The Failed Promise of the St. Louis Riverfront – and How We May Yet Achieve It

San Antonio, New Orleans, New Jersey, Baltimore – each city has found creative, bold ways to take advantage of their waterfronts. With special pedestrian walkways and commercial experiences, these cities were able to capitalize on their greatest geographical assets with productive, attractive, and impressive corridors. For residents and tourists alike, these places are landmarks that set cities apart, while simultaneously providing an excellent setup for businesses and tax revenue generation.

St. Louis has long held a distant relationship with the Mississippi River. Even now, most buildings have a considerable setback partly justified by flood risk. One might expect still that the nearest structures would be designed with street activation in mind, particularly with a National Park right around the corner. Instead, there are abandoned buildings like the long vacant Millennium Hotel and brutalist midrises like the Hyatt Hotel and Gateway Tower building that hardly offer any use for an active Downtown. Moreover, their designs evoke a cold and harsh feeling that cramps visitors and residents within the Gateway National Park.

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The St. Louis riverfront’s lack of street activation is a relic of the compromise made for the Gateway National Park. In the early 1900’s, the city and Federal officials decided to raze a huge portion of Downtown, including residential and commercial buildings, to lay the groundwork for the site of the Arch. Of course, hosting a National Park in the most prominent location in a major Downtown seems positive on many levels. St. Louis City was an incredible population center in 1930, with over 800,000 residents (compared to around 300,000 today). At the time, it was the nation’s 7th largest city.

It’s understandable that some may have thought the Arch would cement St. Louis’ position in American culture, a mega-city with a history of Westward Expansion. Most residents love the Arch and its unmistakable design and prominence on our city’s skyline, and it undoubtedly attracts tourists and history buffs alike. The positives, however, came at a steep cost for the city, people of color, and urban density. As St. Louis rid itself of predominantly Black communities, it also engaged in redlining and restrictive covenants, essentially restricting Black residents’ right to live in the city.

Nearly 500 buildings were demolished for the Arch grounds, beginning in 1939. 39 blocks were cleared for the Arch that would not be completed for another 26 years. The decision to destroy so much of St. Louis’ urban character was hardly a one-off, with decades of urban renewal projects that violently obliterated neighborhoods, which generally were communities of color.

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The Arch, while impressive, does not replace the density and character lost in the demolition of hundreds of riverfront buildings – an entire district turned to rubble. Moreover, just North and South of the Arch grounds sit neighborhoods that have languished in the years since, despite their sizable potential and historic character. What remains is a long stretch of riverfront with little to no activity whatsoever, made worse by the even more egregious lack of activity, investment, and development on the East side of the river. Despite an impressive skyline and its status as a river city, St. louis fails to capitalize on its river on the East and West shores from North to South alike.

Chouteau’s Landing, which is just South of the Arch and the 64/40 ramp Downtown, is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and yet, woefully neglected. The neighborhood consists of a rather small 12 blocks, but holds some of the oldest buildings in the area that were built on the original city street grid. Unfortunately, some of the structures have succumb to fires and even accidental demolitions in the last decade, making any proposal for redevelopment all the more necessarily expansive and expensive.

The buildings that remain are predominantly warehouses and manufacturing sites, but to leave it at just that would be a disservice the historical architecture and grandiose of the structures. Many of the warehouses appear as though they would make excellent residential conversions, like the one pictured below, compared to Soulard Market Loft apartments. There is vast potential to create intricate, dense, and mixed use city blocks with the buildings that remain, and the neighborhood would evoke some of the best historical character of St. Louis.

The potential for redevelopment is huge, and Chouteau’s Landing could with some work become a dense urban community with a strong St. Louis architectural character. Much is the same for Laclede’s Landing, another historical neighborhood just North of the Arch. While Laclede’s Landing isn’t quite as abandoned or underutilized as Chouteau’s Landing, it has low commercial and residential occupancy with buildings in need of large rehabs. Making matters worse, the blocks that make up the neighborhood are unusually cut off from the street grid and very difficult to access from Downtown.

“The nine-block area of Historic Laclede’s Landing—once the manufacturing, warehousing and shipping hub of St. Louis—is today the home of more than a dozen local restaurants, clubs, and attractions in the heart of downtown St. Louis.”

Laclede’s Landing Riverfront District

The streetscape and design of Laclede’s Landing are second to none in the city, with incredible cobblestone streets, brickwork, and commercial storefronts (many of which vacant, unfortunately). There certainly are still some successful and well-known restaurants and bars, including Big Daddy’s on the Landing, Kimchi Guys, The Old Spaghetti Factory, and a few others.

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Laclede’s Landing – Explore St. Louis

The accessibility of Laclede’s Landing is such a hinderance that the lack of entrances to the district is often credited with hindering the rejuvenation of the area. Cut off by the highway and the Arch, there are few ways in or out. The issue is so pronounced that a parking lot owned by Drury Hotels was seen as possible a solution, with a plan to add a road connecting the district to the rest of Downtown through the parcel. Drury has long planned a hotel in Laclede’s Landing, and has since simply sat on its property with no action despite the hurting of the neighborhood. This strategy and speculation are common for the chain, most notoriously in the case of its demolition by neglect in The Grove as we covered here at Missouri Metro.

With no hotel developed by Drury over the last decade, Laclede’s Landing has been in a state of stasis, despite its incredible potential. With huge brick buildings and former warehouses primed for redevelopment similar to those in Chouteau’s Landing and their proximity to restaurants, the Arch, and the spectacular built environment, the area could become St. Louis’ best destination.

There is some good news, with St. Louis based Advantes Group beginning a major redevelopment of two historic buildings on Second Street in the Landing, with a price tag of at least $12.4 million. The developer is so bullish on the area that it has even relocated its headquarters to the district. Rejuvenating large and historic buildings is nothing new to the developer, which also rehabilitated an old school in Lafayette into 36 apartments. In 2018, Advantes began their work in Laclede’s Landing, taking their experience in historical renovation to the Christian Peper building at 701 1st St. With 49 gorgeous lofts completed in what was the first recent multifamily development in Laclede’s Landing, Advantes created a roadmap for success and increasing residential density in the neighborhood.

Peper Lofts – Advantes Group
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Advantes’ $12.4 million plan for the district will include two additional renovations, including the buildings at 618-624 North Second St. and 700 North Second St. The proposal calls for 76 new apartments and street-facing retail space. Combined with their completed Peper Lofts project, the developer is introducing over 100 residential units to a neighborhood that formerly had almost no permanent residents. There are huge benefits to a residential community joining a commercial district, with the added density providing critical economic support and demand for businesses in the area. The effect is even greater considering the historical nature of the community and proximity to a National Park.

Although Laclede’s Landing has seen some recent success, with people now calling the neighborhood home and millions in investment, Chouteau’s Landing is just now seeing some promising proposals. A to-be-announced developer has partnered with St. Louis based Arcturis for architectural plans. The extensive proposal, which you can read in detail at CitySceneSTL here, calls for thousands of square feet of office, residential, and street-facing retail. There would also be multiple new mixed-used buildings constructed, as well as significant rehabs throughout the district to modernize the physical landscape. The proposal is rather breathtaking, and would, if completed, be one of the largest redevelopments in St. Louis over the last decade. That said, while many are optimistic about the trajectory for the project, this is such a large plan that anything can happen. We hope that we will see this completed, but the neighborhood has seen hope and failure so many times before.

Rendering from CitySceneSTL

While St. Louis’ two most storied riverfront neighborhoods that remain have promising, ambitious paths forward, there is so much ground to make up. Cities across the nation have found smart and resourceful ways to repurpose their riverfront districts into lively neighborhoods that residents love. With a landmark right in the middle of the two neighborhoods, St. Louis has its work cut out to integrate the neighborhoods to the city more broadly.

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The difference is stark when comparing St. Louis’ riverfront vibrancy to that of other cities like San Antonio and New Orleans, but we have immense potential that we can capitalize on if we set out to do so. The bones exist in both Laclede’s Landing and Chouteau’s Landing for high residential density and commercial activity, combined with historical architecture and charm that would give a distinct character unable to be matched by other cities. We also have the Arch, for all its flaws in relation to cutting off historic neighborhoods Downtown, to provide a jaw-dropping view and outlook for residents and tourists alike. It can complement these communities, if we do things right. It will take effort, investment, and perseverance to restore our riverfront, but if the last few years are any indication, momentum is on our side.

Drury to Sell FPSE Holdings after long “Demolition by Neglect” Strategy

One of our first articles here at Missouri Metro covered the remarkably long-term and damaging strategy of Drury Hotels in the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood. Conducting a de-facto “Demolition by Neglect” strategy, Drury allowed their nearly 30 properties in the neighborhood to decline despite consistent and strong community pushback. After nearly two decades, Drury has finally scrapped their plans for the neighborhood and listed each property for sale.

What began as an effort to build two hotel towers and a large surface parking lot extending from Kingshighway into the residential streets of Oakland, Arco, Gibson, and Chouteau ended with little success or fanfare. Members of the FPSE community have, for over 15 years, been subjected to increased crime, blight, and a striking lack of transparency for a project that would effectively raze the Western edge of the neighborhood.

2008 Drury Rendering – NextSTL

Although nearby residents were not too keen on the hotel proposal itself, the lack of any development turned out to be the biggest problem with Drury’s presence in the neighborhood. Their neighborhood stewardship could be characterized as “negligent”, as we covered in our prior article about Drury’s FPSE holdings.

“As Drury continued adding properties to its portfolio in FPSE, they neglected even the most basic maintenance. The structures are slowly falling apart at the seams, endangering residents and skirting the requirements for demolition set out by Park Central Development.”

Brian Adler – Blight in Drury’s Wake: When Development Stalls and Buildings Crumble
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We have been hearing hints for the last few months that Drury would finally offload their properties due to neighborhood pushback, market conditions in a global Pandemic, and shifting priorities. Initially, this sounded like they would opt to find another large developer to purchase all of the holdings in the neighborhood.

The sizable tract of land directly neighbors the BJC Hospital complex and nearby commercial corridor along Manchester Ave. In other words, this is some of the most valuable land in the city in terms of nearby amenities and attractions. An acquisition by another large developer seemed almost guaranteed given the location and near total ownership of properties along the edge of the neighborhood. Another hotel, office, or large residential development could certainly find success at this site.

Drury FPSE Holdings located in the highlighted portion of the map – Imagery provided by Google Maps

Much to the surprise of FPSE residents and members of the community, each individual property will be listed for sale separately. While there could certainly be value to a larger development utilizing the properties together, this piecemeal strategy allows the neighborhood to recover and maintain its historical character. St. Louis has a long history of demolishing well-kept brick homes with unique architecture for uninteresting and unengaging developments, and the neighborhood just may avoid such a scenario.

If you are interested in learning more about Drury’s “Demolition by Neglect” strategy, we highly recommend you read some of the great articles from other St. Louis blogs. While our article does a pretty good job explaining the situational context, St. Louis has a host of incredible development bloggers doing great reporting around the city. You can also check out the listing for the most prominent Drury properties that directly face Kingshighway here.

NextSTL

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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.

Blight in Drury’s Wake: When Development Stalls and Buildings Crumble

Drury Hotels scatter the St. Louis area, offering a value-focused hospitality experience in buildings that predominantly look alike. Friendly staff greet visitors who arrive with a clean room, a few free drinks per day, and a breakfast buffet. Drury now operates more than 150 hotels in 25 states, with 20 in St. Louis alone.

The Drury Hotel in Brentwood, MO – Drury Hotels

Drury’s growth has been remarkable, and their hotels have become staples in the many St. Louis area neighborhoods. Yet, it is becoming evident that their focus is beginning to shift away from St. Louis. Amidst Drury’s rapid growth is a strategic shift toward other markets and larger developments. Drury Hotels outlines on their website a list of future hotels, both large and small, from Richmond, Virginia to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

New and Coming Soon Hotels

A quick glance at these developments reveals that while Drury is retaining their traditional hotel look for its Richmond and Knoxville hotels, it is branching out into larger, more modern structures elsewhere. Alongside the structural and stylistic shift is another strategic move, with none of these “Coming Soon” hotels coming to St. Louis or Missouri as a whole. This could be explained by St. Louis possibly being too saturated with Drury properties or hotels in general. However, hotels have been flocking to St. Louis in what has been called a “hotel boom” over the past two years, so it is clear that more rooms are demanded in the STL market. Drury has 20 hotels in St. Louis, so why invest more time and money in the St. Louis market?

It would be understandable and perfectly conceivable if the saturation argument were true that Drury would move on, expanding predominantly in other metropolitan areas. On first glance, it would seem that Drury Hotels is doing just that, with one critical exception. While Drury has constructed mega-hotels in other cities, it has simultaneously gobbled up property in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, slowly destroying historical property with demolition by neglect.

View of Drury properties from the West side of Kingshighway

Those who commute to or live in the Central West End or Grove neighborhoods are probably be familiar with the site pictured above. Straddling Kingshighway are several multi-family buildings that deteriorate a little bit more each day. Going South on Kingshighway, one might assume they were entering a neighborhood devoid of investment or appreciation.

Instead, these structures mark the entrance to the popular Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, harboring the popular “Grove” neighborhood and a growing number of luxury rentals with rents to match. Housing stock in the community has been appreciating rapidly as doctors, medical students, and tech gurus working at the Cortex choose to live close to work and the many retail and dining establishments on Manchester.

Drury Hotels likely noticed the upward potential when their development arm, Drury Development Corporation, began acquiring neighborhood properties in 2007. Minutes from the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association detail a lengthy timeline marked by a notable lack of transparency or neighborhood involvement. The first acquisitions were located on Arco, Gibson, and Chouteau.

It seemed for a short moment that Drury Hotels and Drury Development Corporation would move quickly, realizing the potential of a hotel on the edge of Forest Park, the Central West End, and an attraction corridor with a vibrant history and growing popularity. Drury unveiled an early rendering of a potential hotel to occupy the property along Kingshighway and build not one, but two towers. Each tower would rise 16 stories above the neighborhood and the rendering depicted a large section of land being made available for parking.

Rendering of the proposed Drury Hotel in FPSE – NEXTSTL

At the time this project was proposed to the community, Drury was still completing their Brentwood hotel near the Galleria mall. Alex Inhen at NextSTL reported that Drury would then focus their attention in Forest Park Southeast / The Grove if the Brentwood hotel proved to be a success.

Although we are not privy to Drury Hotel’s occupancy statistics, my own anecdotal experience with family and friends staying regularly at the Brentwood Drury Hotel seems to indicate a relatively high occupancy. Even if my assumption proved incorrect, there is evidence that Drury has not yet completely given up on a Grove hotel and plans to develop, eventually.

At the time of their FPSE hotel proposal, Drury owned 5 parcels of land that the development would occupy. In 2014, NextSTL reported that Drury Development Corproation had acquired another 15 parcels. In those six years, Drury never presented any other renderings or plans for this location. Instead, they simply kept acquiring land at a snails pace, indicating that they were still bullish enough on the location to purchase relatively expensive land.

Although that might indicate that Drury intended to invest in the community and its success, their actions were far from that. While a hotel would surely add jobs to the neighborhood and improve the landscape for retail and restaurants, their property ownership and lack of maintenance has hampered growth, hindered other investment that could have taken place, and bothered residents.

Debris, bricks, and a crumbling foundation dot the dirt surrounding this property on Oakland Ave.

As Drury continued adding properties to its portfolio in FPSE, they neglected even the most basic maintenance. The structures are slowly falling apart at the seams, endangering residents and skirting the requirements for demolition set out by Park Central Development.

Drury has looked to demolish this property at 1092 S. Kingshighway since 2016, and Park Central Development laid out a set of criteria Drury must follow. They include landscape maintenance, debris removal, regularly painted and maintained boards for all window and other openings, and all other Drury owned buildings not on Kingshighway must be renovated by December 2020, according to NextSTL.

1092 S. Kingshighway

Of course, this building is still standing, with Drury completing none of the requirements set forth by the community. Instead, they are letting the building fall by itself through a strategy of “Demolition by Neglect”. In doing so, a lack of maintenance will eventually bring the building to a state of disrepair wherein demolition is not an “if”, but rather a “when”, as the community pays the price.

As is evident in the photo, there are major portions of the structure that are fully exposed. Vegetation and weeds are found inside, on, and surrounding the property that have hardly seen any maintenance. Moreover, the fence hardly discourages any urban explorers or criminals from entering. This property is undeniably dangerous, unstable, and a disaster waiting to happen for children or scavengers. Bricks could easily fall off the side, rocks the same, and I would not wish to be the individual to test out a floor board inside.

While 1092 S. Kingshighway is being demolished by weather and neglect, Drury also is ignoring its other properties not located on Kingshighway. 4569 Oakland is in a drastic state of disrepair. That is despite the fact that all Drury poerties not facing Kingshighway should have until December to be rehabilitated and stabilized according to the agreement with Park Central Development. Instead, they sit vacant, contributing to blight in the community. Criminologist James Wilson posits a “Broken Window Theory” that suggests blighted buildings sitting vacant with broken windows or in otherwise various states of disrepair also invite crime to communities. Broken windows and abandoned housing provide areas that criminals may reside in, whether for drug use or various other acts, and the visual representation of blight encourages other actions that are damaging or harmful. While it is certain that Drury does not support crime, their actions in Forest Park Southeast absolutely endanger residents, either through a physical risk attributed to structures literally falling apart or by making the neighborhood more attractive to criminals.

4569 Oakland
A six family structure on Oakland that Drury let sit as the elements forced an eventual permitted demolition

Writing this story in the middle of August 2020, I am hardly expecting Drury to suddenly begin and then quickly complete their rehab of the 4569 Oakland property prior to December 2020. Yet, their properties are being brought down slowly without any care on Drury’s toward the wishes of a community that hopes to prevent several homes from suffering the fate of the six-family Oakland property pictured above.

I hoped to give Drury the benefit of the doubt. That is why I called Drury Development Corporation to try and ascertain what their current plants were in Forest Park Southeast. Tom Milford, Manager of Real Estate, would not reveal whether any plans were still in the works for this site. While the answers to all of my questions were some variation of “No Comment”, he suggested that COVID-19 had at least somewhat impacted their long term goals for this property. Tom claimed that he and Drury Development Corporation have held a steady, consistent presence with neighborhood groups like Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association and Park Central Development, and that they would work with the community and reveal plans as they come. However, we already know that residents have found Drury to be an inconsistent, relatively untruthful member of the community, not revealing what their plans are even as they accumulate and therefore deteriorate more land.

It has been almost 13 years since Drury began acquiring properties in Forest Park Southeast, an up-and-coming neighborhood that has seen tons of rehab, infill, and development. The community has evolved in spite of Drury Hotels and Drury Development Corporation, whose crumbling properties line the entrance of the neighborhood and contribute nothing but an increased likelihood of crime. How much longer will Drury string along this community, and how many properties will they demolish through neglect as neighbors cry foul and they ignore the sensible stipulations set out by community organizations? When will St. Louis and community leaders finally say enough and demand more of a corporation that has created almost a decade and a half of blight? Hopefully soon.

Until then, those inclined to put some pressure on Drury can start by calling their Aldermen. For instance, Joe Roddy represents this district, and his number is (314) 622-3287. Or, get involved with Park Central Development or Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association.

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