Maybe Housing Shouldn't Be Priority in Redeveloping Downtown St. Louis

Article excerpt

While civic boosters call downtown St. Louis "the heart of the region," few residents of the metropolitan area view it that way. Instead, they see downtown as the place where sports teams play and where the Gateway Arch looms up as a symbol of the region. Despite its status as one of the most striking urban monuments in the world, the city that it signifies has a downtown that has long ceased to be a vibrant center.

Retailing has dispersed to suburban malls. The development of the St. Louis Centre shopping mall in the 1980s obliterated many street-level business locations that had contributed to the unique character of downtown. St. Louis Centre's trajectory-early success, now failing - shows how hard it is for a traditional mall in the downtown to compete with the suburbs. The St. Louis Galleria has free parking, more stores than St. Louis Centre, and is strategically located at the junction of two interstate highways. It's near the county seat and very near the areas of highest median income and highest property values in the metropolitan St. Louis area. The one kind of retailing succeeding in downtown is Union Station, a festival mall that brings activities indoors, off the streets.

Although St. Louis's city hall is located downtown, the local government center serving the largest part of the metropolitan population, St. Louis County, is six miles west in Clayton, integrated into a major satellite business district. Corporate headquarters have been marching steadily west along highway 40, forming a corridor with two anchors, Clayton on the east and Chesterfield on the west. Cultural institutions are essential to St. Louis's vitality, but except for the shuttered Kiel Opera House, whose renovation is curiously opposed by civic leaders, the major ones are not located in the downtown either, with the science, history and art museums located in and near Forest Park. St. Louis University and the Grand Center are closer, but not within walking distance.

In many cities a major campus or two contribute to downtown street life, but in St. Louis even the two public urban universities are miles away.

If downtown St. Louis is going to experience a renaissance, an urban culture will have to be created out of whole cloth, without the supporting cluster of institutions that, in many cities, nurture a lively street life and cultural milieu.

The task is daunting because the infrastructure of St. Louis' downtown is not ideal for a revived urban culture. Downtown St. Louis is dominated by stadiums, office towers and indoor shopping malls which turn away from the street, creating a magnificent skyline view for passing motorists and airline passengers, but providing little stimulation to the pedestrian on a downtown sidewalk. According to Roberta Gratz and Norman Mintz, St. Louis is a city "where so much of the one-time urban fabric is gone ... a city that believes real progress is defined by demolishing old and building new, St. Louis continues to let much of what is left of its notable older commercial buildings crumble away." They add, in St. Louis, "A corporate center exists, for sure, rebuilt, clean and dull. Business districts, like downtown St. Louis, lack a steady flow of people on the street to give them life."

Most downtown evening activity occurs in isolated nodes, inside the Union Station shopping center, the America's Center complex, the Kiel Center, Busch Stadium and the Trans World Dome. These large facilities are connected to each other and to outlying park ride lots by MetroLink. However, all of these facilities, like the Gateway Arch, have separate parking, are near interstate highway ramps and provide little incentive for walking downtown. The little late-night activity that there is in downtown St. Louis occurs in the club district along Washington Avenue and in Laclede's Landing.

Some intersections downtown do not have crosswalk signals, and the walk from the Arch grounds or Laclede's Landing to the downtown core is especially treacherous because of I-70 and its access ramps which separate the riverfront area from the downtown core. …