Cross Grand and the Small Business Revitalization of Dutchtown

Chip and Tasha Smith are here to stay. “I can see the future”, said Chip, as he gazed in wonder at his extravagantly remodeled storefront in the heart of Downtown Dutchtown on Meramec Ave. Living just steps from their store, Chip and Tasha could not be more bullish on their neighborhood. Chip, a photographer and artist by trade, has South City in his bones. Tasha even serves on the DT2 (Downtown Dutchtown) Board, influencing decisions that support local businesses, community events, and infrastructure.

Editor’s Note: The photos taken for this piece are sure to pale in comparison to what Chip is capable of.

For nearly a decade, Chip has been building his photography and videography business. It was only 10 years ago that he bought his first camera, and here Chip sat in a chic, modern studio of his own making. Brand new flooring, popping colors, wood accented walls, and a classic old South St. Louis ceiling grace a location that those just wandering in might expect in a New York City boutique. Much of the work came from the Smith Family’s own sweat, with Chip, Tasha, and their children putting in dozens of hours of physical and creative energy. Chip even put in many of the floorboards himself, save where sloped flooring posed a challenge more suitable for a general contractor than a photographer.

Chip and Tasha Smith

“Cross Grand represents where I am from”

Chip Smith

According to Chip, there has never been a better time to be starting a business in Dutchtown. With the Community Improvement District (CID), Downtown Dutchtown, and Neighborhood Innovation Center nearby, there is a large group of community-oriented individuals collaborating to support the neighborhood. Coupled with the incredible amount of development nearby and beginning to spill into Dutchtown itself, the “South Sider” Chip witnessed all these architecturally gorgeous buildings and storefronts and saw nothing but potential. Then he met the people and the community in Dutchtown, one of St. Louis’ most dense communities in terms of population, and saw the value of a strong and supportive community, both in terms of the residents nearby and the support infrastructure described above.

Every step of the way, Cross Grand found encouragement and support from the Dutchtown community. John Chen, founder of the Neighborhood Improvement Center just a block further East on Meramec, has advised on certain elements of the project and provided as much support as he can as the owner of the building.

The potential of Dutchtown is readily apparent as soon as you enter the neighborhood. There is an expansive infrastructure already in place comprised of incredible, historical housing stock, a walkable street grid, businesses that have been around for nearly a century, and critical retail corridors on Grand and Meramec. The Meramec corridor in particular evokes a similar feeling to Manchester in parts of The Grove, or even parts of Maplewood. A dense cluster of restaurants, boutiques, and age-old retailers sit in 100+ year old, brick-clad buildings with mansard roofs with ample room for outdoor dining.

Cross Grand Studio- Brian Adler

That’s not to say that they didn’t need to put in the work to make their storefront shine. To see the incredible transformation of the space, look no further than these photos Chip provided of the space before they saw its true potential. Drop ceiling hid the gorgeous ceiling pattern visible today, and the floor was in need a complete refresh. Perhaps someone could have envisioned an office or small store, but to imagine and create the Instagram-worthy color scheme and modern aesthetics is a true feat.

With Cross Grand, Chip and Tasha are combining their interests into a full service experience for creators like themselves in Dutchtown. Chip now does most of the video and photography work in the community, with many of his photos available on the Downtown Dutchtown website. Tasha, with lots of events in the small event world, and Chip with photography and videography, found that they could create a space that catered to both needs. They plan to bring other neighborhood creators into the studio in addition to the members of the community they hope will view their work, take photos, or hold small events there.

Chip hopes that the curated space will be a destination for nearby residents to get creative and see themselves in a new light. Far from only shooting weddings, Cross Grand will offer photo sessions, photo books, and event space. Chip is also looking for ways to capitalize off of the unique style that’s new to the Dutchtown neighborhood. Whether it is featuring the work of local artists or perhaps catering to a podcast and vlogger community, Cross Grand has a special space and a set of services that Dutchtown previously lacked.

Cross Grand Studio- Brian Adler

Grateful for their community support from the CID, DT2, Thomas Dunn, and the Neighborhood Innovation Center, Cross Grand owners Chip and Tasha are plainly excited to finally bring their dream to the community. To have a space to bring clients besides Starbucks, meet their neighbors who just walk in the door, and to show their kids the product of hard work are things that make Chip extremely proud and eager about this space.

The Grand Opening

Cross Grand is set to open to the public this Wednesday, October 21 with a Grand Opening and After Hours Happy Hour co-hosted by Downtown Dutchtown. The event will feature Chip’s first photo book, a Dutchtown/Cross Grand hoodie collaboration on display, a drummer playing live music, and possibly discounted packages in addition to the hoodies and photos being on sale. Members of the Dutchtown community and beyond are encouraged to stop by and witness all that Cross Grand has to offer. The Facebook event can be found here, and you can find more information about the event on Downtown Dutchtown’s website as well here. The event will take place from 5:30 to 7:00 PM and visitors are encouraged to meet neighbors and stick around for a drink.

“Cross Grand is here to stay. We are going to add value to this neighborhood.”

Chip Smith

Small business entries speak volumes about a neighborhood’s trajectory, and their value is even higher in the middle of an elongated Pandemic. Cross Grand is a project that rose from the community itself. It does not pad the pockets of national developer groups bringing in luxury units with no affordable housing, raze historical architecture, or displace other residents or businesses. That may sound like a low bar, but often developments in St. Louis do all those things, and while they can still offer plenty of intrinsic benefits, real neighborhood improvement and community stabilization comes from within and supports its residents.

Small businesses are the heart of truly equitable economic development that lifts communities up. The infrastructure provided in Dutchtown by community organizations is beginning to show what it is capable of. Combined with the incredible built environment, the nearby ecosystem is poised to keep pushing Dutchtown in the right direction with a focus on a community driven approach. While not as flashy as a 300-unit tower or several phase development, small businesses driven and supported by their communities have an incredible impact and make urban areas shine.

Cross Grand Entry – Brian Adler

Thank you for joining Missouri Metro on the first edition of our Small Business Series

Centene and Unfulfilled Promises: Potential turned to Vacant Lots, Cancelled Plans, and Threats toward St. Louis

Chapter 1 – The Promise & Potential

When Centene announced the expansion of its Clayton headquarters, the proposal revealed one of the largest economic developments in terms of dollars and scope seen in decades for the St. Louis County business hub. Planning a series of “subdivisions” including several new glass-clad towers, residential, retail, and even a luxury hotel, Centene presented an unforgettable and undeniably valuable opportunity to Clayton. In a metropolitan area known for a declining, but still large number of corporate headquarters, the proposal demonstrated a strong commitment to a region that has recently taken a few punches.

Centene is #42 on the Fortune 500 list, and has utilized the Affordable Care Act healthcare marketplace to become the 49th quickest growing company on the Fortune 500 list. With its remarkable growth came a need for office expansion, having quickly surpassed the capacity at its oldest building at 7711 Carondolet and its 18-story glass tower at the intersection of Hanley and Forsyth.

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With its rapid growth came perceived opportunity for Clayton, something that Centene was proud to proclaim at every point during the planning and review process. Alongside the development would be an estimated 2,000 jobs that would be brought to the city. 1,000 of which would likely be brought from outside of Missouri. Beyond the intrinsic benefit of a densified Downtown, improved skyline, and property tax benefits for the city, Clayton could count on an even larger pool of people to support its local businesses. Leadership at Centene appeared completely behind Clayton and the region as a whole.

“As Centene continues to grow worldwide, we are committed to the City of Clayton and we want to continue to be the anchor in this region.”

Bill Reichmuth – Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate at Centene, 08/01/2016

Hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, thousands of jobs, an impressive amount of retail, and a wide-range of Clayton desired amenities all found their way into the proposal. It was something of a dream come true for the municipality, which has been experiencing an impressive amount of growth and demand for office and residential. To many, Clayton is becoming a downtown region to rival even that of Downtown St. Louis.

Centene Special Development District – Rendering Provided by a 2016 Clayton Public Review

Chapter 2 – The Subsidies

There is little doubt that Centene has solidified its position as an anchor to the region, and the hundreds of millions it has spent on development coupled with the thousands of jobs it provides to the area absolutely deserves recognition. Yet, its success and growth should not be viewed solely as its own creation, and its sheer size means that its failures are that much more harmful to the community.

Note: Centene did not respond to requests for comment.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that Centene sought a total of $147 million in public, taxpayer funded assistance to construct their massive campus outlined above. Of that total, Clayton’s tax incentives would total nearly $101.3 million, with the majority of the other funds coming directly from the State of Missouri. When presented in front of the Clayton Board of Aldermen, the proposal was approved unanimously. With that being said, the Board wisely instituted some control measures, such as ceasing “real property tax abatement on Phase 1 and Phase 2” if the civic auditorium is not complete by December 31, 2024. Additionally, no property tax abatement would be provided for the proposed apartment building.

Parking garages and the newest Centene tower, the only Centene construction since 2016 – Brian Adler

Notably, this incentive package was structured in such a way to protect Clayton and its taxpayers to some degree. Each individual phase would receive its own tax abatement period of 20 years, but that phase would only receive its tax abatement after its completion. In other words, Centene has not yet been granted the total tax incentive package.

The picture isn’t all that rosy, however. When looking at the incentive package more broadly, it is still overwhelmingly weighted in Centene’s favor. The insurance giant has until December 31, 2024 to build the civic auditorium. If it doesn’t, then property tax abatement will cease on the first two subdivisions. Yet, that is still more than half a decade of public assistance toward a giant corporation. Moreover, it isn’t even a penalty – the tax abatement would end eventually, after twenty years. It is merely reflective of the real cost they would eventually pay, sans Clayton’s public assistance. As of right now, there is no clear indication that any other construction will take place, still granting Centene nearly a decade of property tax relief on a project far less comprehensive than the one originally planned.

Two massive parking garages spanning Forsyth Blvd in the Transportation Development District (TDD) – Brian Adler

The biggest issue lies within the process itself, and the way in which a large developer or company might leverage its massive scale and pretty renderings to skew the benefits it receives. While it appears from a distance as though the tax abatement is structured to reward continued construction, it does just the opposite in reality. When Centene came to the Clayton officials and public, they did so presenting a huge, urban, dense, and comprehensive project all at once. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it anchors the conversation around the development. It is a de facto promise that what they present is what will be received.

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Because of that, city officials are making decisions about individual, phased tax abatements and other incentives assuming that they will see the entire project completed. With that in mind, there is a motivation to grant larger incentives to each individual phase of the project. The first and second subdivision, in other words, receive the tax incentives a massive project might, even if that massive project is promised in the long term and never actually delivered. These phases are not being considered like the individual developments that they otherwise would be. They are treated preferentially, as is reflected in the commentary from Clayton public officials. Each phase receives an abatement under the context of this being the largest project in Clayton in a long time, paraphrased by a former Clayton mayor in a 2016 public hearing.

Chapter 3 – The Warning

Forsyth facing East – Brian Adler

UPDATE: The minutes that stated Louis Clayton served in the capacity of Project Manager for the Centene project were incorrect and the verbiage that suggested he was the Project Manager were a misstatement, according to Clayton officials. This update has been verified.

The idea that this project might have received preferential treatment goes beyond Centene using its scale as leverage. At the time the project was proposed, the Clayton City Planner, Louis Clayton, also served as the primary Project Manager for the development. (SEE UPDATE ABOVE) It is a substantial conflict of interest, one that was known and recognized publicly in the same public hearing. There were no concerns reflected on this conflict by staff or residents, but this cannot be ignored especially with the city granting Centene tens of millions of dollars in subsidies. That is not to say, however, that nearby residents were enthused about the development. The public hearing was packed, overflowing out the door, with community members present to share their thoughts.

While neighborhood opposition is not uncommon, even with the best of projects in the form of NIMBY-ism (standing for “not in my backyard”), some residents had noted that the project being so huge and divided into phases posed risks for its overall completion. There were other indicators too that should have served as real warnings for city officials. For one, city economic development staff had real concerns about the parking garages and their compatibility with the neighborhood.

“a significant amount of ground floor space will be used for parking, which is incompatible with the vision of the Downtown Master Plan”

City of Clayton Economic Development Staff

The Economic Development Staff continued that the parking proposed exceeded zoning code requirements and the recommendations of the parking study, warning that it might have a “detrimental effect on the future success of the area as a dense, walkable, transit oriented mixed-use district, as envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan“. This was a vision supported by Centene’s first new tower on Forsyth and Hanley, which even had its parking structure designed thoughtfully to have significant ground-floor retail, going so far as to even hide the parking itself behind a unique, artistic wind-screen.

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If those statements sounded dire and like a potential death knell for the proposal, then consider that they very well could have been if Clayton had not helped Centene find a way around the zoning requirements, Transportation Development District, and Downtown Master Plan. Using the Special Development District (SDD) tool, a special zoning classification created for the largest of projects, Clayton awarded Centene’s campus a workaround for all of the existing zoning requirements.

SDD’s are intended for massive-scale projects, that due to their sheer scale, do not fit existing zoning classifications. The intent is to award an SDD to a developer or company that, upon delivery of its project, creates a higher and better use of the land that would not otherwise be possible. While the Staff warnings were severe, within the context of the entire four-phase proposal, it is reasonable to see how and why Clayton officials saw plenty of merit to take a hit or two for a greater good. With phases 3 and 4 to deliver high density residential and a highly saught after hotel to supplement their business district, sitting directly next to the Metrolink in the TDD, there were specific parts of the plan with very high value.

Yet, those parts with the most value were at the very end of the development pipeline, with no real guarantees of their completion or penalties if they never came to fruition. Their only incentive to continue construction ended with the auditorium on Forsyth, part of Phase II. After that, there were no threats to Centene’s continued enjoyment of tax abatement.

These issues aside, the City of Clayton’s Board of Aldermen unanimously moved to adopt a measure approving the Centene Special Development District on July 11, 2017.

Chapter 4 – The Rise

Image provided by Clayco

Construction commenced quickly, with Centene’s larger tower on Hanley and Forsyth breaking ground in April of 2017, part of Phase I of the new development. Local media reported a massive investment had broken ground, with the potential to reshape Clayton’s East end. The St. Louis Business Journal hailed the project that would cost $770 million and “include multiple office towers, parking garages, residential units, a hotel and civic auditorium”.

The new tower would contain over 600,000 square feet of office space, and the garages were to begin after the demolition of the Wellbridge Athletic Club on Forsyth. Wellbridge would go on to fill in the first floor retail area of the tower following its construction.

Even STL Metro was proud of what would provide a sizable Transit-Oriented-Development near their Forsyth MetroLink station. The two towers, one likely to be office space, and the other residential or hotel, would sit next to the proposed auditorium and provide an incredibly urban entry to Clayton and Centene’s campus for Metro Riders.

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Metro reported that the apartment tower and hotel had recently even been approved by Clayton, with a rendering below provided by the St. Louis Post Dispatch after Clayton approved the tax incentive package in 2016. The two towers and auditorium shown in the image below include a 34-story office building with space for a luxury hotel and retail, as well as a 28 story office structure and auditorium.

With construction well underway and some really excellent renderings of what might come, everything seemed according to plan. The first new tower on Hanley and Forsyth even leased nearly all of its office space before it officially opened, highlighting the incredible demand for Class-A office space in Clayton and the functional utility of Centene’s newest tower.

The garages, while exceeding their recommended parking capacity and failing to mend Clayton Staff’s warnings about its future impact to Downtown Clayton and its current affront to retail and transportation development district requirements, are nearly complete. Centene has followed the core design guidelines they set forth, heeding some concerns of residents nearby in The Crescent in Carondolet Plaza, utilizing some similar, albeit cheaper looking materials.

Chapter 5 – The Fall

Future sight of the Centene Welcome Center – Brian Adler

“By 2020, Centene hopes to build two office towers of around 30 stories each.”

St. Louis Post Dispatch, 2016

The end of 2020 is fast approaching, and the quote above keeps replaying in my head as I write this piece. Regardless of your satisfaction with the garages or new tower, there is a distinct feeling of deception, fueled by a lack of transparency surrounding their future plans and the clear-as-day, undeniable lack of progress Centene have made relative to its promises.

The notion that Centene would finish the entire project continued as the tower and garages inched toward completion. Officials at STL Metro and Clayton’s then mayor, Harold Sanger, were hailing the dense development that would fill in the East end of Clayton and serve the transportation district set forth nearly a decade before.

There have been no official or public updates provided by the City of Clayton since July of 2017 on the Public Resource Center for tracking Centene’s campus development. More concerning, there was a meeting listed on the Clayton website for tracking Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board meetings for July 21, 2017 that seems as though it covered some very important information, yet it had no minutes available. The agenda for that July 21 Meeting can be found here, with the main agenda item being “Discussion Regarding Special Development District Regulations, Application & Approval Process (Article IX of the City’s Zoning Regulations[Chapter 405])”

The meeting appears as though it might have been hosted by Louis Clayton, who at the time occupied both the roles of Clayton City Planner. Having no public minutes available is an oddity in of itself, with the City of Clayton taking fairly meticulous notes for most Planning Commission meetings and having taken earlier pride in their record-keeping and transparency on the Centene project. I figured that this was likely an error, and filled out a Public Records Request with the City of Clayton to reveal the minutes or notes from the meeting.

UPDATE: Clayton officials have reached out regarding the July 21 meeting and clarified that no actions were taken whatsoever and that it served as a general discussion between Aldermen about what an SDD is and what it would look like.

Attached below is the correspondence, and another copy of the Agenda if it is taken down.

The response to my records request carefully indicated that there were no notes, minutes, or actions taken at the meeting. However, it also still suggests a meeting did take place, just that there are no notes available for it. This meeting came at a critical time in the Centene development process, and the regulations and decisions behind the SDD, one of the most powerful development tools granted to a humongous corporation are critical. That some elements of the decision making process are unavailable for public review is unacceptable.

Worse yet, after receiving the response to my request and at time of press, the link to the meeting from the Clayton Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board page has now disappeared. That is despite what seems to be a confirmation that a meeting has indeed taken place. The PDF linked above is still clearly hosted on the Clayton website’s servers, but I was only able to access it thanks to my web history having the link saved. This is not necessarily to allege a cover-up, but there is something strange about the July 21 meeting that seems likely to have taken place and decided how a SDD would look for the Centene Campus expansion that would grant millions in subsidies to the corporation.

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These concerns are amplified in importance when considering the entire project and where it stands today. As of October 2020, Centene has completed nowhere near what was promised. With the massive lot where the auditorium would sit now vacant and covered in dirt and dust, and no clear plans for a continuation of development anytime soon or any public statements that provide any positive indication, something has clearly gone amiss. What is left is a shadow of the proposed development, with sharp edges that significantly detract from the entry toward Clayton from the Metro and the East down Forsyth, rather than provide any real pedestrian, density, or transit benefits promised.

Going East past the massive parking garages on Forsyth, the lots where an auditorium and two skyscrapers would sit remain empty. With no sign of construction aside from some minor infrastructure improvements with the sidewalk, these parcels sit covered in dirt and dust, leaving the part of the project with the most to add to the TDD and neighborhood density empty. With no apartments, luxury hotel, or auditorium, none of the community benefits promised exist. The TDD benefits that Metro and Clayton had hailed are nonexistent. Moreover, Centene is still enjoying the tax abatements on the garages and office tower and will do so until at least December 31, 2024 unless they manage to complete the auditorium before then.

One of the more egregious elements is the East-facing side of the parking structure shown above, with a massive, several story high blank white wall gracing pedestrians and drivers headed into Clayton. This is despite the Downtown Master Plan denouncing use of these walls. Centene, however, found a way to have one of the largest blank walls in Clayton save for its other parking structures on Forsyth. The company has completely shunned the wishes of Clayton, despite the incentives and community disruption, delivering none of what would actually benefit the community.

These are now indications that these empty lots are here to stay for some time. The picture above on the right side includes a tiny structure, which will be a small “Welcome Center” for the Centene Campus. When exploring the “Pending Applications” page of Clayton’s Planning and Development Services website, the Centene application appears to have been updated on May 29, 2020 with the rendering provided below and some language that does not bode well for the future of the development.

Centene Welcome Center – Clayton Pending Applications

What appears to be something of a security kiosk, if anything, will fill out a few square feet on an otherwise empty lot where prior plans called for real density. This rendering fuels the flame beneath concerns that the East end of the campus will not see what was promised for years to come, if at all. The very premise, the promise of the development laid out before the public in 2016, never held this possibility. The tax incentives for each project, even if not granted for each phase before construction, are applied on a false notion and pretty renderings of a project that would benefit Clayton in theory, but not in reality.

On the application for the “Welcome Center” is one small paragraph, which states:

Subdistrict 2B (1.337acres) was originally slated to be developed with a corporate/civic auditorium, but development approvals on those plans have expired and the property owner has no immediate plan to develop the site. The Subdistrict 3 property (2.47 acres including a portion in University City) is not currently slated for development at this time

Centene Welcome Center Application

In one of the least transparent ways possible, Clayton writes Centene no longer has any immediate plans to develop Subdistrict 2B or 3. Bob Clark stated to the public in 2016 how important the connection to the MetroLink was to Centene, suggesting how valuable the program will be to the MetroLink. Mr. Clark went so far as to even say that Centene CEO Michael Neidorff was a “champion of the St. Louis community, for Clayton”. His colleague at the presentation to the public, Mr. Reichmuth, stated that they were “committed to a transparent, thorough process“.

And yet, both towers, including the apartments and luxury hotel, as well as the civic auditorium are effectively axed.

The very connection to the Forsyth MetroLink is no more, and there is no indication it will ever be revived. The entire project seems to be experiencing cancellation or severe downsizing. While writing this piece, another piece of information dropped quietly on the application page for Clayton, which seems to confirm that the original plans are no more.

On October 5, 2020, Centene submitted an application to Clayton for its original office building at 7711 Carondolet, which was to be the final, long-term element of its Special Development District. The building was to be razed and replaced with a much larger tower resembling the two at the intersection of Hanley and Forsyth. We know now that Centene has scrapped Subdistrict 4 as well, opting instead to simply re-clad the building standing with a design similar to the other towers.

7711 Carondolet is the smaller building on the left. Image provided by the application on Clayton’s website.

Between the most recent two applications, we can see that the massive campus proposed is no more. This is not to suggest that the redesigned older tower is a bad thing, but that it is very obviously not what was promised to Clayton officials or the community at large. It is confirmation that not only Subdistrict 2B and 3 are dead, but the long-term Subdistrict 4 is gone too. That means that barely half of the entire proposal may ever be completed, and the “largest” project to ever grace Downtown Clayton is significantly smaller than expected.

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Chapter 6: The Salt in the Wound

CEO Michael Niedoroff being recognized as the 2017 Citizen of the Year – St. Louis Post Dispatch

Somewhere between 2016 and 2020, a seismic shift occurred in Centene’s commitment to the St. Louis region. Neidorff and Centene had proposed incredible facilities, and notably had invested $25 million in a Ferguson Centene office to employ local residents with daycare facilities following the protests. Following the investment in Ferguson, Neidorff was recognized as the St. Louis Citizen of the Year in 2017 by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Since then, however, Neidorff has publicly pulled back from institutions supporting St. Louis, while simultaneously cutting off the Centene expansion detailed above. Neidorff had served as the “Regionalism Chairman” on the Board of Civic Progress until at least the end of 2018. He worked to spearhead the Better Together campaign that would see a unification of St. Louis City and County, widely viewed by business leaders in the region as a means to reducing civic redundancy, increasing safety, and reducing competitive economic development barriers between municipalities.

Neidorff has since left Civic Progress, seemingly following the collapse of the Better Together proposal. Moreover, he recently issued a strong condemnation of St. Louis, going so far as to threaten moving the Clayton headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina should St. Louis not “get its act together”. The threat was delivered alongside news that Charlotte would become a regional headquarters for the company regardless of St. Louis’ actions. Whether Clayton will remain as the headquarters for the insurance giant is “up to the people that create an environment that a Fortune 25 company wants to be in.”

His remarks centered on rising crime in St. Louis, complaints about the MetroLink system, the number of flights at Lambert International Airport, and more. His suggestion that should St. Louis not improve its reputation and these issues, Centene will move elsewhere cuts deeply. One of the largest employers of the St. Louis region, certainly in Clayton, moving would be extraordinarily harmful, and the multi-interview broadside regarding St. Louis and its leaders where he aired his grievances do little to convince other companies to move operations here. Most would likely agree that St. Louis must improve on these issues, but as one of the region’s largest stakeholders, he too is partially responsible for the region’s health and his actions do little in offering progress, despite his claim that it might shake leaders into action.

Digging deeper, his criticisms of St. Louis and idolization of Charlotte. Like many cities across the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, crime is up significantly in Charlotte. With double digit increases in assaults and murder, Charlotte is experiencing similar crime trends. Even before COVID, crime had been rising in Charlotte, with 2019 seeing over 5% more incidence than 2018. It is true that St. Louis is more well known for its crime problems, but his threat is undercut by crime statistics. Similarly, romanticizing Charlotte’s light rail system falls into the same issues, with “high rates of crime” at transit centers. Moreover, the St. Louis light rail system is more than twice as large as Charlotte’s, which in theory should provide substantially more living options for residents and employees.

While Charlotte is a wonderful city, deserving of growth and corporations that invest in the community, Neidorff won’t find what he says he is looking for. His open threat to move headquarters, like the Centene Campus expansion originally proposed, is shallow.

Chapter 7: The End

Entry to Clayton from Forsyth – Brian Adler

Quietly, the Centene project in Clayton has been suspended, perhaps indefinitely. Promises made were abandoned, not just to Clayton officials, but also to nearby residents who took the time to engage with the development process.

What’s left is a shell of what was proposed in 2016, with almost none of the public benefit despite massive public incentives. What remains unfinished is left in worse shape, with the entry into Clayton on Forsyth facing a massive blank wall and vacant lots. As part of the decision to create a Special Development District, Centene was granted the ability to shirk the zoning requirements in place and create a district meant for cars. With more parking than recommended and garages that don’t meet Clayton’s own stated requirements, the Transportation Development District is named ironically for what exists in its borders.

Clayton’s Staff warned about this possibility with a stunning degree of accuracy. The future of the project they warned about exists now, with the East end of the project contributing little for the public, instead offering the opposite of urban design and pedestrian experiences.

To rub it all in, Centene is considering leaving Clayton behind, which would serve as a massive blow to the local economy, even after said economy and public has contributed tens of millions of dollars and its literal physical landscape for the company’s benefit. For a corporation to leave its promises unfulfilled, shirk local regulations meant to improve livability, literally leave behind dust and vacant lots, and do it on the city’s dime is a phenomenal display while simultaneously slamming the public and its leaders. To threaten the city after benefiting so much from it, having experienced historic growth and taken advantage of vast incentives, physical capital, and human resources and sharply rebuke it is almost unthinkable.

Perhaps there is a lesson, or something at all to learn from this whole ordeal. Maybe it is about how cities handle phased developments like Centene’s proposed campus in the Special Development District. They pose massive risk for cities and their economic development officials. Corporate citizens don’t always act responsibly, and when awarding incentives, officials need to be cognizant of the fact that renderings are nothing but a pretty picture without a commitment to build. Without penalties, they might just be something sweet to distract from real plans or to keep the city hoping for what might eventually be.

Maybe it is about tax abatements as a whole as a strategy in a fragmented St. Louis Region. Or, perhaps about conflicts of interest and listening more to staff recommendations and warnings. Or, maybe it is that St. Louis must truly improve to keep its employment centers.

To break the fourth wall for a moment, I find myself at the end of it all feeling unsatisfied with each lesson, searching for something greater to end this article with to distract from the massive loss this represents. The damage to Clayton is done, and the risk of St. Louis losing a huge asset for its economy is huge. The deception on full display by Clayco and Centene officials, promising full transparency hurts. Without facing the public, they have escaped the scrutiny of abandoned promises and will not even comment for this article. Their comments at the public hearing read today as thinly veiled mistruths and simply as means to achieve the incentives they wished for, rather than real commitments to the community who cared enough to show up.

Let this be a costly, effective lesson for the region. Massive parking structures, phased developments never delivered, massive tax incentives, vacant lots, thinly-veiled threats, conflicts of interest, and thousands of jobs on the line – each of these should be their own headline. Together they represent an economic development tragedy for the region.

New Luxury Hotel in Clayton Revitalizing an Aging Landmark

The City of Clayton, just outside of the City of St. Louis limits, is in the middle of a fast-paced transformation that is reshaping its skyline and densifying its streets. From the under construction Forsyth Pointe towers, the Ritz Carlton renovation, Centene Centre, a new Bank of America branch, a new AC Hotel, to a new Residence Inn, there is so much underway that it would seem unlikely for the municipality to have a geographical area only 1 square mile larger than Tower Grove South.

And yet, that list is actually incomplete. Missing is the Le Meridien on Bonhomme, opening this Fall in the middle of a pandemic and a historic decline in tourism and business travel. While that might sound crazy, the demand for nicer accommodations in Clayton has been publicly stated by officials for years. The Clayton government has sought a Ritz Carlton competitor for years, which would help shore up solidify business travel in the hottest St. Louis area office market. Moreover, the development is a top-to-bottom renovation, so it is not actually bringing more rooms on market than existed prior to its renovation.

While the exterior is nearly covered in windows bringing a nearly floor-to-ceiling view experience to all guests and abundant, fresh accent lighting gives a modern feel, the original structure dates back to 1965. HOK Architects was chosen to take what is something of a landmark in the City of Clayton, with its wavy, brutalist street facing wall and overall aged façade into a hotel worthy of the wealthy visitors gracing Clayton with their business.

The Sheraton – Pre Renovation, St. Louis Post Dispatch

The Sheraton, a value-focused Marriott brand, was slowly becoming a poor fit for the neighborhood. With high-priced consultancy firms, tech startups, and banks filling Clayton’s impressive Downtown, a market strategy based on value exclusively – coupled with a need for massive capital improvements – led to the Sheraton’s demise. The structure, which occupies a large and visible parcel in the core of Downtown Clayton, was also quickly appearing less and less impressive in the face of the development boom surrounding it. The glass-clad towers and newly renovated spaces made its age all the more apparent.

The top-to-bottom renovation and upgraded brand position to a Le Meridien by Marriott is an admirable attempt to change course and bring about an offering more suited to the Clayton market. 268 modern rooms with luxury amenities, a rooftop pool and event space, “state of the art fitness center”, and proximity to neighboring businesses are all part of a new value proposition hinging on far more than price, which is still likely to be lower than its neighbor, the Ritz Carlton.

The panoramic views of Downtown Clayton, an attempt at a stylish mid-century modern design, and a fresh brand will really complement the Downtown Business District. The changes are comprehensive, going beyond improving the amenities and finishes inside, with a complete re-design of the exterior. Even the wavy street-facing wall is seeing a modernization. The wavy design is a much brighter gray, replacing the dirty beige seen for decades. It is important to note that although this is a big change, it is still a preservation of an old design – bringing it closer to today’s standards, but respecting the original intent in 1965. The guest room windows are perhaps the most striking difference to me, replacing small windows with nearly floor-to-ceiling glass panels, which not only makes a huge difference on its appearance, but also makes for a better experience inside.

St. Louis has experienced explosive growth in its hotel sector over the past few years, and it is certainly possible that the pandemic will significantly harm the service and hospitality industry in the region. With that being said, I would highly expect this renovation to withstand the economic challenges better than the many innovative spaces in Downtown St. Louis. While St. Louis City is resilient and hosts plenty of attractions, the Clayton office segment is incredibly strong. Even as the national conversation about office space centers around the work-from-home and its devastating impacts on commercial real estate, Clayton is leasing new towers before they are even complete like in the under-construction Forsyth Pointe. St. Louis City is not yet in that position, even though it is headed in that direction.

Regardless of where the development is in the region, the good news is that the St. Louis area is strong and attractive to businesses and developers alike even in these challenging times. From the Arch to Chesterfield, not even a pandemic can halt the progress and explosive growth of the region. Let’s keep that progress going.

A Changing South City: Development Renaissance Headed to More Neighborhoods

South St. Louis is seeing a host of development and infill, leading with neighborhoods like The Grove and Benton Park which are practically in a renaissance. With new, sometimes controversial luxury apartments in The Grove and home sales in Benton Park seeing sky high prices and bidding wars, these neighborhoods are showing a resilience and desirability factor reversing a half-century long real estate trend. And yet, other communities have yet, until now, to experience the same waterfall of investment despite their incredible architectural assets, diversity, and density.

St. Louis’ long history of population decline, led primarily by “white flight” in the second half of the 20th century, has turned dense neighborhoods upside down and left homes in abandon. Forest Park Southeast, oddly enough, saw the greatest population loss in South City from 1950-2017, according to Downtown Dutchtown. Yet, despite those losses, Forest Park Southeast is also seeing some of the most rapid growth amidst its recent rebound, likely due to its proximity to the Manchester retail corridor, the Cortex, and the Central West End.

Then there is Dutchtown, which experienced a severe population loss, but nothing like some of the more stable and popular neighborhoods we see today like Shaw and Forest Park Southeast. It goes against conventional wisdom to see that it is struggling more than its peers despite of its relative historical population stability.

However much neighborhoods like Dutchtown and Gravois Park have struggled to grow in the way other communities have been able to, the efforts of community groups and residents to stabilize homes and businesses has begun to pay off. A CID – Community Improvement District, a Neighborhood Innovation Center, and the relentless work of community building has begun to turn the tide on population loss in Dutchtown. Similarly, the strength of the Cherokee Street retail corridor and Benton Park housing market has added stability to Gravois Park, which has also benefited from rich architectural assets and population decline not as severe as some other neighborhoods.

With their newfound stability and proximity to neighborhoods experiencing rapid growth, development is beginning to spill over toward Dutchtown and Gravois Park. With that said, change is not always positive. It is fairly common for luxury housing stock to replace low-income housing, both replacing residents and the historical architectural character of a community. Even though the most recent studies on gentrification suggest that there was no sign of “large-scale departure of elderly or long-term homeowners” in their Philadelphia experiment, they recognize a higher risk of tax delinquency for those long-term residents. Studies that have now been around a few years show that gentrifying neighborhoods lose their affordable units at five times the rate as non-gentrifying neighborhoods. There are also benefits noted by both studies, including better quality of life and services like education, safety, higher property values, access to groceries, etc.

While the academic consensus is somewhat mixed on gentrification, it is still a process that should be considered thoughtfully by developers and urban enthusiasts in this context. Those cheering the introduction of predominantly luxury units in Gravois Park would have to acknowledge that the most tangible benefits would largely exclude current residents, with the service and quality of life benefits coming into play in the long-term. A better solution would be affordable units with attractive amenities, perhaps even utilizing the already existent housing stock. This is a tough pill to swallow for some developers – as profit margins are necessarily smaller and returns are less guaranteed, but that does not mean it is impossible.

3600 Texas pre-rehab – St. Louis Post Dispatch

Just ask Blackline Investments or Garcia Properties, and they’ll point to a path forward in these communities. In Gravois Park, developer Blackline Investments accomplished a restoration on 3600 Texas Ave (shown above), a former publishing building. Blackline converted the vacant historic structure into 15 updated apartments with higher quality features, with rents ranging from $765 to $1,195. These are far cry from the rents seen elsewhere like in the Central Corridor neighborhoods, remaining within the market range for Gravois Park, only with updates that provide more and better residential options.

The Restored 3600 Texas Ave – Blackline

Blackline Investments seems to now be moving toward the first new infill in Gravois Park in several years as well. Capitalizing off of the vacant land next-door to their original rehab, Blackline is planning a 12-unit, two-story building that with a decidedly modern aesthetic. First reported by Chris Strizel and his CitySceneSTL website, this development manages to introduce new residential units without demolishing historic brick homes. Each unit will be a one bedroom in a shotgun style, with a small parking lot behind the structure.

There is a zoning request to reclassify the land for multi-family usage, in addition to a 10-year, 95% tax abatement. The current assessed value of the land is $4,330 and the construction costs are anticipated to be $950,000. The low cost is likely attributed to the attractive costs of acquiring and maintaining property in Dutchtown.

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There are bound to be reasonable questions about the request for a tax abatement. In fact, developer requests and subsequent approvals of TIFs (Tax Incremented Financing) were recently subject to an audit by State Auditor and candidate for Missouri Governor, Nicole Galloway. Her report found that St. Louis lacks a standardized policy for awarding TIFs and often grants them to developers proposing projects in the wealthiest parts of the city. The audit grants legitimacy to arguments of advocates within the city who have long criticized the city for its method of granting awards to developers.

With that being said, a tax abatement in a neighborhood like Gravois Park seems as though it might accomplish what advocates have long hoped for. In a decidedly developing neighborhood that has seen little previous investment, a tax abatement is perhaps necessary for a developer to break even or make a profit. In a project like this one, the units would seem to also benefit members of the community by not pricing nearby residents out of the new units or by demolishing nearby structures.

These two projects alone would be enough to turn some heads about where development is shifting in South City, but a third major renovation is poised to revitalize the edge of Gravois Park at the intersection of Grand and Gravois. This is a notoriously busy intersection with large streets, but the built environment is full of potential.

The South Side National Bank Tower, depicted in the photo to the right of the map below, was nearly demolished in favor of a Walgreens at the turn of the 20th century. Preservationists balked at the plan, and the Lawrence Group and West End Realty began a rehabilitation project to convert the upper units into condominiums and restore the commercial spaces at street level. Although the project was a huge victory for urbanism and historic preservation, the intersection still struggles today. However, just across the street sits the Grandview Arcade Building, a former theater with a gorgeous façade.

Grandview Arcade Building – Google Street View

In 2018, Garcia Properties acquired the building pictured above after plans to rehabilitate it under The Lawrence Group did not come to fruition. Garcia properties hoped to break ground on a renovation in 2019, but the project had gone silent until just this month. The delay sparked fears that this project would end up going nowhere, but finally the plan resurfaced with a solid path forward.

It turned out that the holdup had occurred in the State of Missouri’s Historic Tax Credit office, although the credits were finally granted. The office had seen major cuts under former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, and projects like these are the victims. Garcia Properties wrote on Instagram that the project is not “out of the woods yet”, suggesting there is much difficult work ahead given the rough shape of the building.

The Grandview Arcade is no small project. Combined with Blackline’s residential developments on the East side of Gravois Park, these developments represent a turning point offering both residential and commercial additions that add to rather than subtract from the neighborhood. With historical preservation, renovation, and infill on vacant lots, they offer up a type of neighborhood revitalization that avoids some of the more negative methods like demolition and a sole focus on luxury housing and little for current residents.

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A similar process is beginning to play out in Dutchtown, with renovations capitalizing off of its current historical and structural assets. In fact, Blackline Investments is about to undertake a rehabilitation of a school at 4021 Iowa Ave. The former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School will likely become 25 market-rate apartments, part of a $4.9 million renovation.

School-to-apartment conversions are all the rage across the city, made possible by the St. Louis Public School system having experienced a large decline in the number of students over the past several decades. As a result, a number of schools have become up vacant and abandoned, with many in poor condition and in need of major work.

Dutchtown is home to two of these vacant schools. The former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School (pictured on the left) is the more readily useable, and the former Cleveland High School (right) in a more dire state. The latter has suffered fires, innumerable break ins, and is boarded up, covered in ivy, and showcasing windows upon windows of broken glass.

Although the former Cleveland High School is in rough shape, things appear to be headed in the right direction. Dutchtown is seeking proposals for the site, and rehabs are picking up steam of smaller residential properties within the neighborhood. An active proposal for one of two abandoned schools speaks volumes about the demand present in the community, and also lays the groundwork for a future redevelopment of the former Cleveland High School should it be successful.

Coupled with the restoration of “Downtown Dutchtown” along Meramec St., with businesses offering innovative concepts like the Urban Eats food hall or cute clothing boutiques, Dutchtown is building its own unique character and picking up steam. With its very own retail corridor, residential conversions, and affordable housing stock renovations coming from Rise, the stabilization is already well underway. The Dutchtown CID is providing infrastructural support to retail along the street, and the Neighborhood Innovation Center is setting up its own plans to invigorate and support the business community.

Meramec St. – Downtown Dutchtown – Google Street View

That Dutchtown and Gravois Park are seeing positive developments that support current residents, maintain and restore historic architecture, infill vacant lots, and increase density is something of a wonder for the city. With development having catered to predominantly wealthier individuals and staying primarily within the central corridor neighborhoods, many St. Louis communities saw very little outside investment and contributed to tax subsidies for projects that did not benefit their residents directly.

Hopefully these projects are the beginning a more inclusive style of restoration that more communities can be a part of. They demonstrate the intrinsic value of St. Louis’ historic housing stock, which when cared for, can become the building block for a community’s revival. They also showcase a very positive usage of tools available like Historic Tax Credits and tax abatements, bolstering neighborhoods that need the help and filling a market gap for developers where a gap actually exists. Developments in Clayton, for example, are far less likely to be in need of tax assistance when the community is majority high-income and demand is strong.

St. Louis communities have so much to offer, even those outside the central corridor. Density, diversity, and historical character are valuable and it seems that truth is set to finally revitalize South City in a more equitable manner.

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Gourmet Nachos & Narwhal’s Concept coming to The Grove

Most of the articles I have written lately have begun with a note regarding the incredible amount of development taking place in Forest Park Southeast and The Grove. With this new dual-restaurant concept proposed at Chouteau and Vandeventer, not to mention 7 large residential projects expected soon south of Manchester by Green Street, that seems poised to be the case for some time.

Dubbed the “Narwhals Grove Project”, the former gas station occupying the corner lot at 4014 Chouteau is being redeveloped into a dual-restaurant space by Narwhal’s Crafted and Pickleman’s owners Brad Merten and Brandon Holzhueter. Currently vacant and recently utilized by U-HAUL, the structure will be significantly renovated and revitalized to maximize the odd characteristics of the triangular and narrow lot, shown below. This lot has been something of an eyesore despite being an entry point to the otherwise vibrant neighborhood.

Aerial view provided by the Forest Park Southeast Development Committee

Merten and Holzhueter are planning to rehab the existing structure and create a common point of entry for the two businesses that will be onsite. The Narwhal’s side will likely share similar branding as the Narwhal’s Crafted locations, but with some room for variation given the proximity of the Narhwal’s Crafted on Laclede in the Central West End. Even with the other Narwhal’s so close, Merten and Holzhueter noted the existing nightlife, density, and characteristics of The Grove as major factors of their decision.

The other restaurant is a new concept for the two owners, a fast-casual gourmet nacho eatery, with new takes on nacho dishes that are not yet available in the region. The nacho restaurant is likely to be called “Loaded Nachos”, and a sample menu that was shown in the Development Committee meeting on September 15 revealed a surprisingly versatile nacho selection, with appetizer and entre options that also offered options for those with dietary restrictions.

The focus on both will be fun, with games and activities on offer under a shared covered patio. There will also be an interior dining room and uncovered patio, offering several different spaces for patrons. Those who have visited other Narwhal’s locations will feel at home with the indoor/outdoor experience. However, there will be a new open-front kitchen to add an additional layer of engagement for guests.

Basic renderings and plans for the location provided by Forest Park Southeast Development Committee

The triangular lot will also see a large amount of beautification, with landscaping and improvements occupying parts of the lot that are not large enough for activity or for structures. There will be a permanent art installation incorporating their signage as well. Although the property is small, the owners are making sure to include ADA parking spaces.

The Park Central Forest Park Southeast Development Committee supports the proposal, although it does not have official approval capacity. Instead, it serves as a recommendation and review board. It recommends a series of variances that would approve a pick-up window, a lower height request for the patio wall facing the street, and the patio covering. Should there be any other proposed changes, the recommendation requires the owners to come back to the committee.

Notably, this lot is actually being sold by the Koman Group/KDG, who developed the CHROMA luxury apartments next-door. Koman/KDG have been heavily involved in the process of finding a suitable buyer that is beneficial for their residents next-door and that fits the vibrancy and eclectic atmosphere of the neighborhood as a whole. Although they had intended to build more residential units on this lot, the shape and size proved too difficult to design around. The good news is that instead of maintaining a vacant lot in The Grove that all visitors and residents coming from the East would have to drive through, they put in the effort to fill the space with a vendor that seems intent on adding to the neighborhood positively.

This should be a substantial improvement to this location, helping fill another lot at the corner of the neighborhood that might otherwise dissuade residents or patrons from entering and enjoying the neighborhood amenities.

Front view of the former gas station provided by Forest Park Southeast Development Committee

Stay tuned for news of official approval, opening dates, and more information on this development. Feel free to comment below or on our social channels.

Residential Development in The Grove meets controversy as Plans Change after Demolitions

The Grove is in the midst of a development boom, with a new project or business entry announced seemingly every week. There is an incredible amount of momentum, driven by a stable business and restaurant community on Manchester and the residential stability granted by the CWE, Cortex, and Forest Park’s amenities. Many of these developments are celebrated by members of the community for adding density, tax revenue, and support for the nearby businesses, which is of particular importance in the age of COVID.

The latest proposal, spearheaded by Amy and Amrit GIll of Restoration STL, instead finds itself in the middle of a controversy. The latest Forest Park Southeast Development Committee packet reveals a larger-than-expected residential structure, dubbed the Arbor on Arco, shown above. (Clarification: The Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association is a separate entity from the Forest Park Southeast Development Committee. The latter is run through Park Central Development and will see the proposal, the former has no control over the proposal despite efforts to become more involved in the process). The Arbor on Arco will offer 152 units atop of a wood-frame construction and one story podium. Also visible is an amenity deck supposedly with a pool on the second floor, a feature that is becoming very common and has a lot of potential benefits as residents increasingly seek outdoor space to complement their indoor units.

Added density is an important element for retail corridors like the one steps away from the proposal on Manchester, a benefit recognized by community members I was able to speak to regarding this project. However, it is within the business practices of developer Restoration STL where the controversy comes in to play. Those who have followed Restoration STL might know that this project has roots back to 2018, when Restoration STL provided a rendering of a 95-unit, brick-clad structure, shown just below. The initial rendering revealed an urban feeling designed to emulate a row of historic brownstones and maintain architectural compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the units would be accessible from the street, and the structure had a greater emphasis on brick construction, not relying on a podium and enclosing residents off into an amenity space. This project, too, would provide significant added density.

Provided by user urban_dilettante on the UrbanSTL forums

This section of the street, from 4211 to 4239 Arco, previously contained a row of brick-clad single and multi-family residences. Each of them had their own entryways, similar to the feel and design replicated by the original 2018 rendering above. This is important because it is the very first 2018 rendering that Restoration STL used as the basis for their project, justifying their demolition. Most of these buildings were vacant and dilapidated according to Restoration STL, but in the The Grove housing market there is generally very little real vacancy when homes are listed, even when in need of renovation.

Location, provided by Google Maps

Some of these buildings, as can be seen below, were entirely salvageable, even in better shape than the buildings that Drury Hotels is demolishing through neglect. The leftmost building was demolished last month. While it looked less than perfect, was in a structural condition that could have been saved. With fresh brick tuck pointing on its side, and seemingly a relatively solid looking stone foundation, this building would be ripe for a redevelopment.

View of the structures on Arco, as provided by Google Street View

Residents I have spoken to expressed a feeling of dismay, feeling as though they have been victim of a “bait and switch” tactic by Restoration STL for demolishing historical structures under a false promise. Many had been excited by the original proposal, far-cry from NIMBY-ism, looking forward to the addition to the neighborhood and the added density. The rendering would have fit well with the form-based code of the neighborhood, honoring the history of the block.

Many residents feel that the strategy by Restoration STL leaves the community little choice but to approve of their new proposal. Because the demolition has already occurred, there is now nothing left to save. Yet, they did so under the guise of a development that actually fit the neighborhood’s architectural character. The old rendering and project details are still currently and publicly displayed on their website. Now that so much is gone, those residents prefer the new proposal to vacant land in the heart of the Manchester strip, where Manchester meets Arco. The added density is such a positive, and the design isn’t so bad that it should be rejected, but it reflects a business practice that is deceptive to members of the community who care about their physical surroundings.

The Arbor on Arco project cost is slated to come in at a total of $32 million, with 134 1-bedroom and 18 2-bedroom units. It will be presented at the Forest Park Southeast Development Committee meeting on September 15th at 5:30 PM. Those interested can listen in on Zoom, following the instructions in the packet.

A Sneak Peak at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea, coming to The Grove in October

Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is coming to The Grove this October, with local owners Jason and Leah Rooney poised to introduce a the first of the premium-targeted and family-friendly coffee franchise to the St. Louis market. I had the pleasure of meeting Jason for a pre-opening tour of the facility and was given a rundown of all the intricacies of opening a new coffee shop in the middle of the pandemic.

Product Display

Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea was founded in 1993 in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan campus. With a focus on high-end, real ingredients and a love for coffee, co-founders Wei and Lisa now run several corporate locations, and together with locally owned franchises, the Sweetwaters brand can be found at 45 locations. Rooney hopes to expand on their success with what he intends to be the flagship Sweetwaters location in St. Louis, located in the “Heart of The Grove” on Manchester.

It is a strikingly challenging and complicated time to be a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, but Rooney intends to offer a unique set of drinks and activities in an accessible setting to a neighborhood with relatively little competition. The only other coffee shop in the vicinity is Rise Coffee, which Rooney himself praises. Rise offers more of an eclectic style, while Rooney intends for Sweetwaters to have a broader audience and a host of beverage options that will be new to the region.

Jason and Leah are aiming to open Sweetwaters within the first two weeks of October, first for a “Friends and Family Celebration” to give the staff a chance to practice for a four hour setting before opening to the public. A sizable portion of those proceeds will benefit charitable organizations.

Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is very community oriented as far as charities and integrating with the community, being there for lots of local events.

Jason Rooney

There is a lot of opportunity and energy that Leah and Jason intend to capitalize on in the neighborhood. With a fresh and modern space in the Chomra luxury apartment community, Sweetwaters will capitalize on its storefront to create a “third space” for a recent and continued influx of nearby residents. Jason emphasized a desire to not just serve the local community, but also the greater St. Louis region, an ambitious task for any small business. Their physical space will be a platform not just for local community events, but for community non-profits and charities that need a retail partner. Jason, who grew up in St. Louis, decided with Leah that St. Louis was the best city to raise their family of four children and start their business, specifically choosing a Sweetwaters franchise because its mission relates to their own and expresses the values and importance of charitable impact they hold.

Jason and Leah Rooney

With only a few weeks left until their opening, the staff is working hard to prepare for the “Friends and Family Celebration”, the very first time that the shop will open its doors to members of the public. The celebration will be the official start of a Grand Opening week, taking lessons from their day of practice and then opening to the public with a special promotion each day to build excitement and ensure people try their more unique and different beverages.

It took a long time to get to this stage, however. The Rooney’s first intended to open Sweetwaters in March, but ended up pushing back their opening just as COVID-19 began to spread. While the virus was not the only factor in the delay, the time ended up helping the staff prepare and plan. The delay was a positive, but added to an already long process. Jason and Leah valued taking their time and getting things right, even charting their own path patiently as they looked for the perfect space for their coffee shop. When they first began looking for a space, their real estate broker found plenty of adequate locations, ones with drive-throughs, others in the suburbs, and some even Downtown, but nothing felt right. They ended up doing their own research, ultimately finding this location in The Grove themselves. They knew almost immediately that this space, in the “heart of The Grove” and in a contemporary, dense development, fit every criteria. It would not only fit the store, but the brand itself and their many ambitions for how they would serve the neighborhood.

We probably couldn’t have written a better location and a better fit for what the brand is.”

Jason Rooney

Picking The Grove and Chroma in particular made sense to the Rooney’s. With 235 units in the first phase of the development alone, Hue opening this fall with more than a hundred more, and 4400 Manchester opening shortly, there has been an influx of dense residential units in the neighborhood. These developments are just the tip of the iceberg with more along the way. Rooney hopes that Sweetwaters will complement Rise and help serve a growing, diverse demographic in the community.

There were so many neighborhoods Jason and Leah considered, from Maplewood to University City, but the density, walkability, and competitive landscape of The Grove were deciding factors. The encouragement and support of the neighborhood and building sealed the deal. This particular location offered a contemporary storefront that they felt would fit their premium brand well and would provide the best experience for nearby residents.

One of the more interesting final candidates for locations was a retail spot, now to be occupied by a Starbucks, in the newest Ballpark Village phase. They loved the new buildings, but felt that the stronger residential aspect of Forest Park Southeast and The Grove would contribute to a more stable business environment not dependent on a game day crowd. They would love to support Downtown St. Louis, but this problem emphasizes the type of issues Downtown, even as it sees a growing residential population, faces. St. Louis, with its fragmented neighborhoods, still has much to do to make its downtown attractive to families and businesses. It’s impossible to deny the progress it has made so far, however.

A view of Chroma from a table inside Sweetwaters

The support from the building management in Chroma has been outstanding, and Jason is grateful for the support from the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Residents have also provided incredible support and interest, fielding constant questions to their social accounts.

We are here to serve the community and give them a product they love and enjoy. We think this will enhance the neighborhood.

Jason Rooney

Meeting their expectations is paramount to the Rooneys. Opening a business during COVID, particularly one in the food-service industry, is complicated. The Rooney’s want to ensure everyone is safe and feels safe and will emphasize and abide by all city and CDC guidelines. They do not want anyone catching anything because they missed something. When things begin opening up and getting safer, they hope to fully realize a coffee concept built with events in mind.

From Friday Game Nights to live music to adult coloring evenings, etc., they hope to hold all sorts of events for community members. COVID unfortunately changes the equation a bit, but they hope to eventually implement these events at a large scale and then some to make Sweetwaters an event space that contributes to an active, social lifestyle for those in the neighborhood and beyond. Jason hopes to incorporate some events sooner, but does not yet know exactly what those will look like.

Coffee Bar

Jason is looking forward to winning people over and building brand awareness for Sweetwaters. In his mind, this is really the first and most important step. Sweetwaters has a number of proprietary drinks and blends that you can’t find elsewhere. You cannot even buy Sweetwaters blended coffee offered at any other coffee shop. One of Jason’s favorites is a special Ginger Lemon Tea, which complements their soda-like Ginger Lemon Fizz. That have that bottled now, in regular and raspberry flavors. The Ginger Fizz can be served hot, which apparently not only tastes great, but can be helpful when you have a cold.

They also have a couple of different frozen drinks, like the ice cream based cold brew based on Hawaiian coffee blends and Hawaiian coffee culture. Jason stands by it, proudly claiming that it is the best frozen drink he has had in his life. They also have Strawberry Lemonade and regular Lemonade freezes. These too use fresh berries and real ingredients. The Lemonade comes from lemons and actual lemon juice. Similarly, there is no strawberry syrup or juice – just strawberries.

Sweetwaters Interior

While there are many coffee shops and chains around St. Louis, this is a opening that I find truly interesting. It is not every day that a new chain starts up in the city, in particular one that offers something different. It also highlights the development and continued economic successes of neighborhoods in the Central Corridor and The Grove in particular, with the influx of residents and large residential complexes fueling small businesses. More than anything, it is refreshing to hear the passion of a local business owner who loves and sees value in St. Louis, and who plans to use his business as a platform to make peoples’ lives better.

Pastry Bar and Entry

Stay tuned for details on their Grand Opening as October gets closer! In the meantime, you can follow their social accounts here:

Facebook

Sweetwaters Website

The Changing Face of DeBaliviere

Development across St. Louis shows few signs of slowing down, even amidst a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. While there may be some evidence of reduced demand for office space as many companies adapt to remote work, residential development is chugging along at a rapid pace. Commercial leases have seen the largest impact during the COVID crisis, but residential payments have, at least so far, been consistent. Within St. Louis City, there are several hundred new rental units poised to enter the market over the next couple years, and that’s just including those currently under construction.

This incredible amount of residential demand might feel bizarre for a city hosting reports of record population decline. These reports hardly tell the full story of St. Louis demographics and historical population shifts, however. For those unfamiliar with some of the history of St. Louis, here is a little bit of a refresher to provide some context.

The city shed tens of thousands of generally more white, affluent residents to the county over the past several decades, while urban renewal programs simultaneously demolished Black-owned businesses and homes. Today, the cycle looks and feels different, in that the central corridor (generally referencing to the area stretching from Clayton to Downtown) is seeing incredibly high levels of residential occupancy and development to support high-paying tech and medical jobs. Just a few miles north, however, the city is seeing an exodus of Black residents who are leaving neighborhoods historically lacking investment that have been ravaged by urban renewal programs, redlining, and more.

This context is important to remember as we discuss the changing face of St. Louis. It is an uncomfortable juxtaposition as we have much to be proud of in the new and growing industries that pay well and require degrees that provide demand for more luxury housing. A healthy city must have possess and nurture these assets to attract residents and development. And yet, a healthy city also must support and revive its neighborhoods like in North St. Louis that it has done so much harm to.

WashU Neuroscience Research Building – Under Construction

That note is important when discussing the Skinker-DeBaliviere and DeBaliviere Place neighborhoods, which house a dense, urban mix of residents across the income scale. Bordering Washington University, Forest Park, the Central West End, and Delmar Boulevard, these neighborhoods and specifically DeBaliviere Avenue contain those with extraordinary wealth to those with very little. The rapid growth of the Central West End and Washington University, however, have certainly been skewing the neighborhoods toward the wealthy end of that spectrum.

Alongside the demographic shifts underway in the neighborhood are physical, tangible changes in housing and amenities. Brick-clad duplexes are demolished in favor of hulking complexes with hundreds of units, like Tribeca on Pershing. These developments, again, often resemble healthy aspects of a growing city with more prosperous residents. This it is why I preface this article with the juxtaposition and struggles of St. Louis disinvestment in predominantly Black communities. I hope to suggest that while we can and often should be happy with developments like these, we need to be conscious and wary of investment patterns and racial discrimination to actually make the city whole. As great as large mutli-family complexes can be for urbanism, growth in central corridor occupancy will not and has not been making up for population decline in North St. Louis.

While Tribeca itself shifts the fabric of the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood with a multitude of new residents in luxury units, there is much, much more in the pipeline. Few places in St. Louis are experiencing quite as much change as the Skinker-DeBaliviere and DeBaliviere Place neighborhoods. Three massive developments are underway right now, which will bring hundreds of expensive units and replace existing infrastructure. The three developments include The Chelsea on Pershing, the Expo at Forest Park on DeBaliviere, and The Hudson, also on DeBaliviere.

The Chelsea on Pershing is the most far along, bringing another luxury apartment community by Lux Living to Pershing. Lux Living also completed Tribeca in 2018, bringing “smart” amenities to the neighborhood, including a robot butler that would bring beer and other snacks to residents in their apartments. Although Mission Rock Residential recently acquired Tribeca, the new Chelsea community will look and feel very similar and remain operated by Lux Living, at least at the onset.

Tribeca on Pershing

The Chelsea will seem to retain similar structural themes and design elements, with a greater emphasis on brick than its Tribeca sibling. It will likewise rise seven stories above ground, add 152 apartments to the street, and several other impressive amenities. Some noteworthy additions include a two-story fitness center, “lobby bistro”, arcade bar, golf lounge, and even a rock-climbing wall.

The Chelsea – provided by Lux Living

Lux Living hopes to open the Chelsea in late 2020, introducing some of the most unique apartments in St. Louis at one of the most uncertain times in recent history. Such a bet is supported, at least, by one of the most dense neighborhoods in St. Louis, rivaling even parts of New York City. DeBaliviere Place certainly has high residential demand and can likely support a coffee bistro, something it oddly lacks. With the relative density of the neighborhood, significant amount of mid-to-high income residents, and urban streetscape, there has been a strange lack of retail and commercial for years along Pershing, Waterman, etc. Outside of Pura Vegan Cafe and West End Bistro, residents had to make their way to Delmar or to the Central West End for the nearest dining options.

The Chelsea – Under Constructi

Just a two or three minute walk west of the Chelsea is the site for The Hudson (310 DeBaliviere), at the intersection of Pershing and DeBaliviere. Construction has already begun on the foundation for another large residential apartment community on what was formerly the St. Louis Italian Restaurant and Pizza Co.

Construction Site for 310 DeBaliviere

Lux Living’s second active construction in the neighborhood is considered transit-oriented-development (TOD), located just steps from the Forest Park Metrolink station and bus connectors. TOD is being actively pushed for across the transit corridor in St. Louis, with examples including the Sunnen Station Apartments, Everly on the Loop, and a 10 acre community to be developed by Pearl Companies next to UMSL.

The Hudson – rendering found on CitySceneSTL

The Hudson is set to bring added density and more options for residents in the city looking for a car-free lifestyle. With 150 units proposed and direct access to the Metrolink, residents will not need a car if they work within the central corridor or otherwise near a station. This is an amenity that, while growing in popularity in St. Louis, is still rather difficult to find given the limited size of the light-rail Metrolink. TOD is critical for good urban landscapes, helping people achieve healthier lifestyles, avoid traffic-filled commutes, and interact more with local businesses and their neighbors. St. Louis is somewhat behind on TOD, versus cities like Chicago, New York, or Boston. Granted, these cities are larger than St. Louis, but their metro systems are easily accessible to residents in urban settings and provide people the option of living car-free.

While we do not know exactly what amenities will be offered at The Hudson just yet, we have some information to work off of. Plans include a retail space at the corner, below what appears to be an amenity deck on the second floor in the rendering above. In a dense setting like what is being built on DeBaliviere and Pershing, mixed-use setups with retail go a long way toward increasing quality of life. For residents without cars, or who don’t want to go far for their services, dining, or casual necessities, nearby commercial spaces fill a critical void and add to a more urban, lively feel on the street.

The residents at The Hudson will have other options beside the corner retail space, however. While they can choose to walk down Pershing toward the cafe planned in The Chelsea, they will find even more just across DeBaliviere at Pearl Companies’ own TOD apartment project. The Expo on the Park will be directly adjacent to the Metrolink platform as well, but will stretch down DeBaliviere all the way to Waterman as well as down De Giverville.

The gallery just above showcases the Expo at Forest Park development from Forest Park Parkway (first), from DeBaliviere and Pershing (second), from Forest Park Parkway again (third), and on De Giverville (fourth). This development is a behemoth, bringing 471,000 square feet of new construction and 287 new units, nearing the number of new apartments at the new One Hundred skyscraper in the Central West End. Current plans also call for 30,000 square feet of retail space across the two buildings (separated by De Giverville).

Those familiar with the area may have already noticed the demolition of the strip mall previously located on DeBaliviere, cleared to make way for the Expo development. The retail component of the new buildings will go a long way toward ensuring this section of DeBaliviere remains active and dense, but with a different feel than before. There were several smaller businesses in the old strip mall that may or may not find new homes. While the Expo at Forest Park undoubtedly creates a nicer, more modern atmosphere that will look and feel much more urban, these businesses are being pushed out of a very dense neighborhood and could struggle to recover.

The good news is that, for current residents, the new retail spaces will reportedly include a grocery store. Similar to the surprising lack of restaurants and retail space for the number of closely packed residents, there were also no grocery stores within walking distance to most houses and apartments in the Skinker-DeBaliviere and DeBaliviere Place neighborhoods. The nearest would likely be the United Provisions on Delmar or the Straubs in the Central West End, neither particularly convenient to access without owning a car. This is also the kind of retail that will be useful for residents across the income scale, assuming the grocery chain chosen is not ultra-luxurious or reflective of a very granular specialty.

With nearly 450 units in the Hudson and Expo at Forest Park projects and the additional 150 at The Chelsea, the DeBaliviere strip is poised to see a large influx of wealthy residents and an entirely new streetscape. This amount of residential development eclipses or matches almost anywhere else in the region, including the Central West End and Downtown.

While DeBaliviere Place and Skinker DeBaliviere have their own unique neighborhood assets and a “feel” that is different from that of the traditionally more urban Central West End, I suspect that the line is going to blur more than ever as the neighborhoods near the CWE quickly densify. With luxury apartments hosting hundreds of units and activated retail spaces, this corridor might soon resemble the kind of urban spaces found on Maryland and Euclid, or other special corridors filled with pedestrians, restaurants, and other commercial spaces.

This development is an intriguing, generally healthy aspect for St. Louis. My caution is less about this development as a whole, but more about the kinds of investment St. Louis is seeing. We can and should cheer for density, urbanism, and TOD, as long as we also advocate for urban policy and investment that creates places for the kinds of small businesses lost in the demolished strip mall, or the residents not even a mile north of these developments just past Delmar. These apartment communities will not end the reduction of population in St. Louis, rather, they will just slow them down. That is a good thing that they will do so, and I am happy to see St. Louis offer urban amenities not usually found in this region that others might simply expect in a top-tier city. But, as stewards of the city, let us at least be aware of the juxtaposition of the luxury and the poverty, and seek to simultaneously invest in industries unlike healthcare and tech that are accessible to those without degrees. That will be the day that St. Louis makes itself a truly better city.

Golden Grocer to move to Forest Park Southeast

The development boom in Forest Park Southeast continues, with Golden Grocer taking over and rehabilitating the former K9 Athletic Club building at 4501 Choutaeu Ave. Currently operating in the Central West End, the Golden Grocer offers plant-based food and smoothies, as well as a food subscription service intended to make consistent healthy eating easier.

The Golden Grocer will expand their operations with their Forest Park Southeast location, slated to open in October of this year. Plans include 2500 square feet of space with 18 foot ceilings to accommodate a cafe and bulk section, which will include bulk herbs and spices. They will also offer produce, grocery, and beauty aisles to complement the cafe. Their website also includes that their space will be open to various vendors offering plant-based food, adding a unique element to the open-concept space. Developments in St. Louis that operate with more than one food vendor are rising in popularity, from the City Foundry to Urban Eats in Dutchtown.

Golden Grocer Rendering, provided by the Golden Grocer

The Golden Grocer is extensively rehabilitating the building on Chouteau, as can be seen in the rendering above, contrasted to the old structure depicted just below. This location has been something of an eye-sore for the neighborhood, which effectively served as the entry to the community from the Central West End and Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex on Taylor Ave.

Google Street View of 4501 Chouteau

Much like the Drury buildings falling into disrepair closer to Kingshighway, this property has presented a false image of the Forest Park Southeast and Grove neighborhoods. They contrast the thriving retail corridor on Manchester, which is seeing new commercial and residential spaces added at an incredible pace. This addition to the neighborhood will begin to resolve these contrasts, while also contributing to the character the the community with a unique and modern offering.

While the Golden Grocer represents a new healthy offering to FPSE, it also introduces a Black-owned business to the neighborhood under the leadership of Jamila Owens-Todd. There are concerns, many of them reasonable, about the segregation of wealth in St. Louis. Forest Park Southeast and the Grove have enjoyed incredible growth, and seeing that at least in some way that the fruits of that success are shared in the community is something to be proud of in a neighborhood with a rich heritage of diversity and pride. Owens-Todd is also utilizing a local designer, Mwanzi Co., to bring about her vision for this space. This is the kind of local, neighborhood-level development that thriving neighborhoods should seek out and welcome.

Residential Conversion announced for 300 S. Broadway

The momentum downtown continues with the recently announced plans for 300 S. Broadway. With the occupancy and leasing at the new One Cardinal Way building inching closer to capacity, it appears the market for more residential units in the heart of downtown is strong, particularly near Ballpark Village.

Chris Strizel and CitySceneSTL first broke the news this week, revealing a historically conscious renovation with 80 new apartments, an extra floor added, and ground-floor retail space that will capitalize on the added commercial activity in the newest BPV phase. The apartments are tentatively called “Ballpark Flats”. It seems that rooftops are all the rage in recent city developments, from The Last Hotel to Form Skybar, and now this rooftop amenity space for residents. Tenants at the new One Cardinal Way will not have a monopoly on views of the game, with the 300 S. Broadway developers including a bleacher setup facing the stadium.

Ballpark Flats Exterior

For those who have been following 300 S. Broadway, this development, courtesy of Bamboo Equity Partners and Pier Property Group, should come as a relief. As I covered earlier this month, the location has seen its ups and downs over the past few years. From grandiose skyscraper renderings to potential demolition, this property with so much potential has waited for far to long to see its revival.

Broadway Flats Rooftop

St. Louis will now consider what incentives are necessary to help the project prevail, although CitySceneSTL reports a requested 10 year 90% tax abatement. While tax abatements are certainly controversial in a city with sometimes troubled finances, this appears to be a solid, long-term addition to the city poised to contribute to the tax base with increased sales tax activity in the area and the promise of substantial property tax revenue in the future. This, no doubt, is much better than the abandoned building standing today.

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