For the years I have been living in St. Louis, the enormous billboard at the entrance to the Grand Center arts district has both amused and amazed me. "Welcome to the Middle of the Renaissance!" it proclaims in jaunty lettering, sitting on top of an abandoned building (of late a Chinese restaurant) in a show of visual irony that even Alanis Morissette might recognize.
In fact, the whole section of the street that Grand Center claims as the "arts and entertainment district of St. Louis," while technically filling that bill, is not the vibrant urban neighborhood its promoters seek. There's no denying that, yes, the Fox Theatre, St. Louis Symphony, Black Rep, St. Louis Shakespeare Company, Jazz at the Bistro and other cultural offerings happen in Grand Center, but it always strikes me that people continue to attend in spite of the neighborhood, not because of it.
But never say die to Vince Schoemehl, the new executive director of Grand Center. There is, as he says, "a new sheriff in town." Only this sheriff's riding in on a rubber-wheeled tram.
That's right a tram. That's front-and-center in Schoemehl's plan to jump-start the development of Grand Center and
turn it into the bustling, vibrant, eclectic area that we can all see, if we squint real hard, as we head to our cars after a show at the Fox. The way Schoemehl sees it, there will never be the kind of investment Grand needs, whether in restaurants,
shops or other first-floor uses, until there is an influx of bodies to support those businesses during the day.
"Look at Clayton," Schoemehl says. "In Clayton, you've got 160 acres of land, six million square feet of commercial space, 24,000 off-street parking spaces, and 80,000 people a day in and out of the area." (As a side note, the man knows his numbers. Nary a note referred to during our entire conversation you can sense the leadership skills that surely wowed the selection committee when he interviewed for his new job.) "In the district here, we are dealing with 54 acres of land; from the restaurant developers and other people I've talked to, we need about 10,000 people a day moving through here to access those services, in order to make it work. We get 1.5 million a year in Grand Center, and yet we have no daytime activity to support restaurants."
SLU alone has 11,000 students and 4500 faculty and staff. Add to that about 4000 folks at the Tenet/Cardinal Glennon/VA hospitals, thousands of employees at nearby Sigma and A.G. Edwards, and 1400 in the same building that Grand Center, Inc., itself occupies, and there's your captive audience.
Enter the tram and a sleek, bullet-style European model, at that, if Schoemehl moves on the design he currently favors. With a couple of trams running smack down the middle of Grand Avenue, from Delmar to I-44, Schoemehl expects that all those aforementioned folks could be enticed to hop on the tram, cruise on up to Grand Center (no worries about parking), enjoy lunch at one of the players-to-be-named restaurants, and be back to work in a jiff.
I must admit, I felt my eyes start to glaze over when the "T" word was first mentioned. Hadn't we been here before, just recently? Something about a tram and The Loop? Why are we suddenly all so tram-happy? However, a few minutes into it, and Vince Schoemehl pausing from his recitation of the stats to jab at the photo of the curvy, groovy tram and exclaim, "You know, that's so neat!" and I'm warming up to the idea.
Therein lies the essence of what St. Louis needs: people who can make you believe in their ideas enough to give them the benefit of the doubt, to want them to succeed. Schoemehl has no illusions about the rest of what's needed in Grand Center residential development and some movement in the locked-up-tight ownership of some languishing buildings, to name just two. But he sees the tram and its attendant traffic as achievable missions, and a good place to start. So that's where the renaissance begins.