet.

People want solutions so here we go.  Explain the types of licenses in greater detail, linking to the appropriate ordinance(s).  Make the necessary forms available online as editable-PDF documents.  Explain the formal procedure so that everyone applying for a license, as well as neighbors, know the same rules.  List who makes the decision and what their criteria is.   Are these people appointed, elected or staff?

Back to Qdoba for some final thoughts.  A chain place can afford to build out a full establishment on the assumption that nobody will object to their having a liquor license and a patio permit.  I know I certainly don’t object — a few beers will likely make Loughborough Commons more tolerable.  But the local person seeking to open an establishment can’t afford such a proposition.  Can they get necessary approvals before spending their life savings on a building or lease space?  Without the finished space the neighbors might have concerns about what is planned.  Without the liquor and/or patio license up front a lender might see the proposition as too risky.
I may need to visit City Hall Room 416 today at 2pm to find out more.

 

St. Louis’ Board of Adjustment Votes to Restrict Free Speech on Eminent Domain

You’ve likely seen Jim Roos’ anti-eminent domain statement on the side of a building he owns in an area known as Bohemian Hill. Yesterday attorney John Randall argued before the Board of Adjustment the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to voice free speech. The Board of Adjustment hears appeals from those who’ve been denied permits by the building department. The member’s names, date appointed, term length, term expiration are not posted online on the city’s website, nor is their agenda published online.

During the meeting a total of three appeals were heard relating to signs — all did not meet the strict letter of the city’s antiquated zoning code regulations (see the “Comprehensive” Sign Control Regulations). All three were larger than allowed by the code, two were approved but one was not. Laclede Gas got approval for a large sign on top of their building in downtown St. Louis so they could hopefully get spotted by TV cameras during Cardinals games. Laclede Gas argued their sign on the top of their building would be a positive “contribution to the St. Louis skyline.” I saw the mock-ups of the sign, it wasn’t something to hail as great nor was anything bad. They indicated that the city’s maximum allowable size for a sign on their building would look like a “postage stamp.” If the city really wants to be business friendly they will take a fresh look at the sign regulations and I don’t know, maybe publish something on the building division site about signs rather than make the public wade through the technicalities of the ordinance.

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Roos and his attorney argued this is not a sign, per the city’s regulations. I’m not going to take you through all the various points of the ordinance but in large part, per the code, a sign faces a public street. The building above was originally a rear building — the public street is to the left out of view. The side of the building, clearly visible from the interchange of highways I-44 & I-55, does not face a public street — it faces an adjacent parcel of land owned by someone else. The poorly constructed zoning code relating to signs also addresses the question of what is a sign vs what is not:

If for any reason it cannot be readily determined whether or not an object is a sign, the Community Development Commission shall make such determination.

Again, it was argued this was not a sign but Bob Lordi from the city’s building division determined it is a sign. The ordinance language is unclear as to how this debate of sign or not gets resolved. Some of the best humor was provided by a June 28, 2007 letter from alderwoman Phyllis Young (D-7th Ward):

“If this sign is allowed to remain then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency.”

When this was read during the proceedings I actually laughed out loud. The irony, of course, is that earlier this year Young advocated razing the entire area where the “sign” is located for a new development. She passed legislation blighting the entire area and now wants to protect it from a sign put up in response to the very real threat faced by these home owners. I will have more on the status of this project separately.  Click here to view the entire letter in PDF format.
Another part of the letter gave me reason to chuckle as well:

I have worked diligently throughout my career as an alderman to reduce the number of billboards cluttering our neighborhoods and our city. As you drive I-44 you’ll see no billboards in my ward from Compton east to the intersection with I-55 other than the one in the commercial area at Jefferson. The wall sign is an affront to the neighborhoods, drivers, and the city. It should be denied and removed.

One of the most telling comments is that being an alderman is a “career” rather than simply a public service. But I think Phyllis needs to get in her Prius, or better yet a good pair of sneakers, and just check out more of her ward, including downtown.

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… Continue Reading

 

“St. Louis-based” Scottrade Has No Branch Office in the City of St. Louis

The discount brokerage firm Scottrade recently opened their 300th branch office (press release), however, the company located in St. Louis’ suburbs does not have a branch in the City of St. Louis.  Their name is in big letters downtown but as the naming rights for a sports facility. Can someone downtown please give Scottrade CEO Roger Riney a tour of available spaces?

 

Cities Chasing Retail

The April 2007 issue of Governing magazine has an interesting cover story called, The Retail Chase with a subitlte: Cities will do almost anything to land the story of their dreams. From the article:

Much of the change in the retail market is happening not just within cities but in the middle of downtown. All over the country, young professionals and empty nesters — people with disposable income to spare — are moving into new lofts and high-rise condos. Those new residents have to shop somewhere. In downtown Minneapolis, now home to 30,000 people, three grocery stores are coming, and not one of them requested government subsidies. “For years, all the cities in the Midwest wanted to have a Michigan Avenue,” says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, referring to Chicago’s famous high-end shopping street. “Michigan Avenue is spectacular, but we’re not all going to have a Michigan Avenue.” What’s evolving downtown now, in Rybak’s view, is a hybrid retail model where destination shoppers can still buy $200 shoes, but where the people living upstairs can find a dry cleaner. “Focus on the housing first,” Rybak says, “and the retail will follow.”

The above is valid, we don’t buy expensive shoes everyday (I never do). What we do need are groceries, toiletries, prescriptions, basic clothing and dry cleaners. A number of these are available in downtown St. Louis currently. But really, every neighborhood needs to have these in close proximity (… a short walk).

The online version of the issue also has some additional interviews with retail experts. One of the three is Robert Gibbs. As it turns out, Gibbs was in town recently as the retail consultant to DPZ on the Dardenne Prairie town center charette. He was certainly interesting to talk to and he did a great job communicating retail strategy to the general public. One of the things he stressed was having high design standards, explaining that retailers have several store models and will simply do the least they can get away with in the community. Retailers, much like home owners, don’t want to overbuild for the area. Gibbs indicated high standards for store fronts and lighting were very important. From one of the online-only articles:

It’s generally agreed now that the underserved markets are urban markets. From inner cities with low-income populations to high-end wealthy cities, urban centers are vastly under-retailed for lots of reasons. If you’re a retailer and you’re growing your stores, you have to figure out how to get into urban locations. To do that retailers are doing things they never would have considered five years ago. They’re modifying their old standards for store sizes in order to fit on smaller, more compact sites. They’re lowering their parking standards. They’re even changing the merchandising mix to fit the urban consumer. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for cities to attract retail.

You mean, we don’t just have to accept the type of store the retailer builds in the exurbs? The city of St. Louis is underserved from a retail perspective. We can have our cake and eat it too: higher design standards and still attract retailers seeking a market in which to grow their business.

Cities don’t have to turn themselves into a mall, but they do have to do what shoppers want. Last year 70 percent of all sales occurred after 5:30 at night. If downtown is going to compete, it has to have stores open in the evenings or on Saturdays. It has to offer the goods that people want to buy at the prices people want to pay. Last year only 2 percent of all apparel sales occurred in downtowns. In that 1950s, that’d be more like 90 to 95 percent. Downtowns have lost almost all their market share. Most are either entertainment districts or they sell knick-knacks and antiques and other things we don’t need.

Yes, evening hours are harder on the mom & pop stores but if that is when the public has time to shop that is when you need to be open for business. This is not the 1950s anymore, mom works to help the family get by so she is not out at 2pm shopping. Despite being gay, I do not go antiquing.

Cities should have a master plan to show how they can accommodate modern retail. Cities should have a written policy saying they want to be competitive and gain market share. Cities need to have high design standards for signage, lighting and building design and be willing to enforce those standards. And they have to have a public parking strategy.

Are you folks down at City Hall and the downtown partnership getting this? A plan, a policy and “high design standards” that are actually enforced! And by “parking strategy” I don’t think Gibbs is advocating the razing of historic structures for additional parking garages, he is referring to good parking management. Gibbs continues:

Cities can get back up to 30, 40 or 50 percent of market share with a policy. There’s a demand for retailers. A lot of them want to locate in downtowns. A lot of cities don’t know that.

The eight or ten cities we consult in have this huge unmet demand. Even a blue-collar town with modest income has a big demand for shoes and apparel. Urban consumers drive farther than normal to get goods and services, and the goods and services they do get downtown they overpay for. That’s the norm. Old Navy knows that now. Target knows that.

Gibbs give a good reason why we can demand higher standards:

Time matters for retailers. Stores have to open to keep their stock prices rising. A development director for a chain is told to open five stores in a region by a certain date, and if they don’t open he gets fired. So those people will go to a city only if the city can give them some assurance that the store can open by a certain date. That’s hard to do.

With good zoning & urban design codes we, as a city & region, can demand better retail design. It will not be offered to us on a silver platter, we must ask for it — no — we must demand better. The chain’s development director, faced with termination for not opening enough stores, will work with us and reluctantly pull off the shelf one of the more urban formats used in other cities. Walgreen’s will not abandon the City of St. Louis. They are on a mission to be in every part of every city and state. They are also trying to beat CVS in the race to tap new markets. QuikTrip is in a similar situation.
Wall Street doesn’t give a damn about St. Louis or if a new store is urban or has a big parking lot in front. Their concern is new growth as evidenced by new stores and eventually, steady or growing same store sales. Period. All these national retailers want to make sure they please their shareholders and Wall Street. They build the very least they can get away with and still please investment analysts that track their stock. If a reasonable urban design code requires good sidewalk access, bike parking, and caps the auto parking then the retailer will go along — that is much easier than answering to shareholders when the stock takes a dive.

Part of the problem is that retailers generally don’t build their own buildings. They work with developers, often local developers, to construct & own the facility and lease it back to them. In the St. Louis region we have a limited number of such retail developers like THF, Koman Properties, and DESCO. These developers, through campaign contributions throughout the region (Missouri & Illinois) keep things favorable to themselves. High design standards? Not for them! They will cite retailers demands but we know that really isn’t true. If they want to stay in business they will need to comply with the community’s design standards. Do you think THF included all the trees in the Chesterfield Flood Commons project out of some altruistic reason? No way! Chesterfield has high landscaping standards. With enforced design standards in place a developer can go back to a retailer and say, “our hands are tied, [insert municiapity] requires that you [insert requirement].

In addition to some basic demands, non-financial incentives can be used. For example, parking can be reduced if the developer includes bike parking (up to a point, and distributing the bike parking throughout the development). Many cities use creative incentives to improve design by giving developers choices that will make the project look & function better and not really add to the overall costs.

It is time for St. Louis to stop acting like a city losing thousands of people every decade. We are on the upswing per the latest figures from the census.

 

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