During a recent weeklong stint on jury duty, I took advantage of the lunch break to head down to Washington Avenue to shop for a hat at Levine's, eat some stir fry at the Hungry Buddha and snap some photos of the construction. My first thought was, "Wow, a lot is happening!" The street, sidewalks and almost all the buildings on several blocks seem to be under construction at the same time. After the initial surge of excitement, my next thought was, "It's about time!"
Back in June of '99 when I first saw a draft of the Downtown Development Action Plan, it had "winner" written all over it. It talked about things like the importance of pedestrians, reuse of existing buildings and making connections between the focus areas. I read through the plan several times, highlighted the good parts and talked it up to anyone who would listen.
It's hard to stay enthused about anything for three years, though. The streetscape improvements are chronically behind the schedule announced by the city, violating the first rule of project/expectation management: under-promise and over-deliver. Originally, the first phase, which includes the blocks between 15th Street and 18th street was supposed to be finished by October 2001. After missing that deadline, the city pushed it back to the spring of 2002 and missed it again.
In the things-that-make-you-go-hmmm department, 1517 Washington is perched right on the very edge of the nearly completed first phase. It's the last building on the block with a paved street in front of it. 1517 Washington is owned by Barb Geisman, the deputy mayor for development who was asked by the Federal Highway Administration and the Missouri Department of Transportation to step down from overseeing the Washington Avenue streetscape improvements to avoid the "appearance" of a conflict of interests; Richard Callow, Geisman's live-in boyfriend who frequently contributes bits to Jerry Berger's column in the Post and who's made a PR career out of representing conflicting interests like the Cardinals and the city during the stadium negotiations, Downtown Now! and the Preservation Board during the Century Building fiasco, and Harmon and Bosley during the '97 mayoral campaign; Linda Martinez, a partner at Bryan Cave whose practice focuses on development and related federal, state and local incentives; and Chris Dornfeld, Slay's technology czar.
Most of the photos below are of the in-progress second phase of the streetscape project, which runs from Tucker to 1517 and is supposed to be finished by December or January. This area has a very odd vibe to it at the moment. As local gadabout Steve Smith put it, "It is like walking on the moon. I almost feel like I weigh only a fraction of my earth weight when I am walking in these craters." The heavy equipment strewn about the middle of the street makes it look like a Mad Max set.
This is no movie set, though. It's a real city street where longtime merchants are struggling to make a living because customers have to moonwalk to get to their stores. Some have been doing business on Washington Avenue for decades; others arrived more recently but saw the district's potential long before there was a downtown action plan. The street is being ripped up without much regard for them. They're the entrepreneurs who made Washington Avenue cool in the first place with their loyalty and vision, yet they're being punished by the poorly coordinated street work that will cut off access to their stores and restaurants for several months.
The rising tide will float some boats and sink others. The huge inflow of public money ($17.3 million for the streetscape improvements, not to mention all the tax credits that are helping to make the numbers work) is dramatically raising private property values. That's good news if you're a building owner; it's not so good if you're a renter. It will be interesting to see who's left standing once the dust finally settles on Washington Avenue.