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What Downtown Has Gained

September 3, 2009 Downtown, Retail 17 Comments

In my first month of blogging I did a post on November 20, 2004 called What Washington Avenue is missing…

Here is some of that post:

The emerging loft district along Washington Avenue, as well as the blocks between Olive & Washington between say 8th & Tucker, are becoming increasingly diverse. I don’t mean diversity of population but of activities.

The blocks West of Tucker received a major streetscape makeover in the last few years that included widening the sidewalks, new curbs, paving, lighting and signage. A few bike racks are sprinkled along the streets. It looks picture perfect but something is still missing, people.

To be fair, many of the loft buildings are just now finishing while others are just now starting. Once these buildings are full lots more residents will call the area home. In the age-old saying, which comes first the chicken or egg question, it is clear the residents come before much of the other amenities.

The trick to getting more people to Washington Avenue has less to do with paving and more to do with diversity of uses. In the Loop I know I can get a quick slice of pizza for $3 or an impressive entree at a nice restaurant for $20, and everything in between. However, on Washington Avenue I am more limited to the high-end meal. But suppose I want that high-priced dinner but I want cash to have drinks before and after, where is the ATM machine? I wouldn’t know where to walk to get cash.

In the nearly five years since I wrote the above we’ve seen a lot of positive change, including the addition of many of the items I listed as missing at the time.

Besides a walk-up ATM or two, here is an incomplete list of businesses I’d either like to see in the loft districts (in no particular order):

  • Pizza by the slice joint
  • Late night fast food places (not drive thru types either)
  • Tattoo & body piercing studio(s)
  • Newsstand & Bookstore
  • Street vendors selling coffee & hot dogs (including veggie dogs)
  • Florist
  • Public bulletin boards
  • Kitchen gadget store
  • 24-hour coffee house
  • Cell phone store
  • Good diner serving breakfast
  • Smoothie shop
  • Produce stand
  • Furniture stores where you can buy a futon or a $600 sofa.
  • Small Branch US Post Office
  • Greeting cards, gag gifts
  • Bike Shop
  • Sporting Goods/Outdoor store
  • Vespa retailer
  • Apple Computer Store (even the new mini concept store would be OK)
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Ben & Jerry’s (or similar)

My focus in 2004 was on Washington Ave West of Tucker (12th to 18th) but downtown living has grown well beyond these six blocks.  In November 2007 I moved into a downtown loft so I’ve seen recent change as a resident.

Pizza by the slice is covered by Papa John’s at Tucker & Locust during the weekday lunch but Bridge & Tunnel Pizza on Washington Ave just East of Tucker has excellent slices at lunch as well as late into the evening.  Other late night options are still too few.     A new tattoo & piercing studio just opened at 14th & Washington Ave.  The building once had a single shoe store with a pull down security gate now holds four locally owned businesses.

In addition to the AIA Bookstore at 911 Washington Ave we now have Left Bank Books at 10th & Locust.  The number of street vendors has improved greatly both during the day and on weekend nights.  We have a florist in the 1300 block of Washington Ave.

No bulletin boards anywhere — the powers that be would see those as clutter.   We briefly had a kitchen store but the owner moved out of state.  12th Street Diner, next to B&T at Tucker & Washington, is now open and should go 24 hours soon.  Sprint has a store now at Tucker & Washington Ave.  I’d still like to see AT&T have a retail store downtown.  Numerous smoothie choices now.

No produce stands like I’ve seen in other cities — small storefronts spilling out onto the sidewalk.  Washington Ave Post serves as a mail center for many.  I’ve sent a few packages from there in the last year.  Cards and gifts are available from a wide variety of retailers.

No bike shop yet but I hear one is in the early planning stages.  No outdoor shop either as yet.  Scooter dealers are all away from downtown, hopefully that will change soon.  I’d still love to see an Apple store downtown.  We still don’t have the foot traffic they require.  I can picture an gleaming Apple Store on Market at 10th — next to Bank of America and across from Citygarden.

Urban Outfitters and some other chains offer inexpensive basic clothing.  This we are still missing — at least for men.

And finally downtown has numerous choices for gelato, including Gelateria Tavolini at 14th & Washington.

So in five years my wish list has been whittled down nicely.  We’ve seen places open and close.  That will continue to happen as retail is a tough business.  We simply cannot afford to subsidize new places as Culinaria was.  The progress in the last five years has been outstanding.  We cannot rest, however, if we want to see as much or more progress over the next five years.  In that spirit, here is my new wish list:

  • Some chain stores that compliment, not duplicate, existing retailers.  Apple, for example.
  • More street vendors and at times other than weekday lunch, late weekends or game days.  A typical Tuesday at 3pm.
  • On-street parking on Washington Ave all the way East to the Eads bridge.
  • Completion of the Gateway Mall Hallway — the spine running along Market.
  • Reduced open space.  Building new construction on non-park green and asphalt lots.
  • A small market West of Tucker.
  • A skate park.
  • Redevelopment of the 22nd Parkway area just West of Union Station (part of McKee’s plan).
  • A moratorium on new stand-alone parking garages.
  • Renovation of the remaining vacant buildings downtown.
  • Firm planes to remove the depressed section of I-70 once the new bridge over the Mississippi River opens.
  • Construction start on the sites of Ballpark Village and the Bottle District.
  • A decision on the future of the Edward Jones Dome.  Are the Rams staying?
  • Streetcar loop through downtown connecting to neighborhoods North, South and West.
  • New construction around Union Station.
  • High-speed train to Chicago departing from our new downtown Amtrak station.
  • Low vacancy rate on street-level retail spots forces some non-retail businesses up above street level.
  • Bike Station with showers, lockers and secure indoor parking.
  • Hundreds of bike racks (inverted-U) on every sidewalk.
  • Our first demolition of a parking structure — perhaps one North of Kiener Plaza? New mixed-use structures in the place of the garage.

I could go on.  We’ve come so far in 5 years I just want to set the bar higher for the next 5.  If you have ideas, suggest them below.

– Steve Patterson


The Corner Bakery

September 2, 2009 Books, Metro East, Retail 26 Comments

Few things are more urban than walking down the street to the corner bakery to buy a loaf of bread that came out of the oven just an hour before. Sadly, few of us live in places where doing so is still possible.  This post is, at the same time, a discussion of urbanity and a book review.  Not a book on urban life, but a cook book on baking bread.  The subjects are related.

Jeff Hertzberg, co-author of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, wrote the following in the introduction:

I could finish half a loaf of very fresh, very crisp rye bread by myself.  The right stuff came from a little bakery on Horace Harding Boulevard in Queens.  The shop itself was nondescript, but the breads were Eastern European masterpieces.  The crust of the rye bread was crisp, thin, and caramelized brown.  The interior crumb was moist and dense, chewy but never gummy, and bursting with tangy yeast, rye, and wheat flavors.

The handmade bread was available all over New York City, and it wasn’t a rarefied delicacy.  Everyone knew what it was and took it for granted.  It was not a stylish addition to affluent lifestyles; it was a simple comfort food brought here by immigrants.

I left New York in the late 1980s, and assumed that the corner bread shops would always be there, waiting for me, whenever I came back to visit.  But I was wrong.  As people lost interest in making a second stop after the supermarket just for bread, the shops gradually faded away.  By 1990, the ubiquitous corner shops turning out great eastern, central and southern European breads with crackling crusts were no longer so ubiquitous.

Great European breads, handmade by artisans, were still available, but they’d become part of the serious (and seriously expensive) food phenomenon that had swept the country.  The bread bakery was no longer on every corner — now it was a destination.  And nobody’s grandmother would ever have paid six dollars for a loaf of bread.

St. Louis, like Queens NY, once had bakeries on corner after corner.  Today our choices are very limited.

Vitale’s Bakery, pictured above, is one of the few places left in our region where you can buy bread made on site.  Sure we have St. Louis Bread Co. (known to Panera Bread to readers outside the St. Louis region) but a publicly traded franchise company, even if local, is not what I have in mind.  Of course Vitale’s bread is trucked to our supermarkets as well.  Companion used to have retail sales at their bakery on Gustine before they opened high-end shops in Clayton and the Central West End.

Three years ago today I visited one of the few small bakeries built in the image of those from decades earlier:

222 Artisan Bakery, Edwardsville, IL on 9/2/2006

222 Artisan Bakery on Main Street in Edwardsville, IL is the corner bakery reborn.  Here is how they describe their bread:

Our fresh baked breads are crafted in the style of the French masters. We use a levain to create long fermented sourdough and rustic culinary masterpieces. Our breads are started days before they go into the oven using natural stone ground flour and the finest ingredients.

Most breads are ready by 9 am but there are no rules when dealing with naturally leavened bread-some days the dough wants to rest and some days it’s ready to roll. If you are having a party and would like to order something special,be sure to let us know 72 hours in advance so we can get started early.

Sounds good, but I’m not going to drive to Edwardsville IL for fresh bread.  Those in Edwardsville are fortunate.

For the last month I’ve been trying my hand at baking my own fresh bread, following the simple process described in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

I learned of baking bread this way after my friend Dustin Bopp posted a link to an article from Mother Earth News on his Facebook wall. Note, if you follow the recipe and use yeast in packets you need to use two packs to get the required 1-1/2 tablespoons.

I’ve emailed with the other author, Zoe Francois.  My plan is to make the Mennonite Zweiback rolls like my grandmother used to make.

Image source: Wikipedia (click image to view source)

These were the bread I loved as a child.  The last time I tried was 20 years ago. Way too time consuming.   I recall my Mom saying how, as a child of the depression, store bought bread was a luxury they couldn’t afford.  Today home baked bread is a luxury we all have time to afford.  If you live close to one,  please support your local bakery.

– Steve Patterson


A Shift to Smaller Grocery Stores?

The new Culinaria grocery store downtown is a delight.  It is stocked with everything one needs all in 20,000SF of space — a third the size of a typical new suburban big box grocery store.  But it has been the big box suburban store we’ve been getting in urban neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.  These chains knew only one thing — bigger is better.

Loughborough Commons Schnucks Grand Opening, August 2006
Schnuck's Grand Opening at Loughborough Commons, August 2006

Finally, a different model, a smaller new store.  I’ve enjoyed smaller stores for years: Straub’s, Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats/Whole Foods, Local Harvest, City Grocers, etc.  Some of these are now approaching the size of the big box stores while others are still too small to get everything you need.

The trick is being big enough to have all the items for a meal but without an motor oil, clothing or patio furniture.  The fact is the race to have the biggest store in town didn’t always mean the best place to shop for groceries.  With everything inside a third the size of a big box has me wondering if we’ll see a return to the well stocked smaller store?

Schnuck’s, family owned & privately held, got it’s start in the City of St. Louis:

Founded in north St. Louis in 1939, the family-owned grocery company has grown to include more than 100 stores in seven states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee and Mississippi.  (Source: Schnuck’s)

The early stores were the traditional corner store that was common in walkable urban neighborhoods.  But as people left walkable urban areas to driveable suburban areas the concept of a market changed.  Refrigeration made it possible to keep food longer.

In my hometown of Oklahoma City the dominate grocery chain is now Walmart Neighborhood Market.  I’m not talking about a giant Walmart with a grocery section but a dedicated grocery store selling groceries.  These stores, at 40,000SF, are between the typical new Schnuck’s (60,000+SF) and Culinaria (20,000SF).  These Walmart markets are everywhere.

I’m a foodie.  My Facebook friends can confirm the many pictures I’ve posted of meals out as well as meals I’ve prepared at home.  If you’ve seen Julie & Julia you know Julia Child’s love of eating got her interested in cooking.  As someone that enjoys cooking, I’ve visited many grocery stores in many cities.

Bring out the “foodie” in you!

Culinaria is using the term foodie in their marketing.  With a growing emphasis on fresh and local I think we will see a shift away from the massive stores pushing groceries for a month.  I like going to the grocery store but I don’t like walking through unnecessarily large stores.  With a few exceptions, since my stroke a year and a half ago, I have avoided big box grocers.

Toronto, July 2006
Toronto, July 2006

Loblaws is a big chain in Toronto.  The store above is located in their suburbs along their subway line.  You exit the subway and the grocery store is right there so you can pick up items for dinner on your way home.

New York City, 2001
New York City, 2001

A right sized market, such as the above Whole Foods, can be located in older buildings.  You need high density to eliminate the need for parking.

Under NYCs Queensboro Bridge, 2001
Under NYC's Queensboro Bridge, 2001

In New York City wasted space under the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge was put to use for a nice market.

Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003
Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003

The above market was in new construction in a new walkable dense area of Vancouver.  I do not recall seeing any parking although it may have had a garage.  I was a pedestrian.

Seattles international district, March 2009
Seattle's international district, March 2009

These stores don’t have their own parking.  But I’ve been to plenty that do — a Whole Foods in San Diego with parking on the roof to Safeway & Trader Joe’s in Seattle with structured garage parking just for their store – in neighborhoods — not just downtown.  The idea of driving into a parking garage to go grocery shopping is not that odd.  I’d like to see it become commonplace in the core of our region.

Many of Culinara’s customers will walk there.  Others will use MetroLink which is only 2 blocks away (8th & Pine).  Many, however, will drive from within downtown or from nearby neighborhoods.  Those that do will get 1 or 2 hours of free parking, depending upon the day & time of the visit.

I’ll have to drive there one day to see how it works.  The unmetered 15-minute parking on 9th Street seems like it will become an issue with cars parked longer than 15 minutes.  Doesn’t seem right that this business would get free street parking for it’s customers.  I say put in meters and make the limit 30 minutes.

The new Culinaria is the grocery store we need not just downtown but throughout the core of the region.  A smaller footprint store for walkable neighborhoods where a big box and surface parking are out of character.  Hopefully we will see more of Culinaria here and in the other states where Schnuck’s has stores.

The above was written Tuesday after the grand opening of Culinaria.  Yesterday (Wednesday) I made a second visit.  This time I drove my car  – I wanted to see how the whole parking garage experience worked. They have a few issues to address.

Parking starts on level 3 of the garage. It seems like the first parking you get to is reserved for monthly parking permit holders who are assigned a numbered space.  When I got to 5 I crossed the middle point and headed downward to find disabled parking near the elevator.  I’m still not clear how far up the able bodied would need to go to find non-reserved parking.  I’m not sure how people will feel, on the weekend say,  about passing 2-5 levels of empty reserved parking before reaching spaces where they can park.

After I bought my 3 items I discovered the other problem, the shopping carts can’t leave the store.  So even if you drive to the store it is purchase what you can carry.  An associate got another associate to carry my canvas bag for me.  I had only 3 items but it weighed 7 pounds — 5 lb bag of flour plus two pound bags of dried beans.  It was too much for me.  I can understand not allowing the carts out onto the sidewalk but they really need to allow the carts into the garage.

The customer base for a store this size is larger than downtown dwellers & office workers.  Residents from nearby neighborhoods will be driving here to stock up.  And with the huge selection of items it would be very easy to purchase more than you can carry.  The carts have the sensor that locks a wheel if it goes too far.  They need to move the sensor to the outside door so that someone can get to the elevators.

When the associate and I got off the elevator at level 3 I realized that floor doubles as the employee smoking lounge.  Two employees were smoking in the semi-enclosed area off the elevators while three more were smoking adjacent to the disabled spaces.

When I left I handed the parking attendant the ticket I got when I entered the garage as well as the voucher portion from my receipt.  The $2 fee was covered by Culinaria.

As has been pointed out on other posts, this Culinaria store has been heavily subsidized.  It does not represent the free market at work.  What I hope will happen is that it will perform well to the point the Schnuck’s family will question the logic of building bigger & bigger suburban box stores.  We need more frequent stores that are easier to walk to and through.

– Steve Patterson


Larger Downtown Grocery Store Opens Today

August 11, 2009 Downtown, Retail 31 Comments

Today a grocery store 3 times the size of the one we’ve had for the last 5 years opens.  Culinaria opens at 9th & Olive in the ground floor of the 9th Street Garage on the site of the historic marble-clad Century Building.

Culinaria is a small format store by local chain Schnuck’s.  A typical new Schnuck’s is 63,000 square feet whereas Culinaria is a third that size at 20,000SF.  Still that is a far cry larger than the 6,500SF City Grocers that opened in October 2004.  We all owe developer Craig Heller thanks for stepping into grocery business when nobody, including Schnuck’s, would locate downtown.

The shelves are stocked and tables are set up on the sidewalk. 15 minute parking is allowed on 9th in front of the store – no meters yet.  Additional parking is available in the garage which is entered from Olive.

I’ve not been inside yet but from the outside I have some complaints.

A new “dish rack” bike rack has been added to the public sidewalk.  The worst possible rack choice.  Once used the bikes will project into the walking path of the sidewalk.  As I’ve mentioned before, with this type of rack you can only secure one wheel but not the frame.  With so many bikes having quick release hubs it is easy for a thief to leave the wheel and take the rest of the bike.  I doubt this rack will get much use — a good thing because the sidewalk won’t be blocked. The rack type that should have been selected is the inverted-U:

16th & Washington Ave

This type of rack places bikes parallel, rather than perpendicular to, pedestrians on the sidewalk.   The rack that was installed on 9th should never have gotten city approval.

The store entrance is not very appealing.  This door takes you to the elevators to go up into the parking garage.  Past the elevators is an automatic door for entering Culinaria.  The problem for me in my wheelchair and for parents pushing strollers is the door lacks an electric assist.  The button-activated door at City Grocers has been very handy.  I’ll need to hug the ash tray to get where I can open this door.  Hopefully they will add an opener to this door soon.

Store hours are to be 6am to 10pm daily.  I just hope they don’t cut back on those hours in the future. I’ll appreciate the extra hour in the evening — City Grocers has always closed at 9pm.

City Grocers, at 10th & Olive, is retooling and becoming City Gourmet.

– Steve Patterson


My Childhood Mall is Dead

It opened 8 days before my 7th birthday. Crossroads Mall was a very big deal at the time.  All the malls in Oklahoma City were on the other side of town.  Now we’d have a mall less than 2 miles from home.  I may have been in one of the other malls in town prior to the opening of Crossroads but I doubt it.

When Crossroads Mall opened in 1975 it was the 9th largest shopping mall in the United States, and the largest in Oklahoma. It is still the second largest mall in Oklahoma at 1.3 million square feet.  (source)

West County Center in the St. Louis region, rebuilt and greatly expanded in 2002, is still smaller than Crossroads Mall.

When the mall opened in 1974 my parents were in their early 40s, as I am today.  They saw downtown and retail districts die as new suburban malls took over.  They did not shed a tear, they embraced the change.

Likewise as shopping patterns I don’t mourn the death of Crossroads mall.  I should clarify that it is not totally dead – yet.

But when all four of your anchors are closed the diagnosis is not positive.  The sign, above, lists four anchors as you enter — AMC (which is in its own building outside the mall),   Waldenbooks, Bath & Body Works and Chick-fil-A.  Yes, Chick-fil-A is now listed on signage that used to list stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward.  Yeah, good luck with Chick-fil-A as an draw.

On the directory they have severed off the four vacant anchor spaces as if they didn’t exist.  I’m sure they wish they didn’t exist.

But from outside and inside it is obvious to the casual observer.  The above space was Montgomery Wards, which closed in 2001.  The East coast chain Steve & Barry’s opened in this space until they went Bankrupt in January 2009.

One by one the remaining long-term anchors all closed – JC Penny in 2007, Macy’s in March 2008, Dillard’s in December 2008.  (source).

It appears all four anchor stores are owned separately from the mall as I spotted for sale signs with different real estate companies.  If so that makes it harder to create a solution unless the mall owner sinks more money and buys all four anchor spaces.  Then what?  Raze it all?

Crossroads was so named for being at the crossroads of two interstates – I-35 and I-240. Retail centers have now developed along both so that rebuilding retail on this massive site would be a risky proposition.

Little has changed inside save for additional interior lighting.  With the exception of the Chick-fil-A, the only remaining long-term tenant may be Spencer’s Gifts:

The location is exactly where it was in 1974.  Although curious, I didn’t go inside.  I hadn’t been in that store in 30 years.

In January the mall was in foreclosure:

Officials say Crossroads Mall could be put up for bids in about 60 days and stores in the mall will remain open for now.

Price Edwards & Co. is now managing the mall and senior vice president Jim Parrack says he hopes to find a buyer who will keep the property as a mall, but some analysts say it could be taken over by a government agency, a school or a medical organization.  (source)

I’m not sure where it stands, not sure I care.  In my lifetime I’ve seen the birth & death of this mall.  Right now it is the roadside wreck you can’t help look at.  It is time to call in Dr. Kevorkian, or a demolition crew, to finish it off.

As people return to the center and flock to newer strip centers this future of this mall as a mall is long over.  Strip centers around the mall built in the last two decades are already housing offices for things like the state Department of Human Services.  A Best Buy and the Toys R Us where I worked for 5 years are hanging on.

Like my parents I will not shed a tear at the loss of the old way of doing retail.

– Steve Patterson