Controversial Developer Proposes Apartments on Kingshighway near CWE

This featured article has been split into multiple sections to better organize the ideas discussed and the many moving parts of the story. Thank you for your patience and I hope that you find it to be informative. I invite you to engage in the conversation either in the comments below or on our Twitter page.

Introduction

Site of the FPSE Project – Brian Adler

Just after announcing its latest apartment development in the Central West End at the Optimist International Building (intersection of Taylor and Lindell), developer LuxLiving released its big plans for the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. Those who have travelled on Kingshighway any time over the last two decades have witnessed the steady decline of several multifamily buildings owned by Drury Development Corporation. As Drury’s plans for a two-tower hotel adjacent to the CWE stagnated and faltered, their properties declined significantly with little to no maintenance. Missouri Metro covered their “Demolition by Neglect” strategy last year.

The blighted properties contrasted the stunning growth and evolution of the Forest Park Southeast and Central West End neighborhoods, even as housing inventory in the neighborhoods remained low. The highly visible location, so close to the highly sought after amenities of some of the City’s most expensive neighborhoods, stood out for long-time residents and visitors alike. Residents hoped for action for years, but faced stiff resistance from Drury Development Corporation and a lack of transparency as the corporation continued to acquire more properties.

Map of St. Louis with Forest Park Southeast Highlighted – Google Maps

After nearly two decades of this prolonged process and limited neighborhood approval for a two-tower design and a surface parking lot that would replace handfuls of historic residential homes, Drury finally announed it had cancelled its hotel plans in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. This year, they begun selling some homes to residential buyers and investors alike, while also choosing a large developer to take on the most notable parcels facing Kingshighway. That developer is LuxLiving.

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The Proposal

Preliminary Rendering Facing Kingshighway: LuxLiving

DISCLOSURE: Brian Adler is the current Vice President of the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association and will have some say in the community engagement process. He also lives on the 4500 Block of Oakland, which will be directly impacted by this proposed development.

LuxLiving is proposing a 7-story, 163-unit apartment building to replace these structures. While I generally am in favor of preserving many of the city’s historic brick structures, the buildings facing Kingshighway have been open to the elements for years, lack walls in some cases, and have foundations that are crumbling significantly. The proposed structure would activate a stretch of land with significant density that has not been occupied for two decades. While the design is still in preliminary stages and far from finalized, the current plans call for the usage of 15 parcels and the construction of a 177 space parking garage that will be partially underground and concealed.

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On Oakland Ave and Arco Ave, LuxLiving plans to construct two-story buildings with 14 units and amenity spaces to fill in the gap between the various other residential homes on the street and the larger, 7-story structure. The designs of the two-story buildings seem to be similar in materials, massing, and overall design to the other homes on the two blocks. With that said, to accommodate these additional buildings, a few currently occupied and vacant structures would have to be demolished. LuxLiving states that they are in various late stages of disrepair and while they may not be entirely unusable, this very author lives within this stretch and agrees for the most part on that assessment.

This article cannot be as neutral as I would otherwise hope for it to be because of my very close proximity to the site, but I do want to emphasize the kind of feedback that I have been hearing from the community. For the most part, community members have few, minor qualms with the overall design, density, and massing. In fact, many (including myself), are downright excited at the prospect of removing the blight that has FREQUENTLY contributed to visible crime and dangerous drag racing across the 4500 block of Oakland and Arco.

Behind the Kingshighway Buildings – Brian Adler

Causes for Concern: Safety, Fraud, and Bad Practices

With that said, there are significant concerns about LuxLiving itself as the selected developer for the site. While LuxLiving has been generous with information and access to its developments including the SoHo, Hudson, and Chelsea covered frequently on this website, it has a troubling reputation that has consistently dogged the company. Surprisingly numerous reviews from tenants at even their newest buildings suggest lackluster property management, shoddy building materials, thin walls, and various issues. LuxLiving also allegedly utilizes Airbnb to rent out vacant units for short-term visits. While Airbnb is not inherently bad, it can pose security concerns for actual residents of the building or pose challenges in terms of trash, noise, or usage of the building’s amenities.

There are also potential issues relating to various other business practices of the organization. The CEO of LuxLiving, Vic Alston, previously defrauded investors in a revealing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) document. Alston reportedly omitted key information from investors and submitted SOX certifications that “were materially false and misleading“. He was banned from engaging in similar investments for five years following this judgement.

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While financial accounting requirements can be complex and perhaps it would be unfair to make judgements off of one case, Alston has repeatedly led business practices that are at best scorched earth-competitive, and at worst, deeply and fundamentally dishonest and dirty. For example, LuxLiving is currently wrapping up the nearly completed apartment building in DeBaliviere Place, dubbed “The Hudson” – poised to become another luxury, amenity-packed community. I have reported on its progress multiple times and lauded how it adds significant density to a well-trafficked transit corridor. Those facets of the project are unabashedly positive, and additional units online relieves pent-up demand that would otherwise raise rent prices.

Unfortunately, LuxLiving worked to undermine their competitors and the neighborhood itself at the onset of the development. While praising their contribution to a transit-oriented district, Alston and LuxLiving sabotaged the under-construction apartment just across the street. The Expo at Forest Park would offer hundreds of apartments at a similar price range and with similar amenities. In response, as first reported by the St. Louis Post DIspatch, LuxLiving had their lawyer Ira Berkowitz “reincorporate a long-dormant property owners association that claimed to hold review rights over the competing apartment development and declined to support the project.”

The complaint resulted in a lawsuit against the Expo at Forest Park developers and then, of course, a countersuit alleging that resurrecting an organization that had not existed for 30 years was nothing more than a means to denying a competitor’s approval. LuxLiving and the other firm ultimately settled, but another legal battle ensued – this time with LuxLiving suing the City of St. Louis’ Development Corporation, SLDC. Lux claims an entitlement to tax incentives including tax abatement and a tax break on construction materials. They allege that they must receive this support due to a letter of support from Alderman Shameem Clark-Hubbard from the 26th ward. The suit has not yet been resolved, and the decision to grant tax breaks was tabled at the June 22 meeting.

This context is important because Lux has gained some positive publicity from not requesting tax incentives for its proposed project at the Optimist International site in the Central West End, just minutes away from Forest Park Southeast. While the development will ultimately lead to a large and noticeable property tax receipt that will benefit St. Louis Public Schools, it would admittedly be awkward for Lux to request incentives from the same organization that they are currently feuding with. Notably, Lux has been mum on its intentions for tax incentives at the parcels in question in Forest Park Southeast.

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Unfortunately, tax breaks, lawsuits, and fraud cumulatively barely scratch the surface of the controversy surrounding the company and its owners. LuxLiving is but one name of many for the company and its principle actors. Some St. Louisans might remember their apartments under the portfolio of Asprient Properties, CityWide, and others. They are all the same buildings, the same company, and the same team. Lux tends to rebrand when controversy hits a fever pitch, like when Asprient mishandled residents’ security deposits.

Even more worrisome, at one of the Central West End properties under the STL Citywide brand, residents had to be evacuated for a structural collapse at the Euclid + Pine building. Residents interviewed by KMOV reporters, while horrified, expressed not being surprised due to the general conditions that the building was kept in. Perhaps you may have been urged to give the company the benefit of the doubt, choosing to assume that the company surely has improved since then. That would be unlikely, however, because this happened this last May.

What’s Next

The proposal is likely going to go through a community engagement process facilitated by Alderwoman Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl, Park Central Development, and the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Although Park Central Development and its Development Committee often led the process in years prior following former Alderman Roddy’s decades-long design, Alderwoman Pihl is looking to reshape the process and involve more members of the community.

There will likely be community engagement sessions in the next couple months to inform both the community about the developer’s plans and the developer on the community’s concerns. It will ultimately then receive the approval or denial from the Alderperson.

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A Nuanced Conclusion

While some might have expected my take to be one of pure opposition based on the sizable list of concerns outlined above, it might surprise you to know that I am still begrudgingly, mostly in support of the project. It is difficult to shake the feeling of “ick” that surrounds LuxLiving and it feels wrong to reward the company with my support, especially as a member of the FPSE Neighborhood Association. Remember, and this is important, the association itself is a neutral party and will not lend its support or lack thereof to any project, and the views of its members and board members are diverse.

That said, I am also a current resident of the 4500 block of Oakland that I presume that I will one day share with LuxLiving and the many residents who will occupy the community. I am writing this piece with little to no distance at all between myself and the anticipated consequences. As a resident of this block, I know all too well the damage and hardship currently caused by the derelict Drury-“maintained” buildings facing Kingshighway. The alley is littered with broken glass, impossible-to-count bottles of spent liquor, drift marks, and more. The majority of nights feature speeding down Oakland and Arco in unlicensed vehicles opting to not use their headlights. Recognize that this is not a short-term problem: this has been the reality on this block for decades. It is not as though we have been given the choice of various optimal developers, or even that matter for residents to buy up these individual buildings facing Kingshighway. Drury has selected LuxLiving, and I know well that what we will get is better than what we have.

There are other benefits I look forward to including a prettier streetscape, way more neighbors, density that will at some point add to our tax base our students, and a bit of relief for a rental market very short of inventory in this neighborhood. Perhaps I speak from a point of privilege in a multitude of ways as well, in that I am not one of the few families that will likely have to move for the project. I also am keenly familiar with development and have a hand in the community engagement process. That heightens my responsibility and that of my fellow neighborhood volunteers to ensure we don’t let LuxLiving skate through this process without answering for its reputation and demanding a robust community engagement process that allows for real concerns to be given real answers.

What’s your take?

DeBaliviere Place Construction Check-In

DeBaliviere Place is one of St. Louis’ fastest-growing neighborhoods, home to one of the most dense residential populations in the region. With a unique mix of historic brick architecture, dense multi-family dwellings, and even some single-family interspersed throughout, the neighborhood can often feel like it was taken right out of a New York City borough. While St. Louis architecture is certainly different from elsewhere in the country, DeBaliviere Place feels special in that there are people everywhere who reside in the many tall apartment buildings. Some of the larger buildings have also been converted to condos, helping create an opportunity for ownership even in a high-demand area. A walk along Pershing Ave showcases the diverse, often young residents who utilize the MetroLink light rail system just around the corner at the intersection of DeBaliviere and Forest Park Parkway. Indeed, this is a transit reliant neighborhood, quite suitable for the young professionals and students who make up a significant portion of the population.

With a light rail station that also happens to be the main transfer stop between the red and blue lines, this area is a prime candidate for TOD – otherwise known as Transit-Oriented Development. TOD is critical for encouraging a healthier, more active lifestyle that reduces reliance on cars. While St. Louis has been making progress encouraging such development over the past several years, perhaps the best example of effective TOD resides right here in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood. Pearl Companies and LuxLiving are transforming the intersection, adding hundreds of residential apartment units and commercial storefronts – including a grocery store – just adjacent to the MetroLink station.

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We covered this development last year and even featured it in our 2020 Top 10 article. Now that construction is well underway, we are excited to share some recent construction photos of the two major projects and other neighborhood assets and architecture.

Of the developments underway along DeBaliviere Ave., the Expo at Forest Park is easily the largest. Pearl Companies is using Trivers and HOK architects to create two large structures divided by DeGiverville Ave. comprising of nearly 300 apartments and around 30,000 square feet of retail, including a grocery store. The renderings in the gallery below showcase about what St. Louisans can expect when the project is complete.

While the project is still far from complete, wood framing has begun and is steadily progressing. The steel beams are also visible from those driving along Forest Park Parkway. The scale of this development is truly massive, and should the Loop Trolley ever rise from the dead, it will find much of its stretch to become a lot more interesting.

Expo at Forest Park looking North – Brian Adler
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Just across the street from the Expo at the Park sits The Hudson, developer LuxLiving’s nearly complete residential apartment building. The crane just came down (inconveniently right after my photos), indicating that the rest of the work that needs to take place is related to exterior finishes and interior amenities. The structure is just about complete.

The Hudson is set to offer about 150 apartments in a package that LuxLiving claims will be just as modern, if not even more so, as the recently completed Chelsea just down Pershing Ave. We released a “First Look” of the Chelsea building earlier this year, and the amenities on offer are certainly unique for the St. Louis area. The Hudson will also offer ground-floor retail, helping further activate the intersection sitting just next to the MetroLink stop. The renderings below showcase what we can expect when the development is complete.

The Hudson at night
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These photos below showcase just how large the presence of the building will be. With that said, there is already significant density along the Pershing corridor within DeBaliviere place. Most structures are at least 3 stories tall, with others rising to nearly a dozen as you get closer to Union Blvd. Rather, the intersection at DeBaliviere and Pershing was the exception to the existing density until these developments were proposed – despite their proximity to transit.

The Hudson – Brian Adler
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By Fall, this intersection should look and feel dramatically different. However, longtime residents will still find the same historic and lively feel that has long existed within the DeBaliviere area. Most buildings in the neighborhood date back to near the 1904 World’s Fair, and a walk down Pershing reveals some of the finest architecture in the city. There are mixed uses as well, with small fitness businesses, dance studios, and even restaurants like Mack’s Bar and Grill and PuraVegan CafĂ©. The photos just below show just how gorgeous one street in the large community is. If you haven’t visited the neighborhood over the past few years, you may be surprised at just how well it holds up today.

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.

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