My Vision for the Future of St. Louis

by Aaron Williams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Page, Commentary Section — April 2, 1997

Just a single step from the Metrolink stops at Forest Park, the Central West End, Grand, Union Station, Kiel Center, Busch Stadium, 8th and Pine, the Convention Center and Laclede’s Landing are the answers to where St. Louis needs to put its efforts and where the city should be headed.

Our new forward-thinking mayor must lead the future of St. Louis from the perspective of a first time visitor to our region.  When a tourist takes the Metrolink downtown, what will he or she see?  When their convention is over, what will they do?  When the event at Kiel or the Trans World Dome is over, where should they go?  Currently, the answer is home.  If people who visit our city don’t have anything to do downtown, what will stop the 2.5 million residents of the region from doing the same thing?

Our city can brag about having the nation’s fifth largest convention capacity.  Our city is the nation’s largest with legalized gambling.  St. Louis also has the nation’s most successful light rail system.  But serious further real estate development downtown must be realized in order for these bragging rights to be turned into significant economic opportunities for area residents.

Downtown development must begin at the key places that continue to attract the most users of Metrolink.  After the two afternoon Conference USA Tournament games March 5-6, visitors from Louisville, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Memphis, Charlotte and Milwaukee shared the experience of long term residents of our region in not having a thing to do before they entered Kiel Centerand not having a thing to do afterwards.  After each of the three evening games, Kiel Center’s exterior blatantly told everyone to return to their hotels or, for many, simply get in their car or bus and drive home.  Their view of downtown was dismal and disappointing.  According to one New Orleans visitor, “I had no idea your downtown was so dilapidated.”  What could I, a citizen of the region, offer other than excuses and promises that things would get better.  My reply did not deter his swift Metrolink departure for the airport.  Outside the major downtown venues, the views offer nothing to see IMMEDIATELY and nothing to do IMMEDIATELY.

The new owners of the Dome and Kiel must realize their responsibility as civic leaders to keep their visitors downtown for other business owners to enjoy.  The key problem for visitors is not being able to see what to do upon leaving these two world-class facilities.  By keeping all the activity inside the facilities, revenues, seemingly large if you visit Cleveland, are being lost with the current approach.  Go to New York, Toronto or Chicago before a professional sports event and you’ll find a festive party atmosphere surrounding the venue.  That atmosphere makes money for the small business people outside and for the big business people inside.  Our current approach in St. Louis makes the sidewalks as empty as the upper deck during the Conference USA games.

While a tourist information booth and free throw shooting booth were inside, people attending the Conference USA Tournament found nothing outside Kiel .  At each Metrolink stop within the city, simple solutions may fix some of the problems.  Why not have activity on the platforms themselves?  Why not have neighborhood associations hand out brochures on the surrounding businesses that will be interested in tourist traffic?

Policies that limit street “action” must be repealed immediately.  St. Louis must return to the days when newspapers could be purchased on every corner of downtown, when souvenirs were readily accessible, when hot dogs, peanuts and chestnuts could be purchased on any downtown street corner.  Allow street musicians and other artists to perform once again on our streets and at Metrolink and bus stations.  In Paris and London, street musicians are as varied and abundant as the cultures of residents in those cities.  We must enrich our urban areas with the sounds and smells of New York, San Francisco and Chicago that are an integral part of the experience of visiting any thriving downtown.

Another opportunity to promote downtown is being missed through the current ticket policies of promoters of sports events in St. Louis.  During the Conference USA games, the upper deck seats couldn’t have been emptier.  Why not sell those seats as general admission seating on the day of the game for $5.00?  Convention visitors could be educated of the new policy through hotel concierges, students through high school and university newspapers and the general public through the local newspapers and broadcast media.  The policy would produce a “packed house” atmosphere with new faces seeing the area, its facilities and professional and college sporting events for the first time.  It would also create a home sports team advantage with the sixth man in basketball being the sold out audience in the rafters.  A free ticket section for some events would promote good citizenship as it does for the MUNY.  It could also be expanded to give away seats to area students with good grades, similar to the policy with the Cardinals at Busch.  An opportunity exists for the owners of sporting venues to promote the businesses of St. Louis to visitors--subtly advertise the owners of the luxury boxes with plaques below each box.

I believe that a city’s vitality is shown through its use of mass transportation.  The trolleys of San Francisco, Portland and Toronto add atmosphere and convenience to users and visitors of their downtown sidewalks.  In Pittsburgh, the downtown trolleys are free.  When trolleys roamed our area, St. Louis was a vital city.  With the convenience of Metrolink comes a responsibility to make downtown transportation even more creative and cost effective than current systems offer.  Why not bring back 25 or 50 cent trolleys?  Push bus service to the edges of the city’s perimeter and permit quieter, battery-powered trolleys to move throughout the heart of downtown.

With the resources of Emerson Electric and McDonnell Douglas, why not become the first city in the country to run its downtown traffic lights with “smart” lights?  Electronic “eyes” could determine when car volume requires a light to change.  Such a futuristic system might also incorporate Clarence Harmon’s vision for “smart” streets--cameras relaying information back to a central police office that looks out for and records trouble on our streets.  The electronic light system could also be adjusted for times, such as after heavily attended sports events, when people traffic requires special stoplight strategies.  By combining both electronic systems, St. Louis would become a city with the safest traffic system and safest sidewalks for anyone to walk on.

Taxi service is a major disappointment for visitors to our city.  St. Louis needs more cabs roaming key tourist and entertainment locations to facilitate their use.  Why not have the city bid, with high quality of service as the key criteria, for cabs to either wait at each Metrolink stop or to be dispatched on a priority basis from phones at each station that are tied directly to the bid-winning taxi service?  Contracts would be renewed only if quality of service was up to tourists’ standards.

From my own experiences of attendance at Rams and Billikens games, a number of the solutions to downtown’s disappointments appear to be staring St. Louis right out the door of a Metrolink train.

At Forest Park, the top of the station stairs produces a view of a poorly surfaced, often full parking lot, an abandoned coffee shop, a strip mall catering to lower class neighborhood residents and an abandoned former gas station.  This view, combined with the knowledge of the recent sale of Redel’s Restaurant, should send a clear message to Bi-State and the St. Louis Development Corporation that a once upper-scale neighborhood is on the brink of disaster.  A small but aggressive development project would produce a visitor’s information booth, a new multi-level retail and parking complex offering visitors and middle and upper-class residents and business people access to shopping and dining that would rival the Central West End.  The increased neighborhood sales and rental revenues would produce increased tax revenues that should offset the city’s cost of underwriting such a project.

The Central West End stop should be developed jointly by Washington University and Bi-State.  Clearly, a free and frequent trolley car should carry Metrolink passengers along Euclid.  Around the stop, Washington University should be encouraged to be more of a public citizen and develop retail and dining activity within view of the station that would encourage visitors to pursue the rest of the neighborhood.

A similar approach could occur with St. Louis University joining Bi-State in promoting Grand Boulevard.  A free and convenient shuttle could carry visitors and Metrolink users north to the Grand Center area and south to the SLU Med School and the Tower Grove East neighborhood.  Another shuttle could carry visitors to the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Shaw neighborhood.  Increased visitor traffic would come as these cultural and residential areas stablized with fill-in retail and dining development.  Metrolink parking lots could be developed near such smaller projects where empty and easily condemnable housing and business space now exist.

Our community should actively support Emily Pulitzer’s vision for a new Modern Art Museum near Grand Center.  By having a separate new location for modern art, the facility could exhibit extensive collections of 20th century paintings and drawings as well as photography, sculpture, textiles, architecture, film and unusual mixed media exhibits.  The strategy works well in art capitals such as Paris, New York , London and Los Angeles .  In addition, modern “art” could also include a center for dance, jazz or other entertainment that is often combined with sculpture, film and photography.  An integrated modern “arts” facility would become a welcome full-time anchor in the emerging Grand Center neighborhood.

Development along the south side of Clark Street would solve a major need for in-your-face entertainment surrounding the Union Station and Kiel Center Metrolink stops.  Currently the area bordering the Metrolink tracks is filled with underutilized parking and low-tech industrial companies.  Surely this prime real estate could be put to a better use.  Development should include attractions that draw people from the street both in daytime and late evening hours.

  Planet Hollywood, House of Blues and other nationally recognized multi-use entertainment facilities would offer St. Louisans and tourists something currently not available in this region.  Perhaps a glass sidewalk, similar to the Science Center ’s over Highway 40, could run over the tracks that border Clark Street .  Should Mississippi Nights be forced from its current location, they would be an obvious first choice tenant for the Clark Street project.  Why not have a superior restaurant/nightclub provide sidewalk and table front views of their kitchen or bar in action?  What about Blueberry Hill in the City or a Hail, Hail Rock n’ Roll Cafe?  Development of the Clark Street area is key to providing the tens of thousands of Kiel visitors with memorable alternatives to “returning home” after events.  Parking could be better managed and developed south of the new project.

Around Busch Stadium, the Cupples Warehouses and others could be converted to house new entertainment venues, perhaps performing arts complexes for dance, film and/or theatre, and modern art museums with office buildings related to the Arts.  Indoor film studios require large open spaces, the type that Cupples and other sites could readily be converted to accommodate.  If you go to Toronto, you’ll see a thriving film industry in action.  High-end hotel/apartment complexes are regularly filled to capacity with three and six month film staff, including actors, directors and producers.  During my own recent visit, I was actively recruited to be an extra on a movie set.  Imagine what visitors to our city would say if they were offered the same opportunity.  Toronto ’s public policies permit filmmakers to close down streets on short notice and provide immediate access to knowledgeable filmmaking support personnel, persons who know where and how to make movies happen.

We can easily compete with any city in the country with the quantity of attractive, unique settings available for filmmaking.  If the unions in our city could be as cooperative as those in other cities, training in the local unions would develop to readily support studios with highly trained laborers who would provide large quantities of reliable work.  Unions must be encouraged to approach filmmakers with a can-do attitude instead of a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.  With a smart approach, filmmakers would find a labor force that knows how to compete for dollars lost to Chicago, Toronto and other studio-friendly locations.

At Eighth and Pine, the image of St. Louis could not be worse.  One abandoned office building after another is enclosed in protective orange tape to advise visitors and residents to move on.  Serious underwriting of real estate development will be needed to salvage this area.  If the buildings could be converted to mixed-use structures, the prospects are excellent that the Metrolink stop would become a new hub for vibrant residents and small businesses downtown.  When the Mansion House thrived in the early 70’s, the streets were filled with people.  TWA and rental car companies occupied space.  Florists and other small businesses lined the first floors of numerous buildings.  Perhaps what is needed for the 90’s and beyond is a bit more imagination.  When Union Station opened, the mall was filled with unique-to-St. Louis businesses.  Why not develop Eighth and Pine with this same theme?  Can you imagine how attractive downtown would be if you could shop at Viviano’s, Sam Cavato’s or the Library Ltd. downtown?  Residents in high rise complexes in downtown Chicago and Manhattan enjoy retailers who cater to tenants’ needs on the first and second floors of their apartment and condominium buildings.  St. Louisans would welcome and require such convenience as well.

Around the Trans World Dome and Laclede’s Landing, empty lots reflect empty visions.  Large sports bars and theme restaurants would give conventioneers immediate reasons to stay downtown.  Around Busch Stadium or the Dome, why not re-construct a 90’s version of the 1904 World’s Fair Ferris Wheel?  Imagine how frequently such a structure would be used before and after Cardinals games.  Special night lighting would draw traffic right off the Interstates.

A visitor to Toronto will hear of the Bata Shoe Museum.  The museum brings in busloads of school students to educate them on the history of footwear, from cavemen to current celebrities.  This is not a tourist trap but a multi-million dollar project  driven by one manufacturer to the benefit of the community.  Visitors learn about the footwear industry and the sociological and anthropological impact of footwear.  Our city is one of the richest in the world in its textile and soft goods history.  The area around the Convention Center and former garment district is ideal for development of a similarly new textile museum that could include frequent visits from seasoned industry veterans, including long term executive and labor personnel from Brown Shoe, International Hat, International Shoe and Edison Brothers.  Members of our region could provide our youth with in-depth, hands-on knowledge of what it was like to emmigrate from Europe to work here in a shoe factory in the early 1900’s.  They could explain how textiles such as hats and ties are designed and marketed.  Replicas of plant shop floors could give students an understanding of how their grandparents performed their jobs here just 50 years ago.

Another museum opportunity exists if St. Louis County would be willing to move (or unload) its share of the Museum of Transportation.  As one of the world’s leading centers of ground transportation, St. Louis should have a world-class facility near its downtown area.  By moving the Museum downtown, the majority of visitors and residents would in the least gainer greater access to such a facility.  If placed near underdeveloped land and abandoned railroad tracks, the facility would have the room for growth and adequate storage that the current Museum does not have.  The City of Sacramento, California has one of the most impressive transportation museums in the world.  St. Louis can have a similarly impressive museum if it is placed downtown.

We can make the City of St. Louis THE place for tourists and all residents to go at night and on weekends.  We can make St. Louis a memorable and culturally unique experience for visitors, especially those from competing cities such as Louisville, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Memphis and Kansas City.  We can make St. Louisans in the outlying region jealous of the cultural activity that a thriving downtown can offer.  It will take vision, hard work and a city government and unions that welcome the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and developers.  The result of an imaginative approach to creating a dynamic downtown will aid tremendously in efforts to provide better educational opportunities in our region.  A vital downtown can also aid in efforts to unify our community as a region filled with racial and ethnic diversity.  Opportunities for and efforts toward success can be a contagious phenomenon.  Such efforts and their results can happen and must in order for St. Louis to survive.

Aaron Williams is President of Aaron Consulting, Inc., a nationwide attorney recruiting firm, based in the DeBaliviere neighborhood in the City of St. Louis since its formation in 1990.