This Week in Urbanism: A Growing Skyline | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

TRANSCRIPT BELOW

You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro

I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.

Today is March 11th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about the many new high-rise towers that are going to change up the skyline and the St. Louis urban experience in the next few years.

Over the last few years, we’ve been on a building boom here in St. Louis. Our urban core has seen extensive investment ranging from Downtown St. Louis to Downtown Clayton, forming an ever-denser Central Corridor. We’ve discussed in the past how there is a large disparity in development based on race and location here in St. Louis, like in many other cities, but today we’re going to talk primarily about how this central corridor itself is really booming.

So why am I talking about towers? Well, I think they’re pretty cool for one! I like a good skyline. And you regular listeners know that I love some good density. One of the great things about high rise towers is that they’re efficient in land and utility usage, and when placed optimally, can really encourage walking, transit usage, and contribute to a 15-minute city and a more pleasant built environment.

Sometimes a tower isn’t what you want. Putting one in rural Missouri probably wouldn’t make sense, because you need enough demand to fill the many units and a location that serves the density. Without restaurants, transit, institutions, or other interesting things nearby, there’s little reason for people to live or work in one. Still, in an urban environment, they can be a great tool in city building. Of course, something awkward in STL is that we have an empty tower downtown – the AT&T tower. It’s actually under contract, and I’m hoping that the sale completes, but it’s important to note that sometimes when towers are built so large and with inefficient layouts, their reuse can be challenging because of the sheer cost.

Right, so let’s talk about some of what we’re going to see go up in the St. Louis area over the next few years. The first one that I want to talk about is really the one that I’m the most excited about. The Koplar family, a rather prolific developer in the region, announced a high-rise residential building to fill one of the vacant parking lots in the Central West End at Lindell and Kingshighway. I mean, you’ve got to go to the physical story I post on the website to check out the rendering. It looks incredibly. The building fronts Forest Park in one of the city’s best urban neighborhoods and will be directly adjacent to the impressive 100 on The Park building just next-door that keeps winning architectural awards. Anyway, this building will be just a smidgeon shorter and will have a curved, glass façade with rooftop amenities and balconies on some floors. It was designed to compliment both the 100 and the Chase Park Plaza next-door, a building designed by the grandfather of the Koplar family member who proposed this project.

The building is going to rise 30 stories above the park and have a total of 293 apartment units, with two ground-floor retail spaces and lots of amenities. So, to be clear, we’re talking about replacing a simple surface parking lot that was barely utilized with a gorgeous tower, retail, and density adjacent to one of the best urban parks in the country, tons of restaurants, and light-rail nearby. That’s phenomenal. The Central West End skyline is growing quickly, and the nearby 100 on the Park tower is leasing quickly and reliably as well even considering the high rents. It seems that demand within the city, at least within this neighborhood, is driving some incredible growth.

Speaking of the city, there are multiple other towers to speak of in varying stages of the proposal-to-construction process. Already underway at the massively successful City Foundry development, where a Fresh Thyme grocery store, future Alamo Drafthouse, mini-putting, retail, food hall, and office-space are located, the next phase of the project is already underway. Just along Vandeventer Ave., the developer (The Lawrence Group) is already moving dirt and beginning construction on a 14-story residential apartment tower and a 5-story office building. These will be connected to the City Foundry site that is already in place. We’re looking at about 270 apartments, many with balconies, a large amenity deck with a pool, 83,000 square feet of office space, and 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. According to CityScene-STL, the project will be the first in the region to utilize mass timber construction, a much more sustainable material.

Also interestingly, in part of the tax incentive process, a deal was arranged with the city that provides almost $2 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I’m hoping that we’ll see similar deals agreed upon in the region in the future. While subsidies might sometimes still be required for a project to actually be completed, it seems reasonable to arrange a win-win scenario for each party.

I think this project has a whole lot of potential, too. The residents will have access to an incredible list of amenities. They’ll be able to head downstairs to tons of entertainment, food, and even a grocery store. It’s also my favorite grocery store. It’s also part of Midtown, which has plenty of its own entertainment – not to mention the campus of Saint Louis University. It’s also close to the Cortex and Grand MetroLink stops, not to mention the #70 Grand bus route, which is the busiest in the state. In terms of reducing car dependence, this development, despite its large garage, has a whole lot of potential. It’s also going to truly change the skyline for Midtown, while also fostering a connection to the nearby Central West End.

So, speaking of Midtown, there’s quite a lot more to speak of. While not a tower specifically, just adjacent to the second Foundry phase is a 7-story residential apartment proposal that will actually wrap around the fire station and connect to the Foundry. This whole area is getting denser and denser, and there’s nothing better than that in an area that can truly support that density.

But, of course, there are more towers to speak of too. Green Street, another large developer in the region who actually has another project that I’ll discuss on this podcast episode, has two towers planned in Midtown just along Grand Ave in the middle of the SLU medical and main campuses. These towers will be dubbed “40 Grand”, and each 14-story tower will have 266 apartments. They’ll be connected to Grand as well as the soon-to-be RecHall at the Armory building nearby. They are one of the largest transit-oriented developments in the region when combined, comparable to the projects going up on DeBaliviere Ave – but simply larger and taller.

It’s significant to see any towers going up in the city, but to have so many at the same time is really almost unprecedented save for the last few years. These two will also contribute to the great transit network along Grand and allow their residents to enjoy the plethora of jobs and amenities nearby, while also allowing for car-free life to be a real, tangible option. Hopefully the project will break ground soon. Demolition is already underway for the warehouses that previously sat on the site, and Green Street is hoping to get started on the actual construction soon and has submitted the required zoning changes.

Just a little West, back in the Central West End, Barnes Jewish Hospital has its own skyline-changing projects well underway. The most significant of which is the replacement for the Queeny Tower that previously sat alongside Kingshighway at the southern edge of the complex. Now demolished, BJC is already working on the replacement with multiple tower cranes currently moving materials. The new patient tower will look a bit like the Siteman Cancer Center, with the cool, rounded portion extending from bottom to top and likely to have some pretty cool lighting elements. The goal is to really modernize the patient experience and increase what they’re able to offer. BJC states that they’ll be able to offer 224 private impatient rooms, 56 ICU units, surgery, prep, recovery, imaging, and cafeteria areas. The building isn’t slated to open until 2025, but we’ll probably start seeing it rising up in the near future. It’ll be a full 18 stories, so its presence will be huge coming from the highway, park, or Metro.

BJC isn’t done there. At Taylor and Forest Park Parkway, they’re already building a new Ambulatory Cancer Center, connected to Siteman. Set to open in 2024, the building will consolidate their outpatient cancer treatment and 7 or 8 floors of usable space. It will actually be dwarfed a little bit by another project, which you’ve probably already seen, just a couple blocks down on Duncan in the Cortex. The Neuroscience research building will be one of the largest in the world with over 600,000 square feet and 11 stories in the already growing innovation community. Together, these BJC and WashU buildings are going to go a long way in connecting the CWE to the Cortex to Midtown, and their presence will really feel substantial in just a couple of years.

Now, there’s one more I want to mention before I let you go on to your day. Green Street has a huge tower they just announced for Downtown Clayton at the intersection of Central and Forysth. They’ve announced a 25-story, all glass, mixed-use building with some great angles and lines that look like they’ll add a lot of dramatic flare to a skyline that could really use it. Unlike a lot of the other high rises going up, this one is actually going to primarily be for hotel and condo usage. We don’t know the hotel brand just yet, but we should expect about 180 hotel rooms, in addition to 75 condos – which is great such that more people can live and own in Downtown Clayton, where there are really few options for doing so.

The building will have a rooftop bar, ground-floor retail, and supposedly have one of Hilton’s newer brands to fill out the $100 million dollar project.

Anyway, when people might suggest that St. Louis is stagnant, I just encourage you to shout, “look up!”, because the region is going to look a whole heck of a lot different soon, and hopefully for the better.

So, This Week in Urbanism, keep an eye on the sky! Hopefully we’ll have even more of this to talk about soon, and I can’t wait to keep you updated.

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

KDG Nixes Clayton Developments, Doubles Down on City

Real Estate Developer KDG, known for its luxury apartment buildings including Clayton on the Park and The Euclid, appears to be doubling down on their St. Louis City investment. Surprisingly, those plans seem to include some distancing from Clayton, one of St. Louis’ most desirable and expensive suburbs.

Although KDG’s portfolio still includes multiple St. Louis County assets, including Centene Plaza and the under-development Olive Crossing, their recent investment decisions are skewing quickly toward the City itself. KDG just sold its long-held Clayton residential tower, Clayton on the Park, after managing the property for over a decade. KDG had, years ago, converted the building to luxury apartments during the Great Recession. It had previously been home to senior living facilities and even a hotel.

Advertisements

The disinvestment from Clayton appears to go a bit further, as selling one property alone does not signify a meaningful trend. Rather, KDG has long had its eyes set on the vacant land just next-door to its Clayton on the Park tower at 121 S. Meramec. Some might be familiar with this address, as it used to be home to one of the two mid-rise 7-Up towers that were a part of the beverage company’s former headquarters. The building at this address had been demolished, while the other midrise still stands and would be converted to residential apartments under this plan. Chris Stritzel at CityScene STL details this incredibly well.

KDG’s plans as rendered above would have completely rehabilitated the structure still standing today and would have included new infill on the vacant lot to its side. Both would be connected to their former property, Clayton on the Park, via the parking garage. The development would have cost upwards of $70 million and included amenities like a rooftop pool deck, fitness center, and individual work spaces for tenants to use. However, KDG just recently scrapped these plans, shortly before they announced the sale of their neighboring asset, Clayton on the Park.

While some may suggest or feel that Clayton is losing steam, this move appears to be an individual investment decision rather than a growing trend. It is indicative of a market that has more strongly embraced the City of St. Louis in addition to but not instead of Clayton. Although KDG is shifting its set of priorities, there are multiple other developments currently reshaping the Clayton skyline, adding new residents, hotel guests, and Class A office space.

Rendering above attributed to U.S. Capital Development of the under-construction Forsyth Pointe office buildings

Clayton’s continued strength aside, it is evident that development has been heating up in the City of St. Louis. In 2020, over $1 billion in building permits were awarded, and there are currently thousands of residential apartment units under construction and in development. The Central West End saw the rise and completion of the new 100 on the Park high-rise apartments. Similarly, Downtown saw a new residential tower, One Cardinal Way, open by Busch Stadium amid major announcements by developers for hundreds of other units within Downtown limits.

The momentum clearly has not gone unnoticed by KDG. In the hot Central West End neighborhood, KDG is currently well into the construction of a residential apartment building on Laclede Ave. 4545 Laclede will host 200 units between its 7 stories, adding considerable density to an already vibrant corridor. Demand in the CWE is striking, and KDG is looking to offer new options for residents looking to enter the neighborhood with its many nightlife, shopping, and restaurant options. The building will feature “micro-units”, studios, 1, and 2-bedroom units. The average size of the micro-units will be 386 square feet, with larger units available for those who need additional space.

Advertisements

KSDK reports that other amenities like a fitness center, golfing green, pool, and yoga studio will be available for residents. Moreover, while some locals might be shocked at the size and inclusion of the smaller units, they are an excellent way to maintain some modicum of affordability for residents looking to live in certain areas. Common in bigger cities with higher rent prices, micro-units also have considerably higher occupancy rates than traditional units, while also promoting sustainability and more efficient land use according to the Urban Land Institute.

KDG is also doubling down on the neighboring Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, more commonly known as The Grove. The company partnered with another developer, Green Street, on two large mixed-use buildings at the corner of Sarah and Chouteau. The two buildings, Chroma and Hue, share amenities and wrap hundreds of units, a coffee shop, hair salon, and other restaurants – significantly densifying and activating the East end of The Grove. KDG is responsible for the onsite property management at the two properties. Hue just recently wrapped up construction, and we were able to meet Green Street VP of Marketing, Liz Austin, for a construction tour covered here.

Advertisements

In the neighboring Cortex neighborhood, an emerging innovation hub bolstered by Washington University and SLU, KDG is at the forefront of the efforts to bring 24/7 vibrancy through a residential component. The Cortex master plan envisions offices, hotels, entertainment, and apartments to activate the community throughout the day. To date, there has been significant progress. With a new Aloft hotel that opened its doors during the pandemic, a new MetroLink station, and tons of investment into labs and offices like the soon-to-be world’s largest neuroscience facility, the area is booming.

KDG hopes to add the key missing link: apartments. The whole plan, dubbed “Cortex K” will host a variety of uses from apartments to office and retail, but apartments are the piece that could truly stitch the community into a neighborhood, while also helping connect it to the vibrancy of The Grove.

Aerial Overview Rendering – St. Louis April 7 TIF Agenda

There will be three structures built in two separate phases. The first is a 7-story mixed-use building with 160 apartments, 18,500 square feet of office space, and 2,150 square feet of retail space. As KDG is quick to point out, this building will contribute to a neighborhood of over 500 residential units combined with the Chroma and Hue developments when complete. The TIF agenda notes that the apartments will include amenities like a fitness center, club room, outdoor deck, and more. Recent KDG apartment buildings have generally also included flexible workspaces for residents, pools, coffee, etc. Phase 1 is expected to cost $37 million according to the TIF packet.

Phase 2 will include an office building and garage, which will be part of the same complex as imaged in the renderings from KDG above. The Cortex K office building will bring 125,000 square feet of Class A office space to the City of St. Louis, in addition to 7,000 more square feet of retail space. For construction to proceed, KDG is looking to prelease at least 50,000 square feet of the usable space. The budgeted cost for the office building is an estimated $40 million.

The garage is expected to hold approximately 610 spaces and is still in a preliminary design phase. Although the garage is fairly large for a district that features a MetroLink station, it is not street-facing and will likely be shared by residents and workers alike. The project is certainly a decent example of transit-oriented development (TOD) still with the combined density and access to nearby transit options. This portion of Phase 2 will be an additional $17.9 million.

KDG is also promising to make various public improvements to the surrounding infrastructure – something common for developers when requesting tax-incremented financing from municipalities. Although the plans are still “very preliminary”, KDG expects to spend up to $3.5 million on streetscape improvements, lighting, utilities, sidewalks, and bike lanes. The improvements will be carried out for KDG on behalf of the Cortex.

Advertisements

In the April 7 TIF agenda, KDG is requesting $14 million in assistance from the City of St. Louis for this development – 14.25% of the total development costs. TIFs have been under increasingly intense scrutiny by St. Louis residents for a variety of reasons. Many suggest it is a form of corporate welfare that takes necessary funds away from the city, and others a necessity to attract and retain beneficial developments.

Historically, the City of St. Louis lacked a transparent, thoughtful, and consistent plan on how it would award TIFs to developers. State Auditor Galloway released an audit of the program and called for increased oversight and transparency to ensure a level playing field just under a year ago. Much of the controversy from residents stems from the fact that the TIFs are often awarded to developers in the most economically successful districts, predominantly in the Central Corridor. The Cortex K TIF request is likely to face similar scrutiny from residents.

Advertisements
Cortex Master Plan

The project itself, however, will certainly contribute to a fast-growing region in St. Louis City. Additional apartments, office, and retail will go a long way toward connecting The Grove and Cortex. Vibrant, 24/7 neighborhoods with transit access are more sustainable, enjoyable, and attractive to residents and are crucial to developing a strong, urban corridor.

As an investment decision, choosing to double down on the City of St. Louis instead of the very strong Clayton market also represents a growing source of demand that residents might not yet have noticed. There are thousands of units under construction in the city, and new home construction is off the charts. While the city is still seeing depopulation on its North Side, stemming from decades of disinvestment, redlining, racial covenants, and a 1970s plan that essentially would cut off efforts to sustain the North side (though not officially enacted, it was essentially still practiced for years), its Central Corridor and many South Side neighborhoods are booming.

The tricky act for St. Louis, however, is to find a way to extend this success, without displacement, to other neighborhoods that see little investment. With any luck, including the emerging “North Central Corridor” and a Mayor dedicated to racial equity, the City of St. Louis may yet see that day come sooner rather than later.

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

Advertisements

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.

Forsyth Pointe Development Poised to Reshape Clayton Skyline

U.S. Capital Development’s Forsyth Pointe is poised to reshape the Clayton skyline in short order. Set to bring two new Class A office towers to Downtown Clayton, Forsyth Pointe appears to be near finished with foundation work and site preparation. Steel has started appearing on site and both tower cranes are ready to go.

For those unfamiliar with the project, the West tower will rise 14 stories above ground and the East tower 16 stories. The two mid-rises will be connected by a parking podium with artwork displays on each corner and an outdoor patio between the buildings. As a concession and agreement with Clayton officials, the outdoor section will be open to the public occasionally for events.

Rendering above attributed to U.S. Capital Development.

The development is going to activate an important section of Downtown Clayton with more retail fronting Forysth Blvd. as well, with plans pointing to various cafe and outdoor dining applications. The Western edge of Clayton has not received as much development as the East end, with Centene’s headquarters dominating the skyline in recent years and the Sheraton redevelopment into a Le Meridian on track to finish this year. While the Western edge has seen a new apartment midrise with 212 Clayton completing a couple years ago, this development will add significant density and likely be visible to those entering the city from 170 South and 64/40.

%d bloggers like this: