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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 06:26 am

Downtown St. Louis tries another comeback

Developers are investing billions. Will the loft boom last?

There wasn’t much that was more exciting for this small-town boy 50 years ago than to load up with my family in Dad’s Oldsmobile and drive two hours to go shopping in downtown St. Louis. That was on two lanes, believe it or not, and before we started locking our car doors for the drive through East St. Louis. Crossing the Eads Bridge, we’d look for the Admiral taking tourists up and down the river, and soon we’d be in the honking maelstrom of a great American city of 850,000. We’d get a room for the day at the Mayfair Hotel, as a place to meet and bring our packages, then head off with Mom to Famous-Barr in search of an Easter suit or, if we couldn’t find it there, to Stix or Boyd’s. St. Louis has lost a half-million people from its city limits since I was a kid. For old times’ sake I stopped in at the downtown Famous not long ago, pleased to find it still there and fully stocked but disturbed that I was just about the only customer an hour before closing time. When Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati took over Famous last year, the St. Louis mayor persuaded the company to keep the downtown store open, at least for now. It will become a Macy’s this fall and await the revival of downtown, which everybody says is coming. That’s what they said in the 1980s, when Famous was an anchor for the gleaming new St. Louis Centre downtown shopping mecca. The scheme failed, and St. Louis Centre is mostly vacant now, with plywood covering broken glass on the skybridge that linked the stores. St. Louis has often gotten its hopes up for magic bullets that would turn everything around, only to be met with disappointment after the subsidies dried up. Union Station is a shadow of its former self. The convention-center hotel needs a bailout. Laclede’s Landing is a ghost town. But the current revitalization is different, backers say, and more likely to last. That’s because it’s not focused on one or two megaprojects but is a block-by-block redevelopment, and it will bring people to live downtown. A 25 percent state tax credit for the restoration of historic structures is fueling the transformation of empty office buildings and warehouses into condos and loft apartments. “Renaissance” is the word often used to describe the rush to rehab, especially along Washington Avenue in the city’s old garment district. In 2004, the city had $341 million in downtown investment. Last year developers spent another $590 million, and some are predicting $1 billion in investment for 2006. That includes a $200 million plan to redevelop St. Louis Centre, starting with demolition of the skybridge. Nobody wants to punch a hole in this balloon, which has already brought downtown St. Louis a long way back. “This is real,” says Randall Roberts, who covers development issues for the Riverfront Times. “If you go downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, there is foot traffic. Five years ago, that wasn’t the case. I had a friend who lived downtown back then. He liked it because it was like living in the country — he could hear the crickets chirping.” But will it last? There are so many new condos and apartments opening all the time, Roberts wonders whether developers can fill them all. Already they’re offering incentives such as free breakfast and gym memberships to attract buyers and tenants. “How many people are going to move in?” he says. “Will they come?” Downtown St. Louis now has 10,000 residents, and boosters are hoping to double the population by 2010. But it’s still a small town, without the concentration needed to attract support services. Having to drive three or four miles to a grocery store is getting old, said one St. Louis loft-dweller interviewed on NPR. “I do have question marks about how viable downtown will remain without a critical mass of people and things to do,” says Roberts. Will families move in? “Nobody in their right mind is going to send their kids to public schools in St. Louis,” he says. Of course the hope is that some of those thousands of new downtowners will take on the public schools and turn them around, but it’s too soon to tell. The opening of the new $365 million Busch Stadium this spring prompted national attention to what’s going on in St. Louis. Most national media gushed, but USA Today was, appropriately, more circumspect. Its headline was hopeful but low-key: “More say, ‘Meet me in St. Louis’ as city shows signs of renewal.”
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