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Mar 2003 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

In Conversation with Barb Geisman
By Thomas Crone

I recently had a chance to discuss some Downtown issues with Barb Geisman, the city's deputy mayor for development. The conversation took place as an interview, intended as material for a larger story in a local publication. Unfortunately, that projected piece didn't come to pass, but the discussion was interesting enough to share in a Q/A version.

With the exception of a couple of questions related to timely issues — which we'll trim here — this is the full text of the interview, conducted on December 31, 2002.

TCS: As someone who lives Downtown, what would you like to see to make day-to-day life better for residents?
Geisman: Barb GeismanI think that many people, including me, would like to see a small grocery store. What I tell people — which is the truth — is that you get in the car for groceries, even if you live in a neighborhood. It's not inconvenient living Downtown without a grocery store. Having those amenities sell you better. A grocery store would be a good thing and we'll be working on that.
TCS: What specifics of other downtowns do you enjoy when you travel?
Geisman: Bear in mind that I don't travel a lot. Chicago is the one that has the kind of things that we'd like to see in St. Louis. The two things that come to mind are an abundance of first-level retail and an abundance of downtown housing — of all varieties and shapes and sizes.
TCS: How about as someone who works Downtown, as well as living there... what types of amenities are needed?
Geisman: Well, back to the amenity thing, there's a need for first-floor retail, the ability to walk around Downtown and to different kinds of stores. Both as a resident and a city development official, I think we need a whole lot more. And we're beginning, with the Downtown Partnership, to go out and entice both mainstream and offbeat retailers to try us out.
TCS: What type of approach would be used?
Geisman: We and the Downtown Partnership, 2004 and Downtown Now! hired a retail consultant to come up with retail strategies and she's just issued her report. A couple of public meetings were held with building owners and residents. The suggestion for Washington Avenue between Tucker and 14th would make it a home-furnishing district. Kind of like having a Bed, Bath & Beyond, but maybe more avant garde: a Humble Abode, a Villa Lighting. We're looking for places that have bigger stores elsewhere, who can set up a smaller store on Washington Avenue, and that would attract other types of stores, things that you see in University City's Loop. And complement it by restaurants. Go have lunch, then hop into this home district. We're working to target those types of stores. We're working on a retail loan program to give those types of stores incentives to try the district. Further east on Washington, the idea is to cater to the convention trade with restaurants.
TCS: Do you get a chance to go to many neighborhood meetings? I've lived in a couple of different areas lately and going to the meetings, you do get a sense that there's still a debate about Downtown emphasis versus neighborhood development.
Geisman: Sometimes we do hear that, but actually I've been impressed since coming to city government that people in neighborhoods realize how important Downtown growth is for neighborhoods. Roughly a third of our revenue budget comes from Downtown and provides services for Downtown and neighborhoods. Concurrent to the Downtown retail stuff, we're bringing in a neighborhood retail marketing person, just to work on finding things found in suburban strip malls and bringing them to urban districts. A lot of mainstream retailers want to locate in neighborhoods. We need to focus energy not just on making a South Grand look nice, but to market services that neighborhood residents want and need.
TCS: I was looking on one of the Downtown websites and got the idea that about 300 units are supposed to be coming open soon. Is that about right?
Geisman: The number I've heard kicked around is that there are roughly 800 units under construction. The math, I would assume, is a residential addition of 1.5 on average, per unit. Most of these people moving in are not families; they're couples and singles. I guess you could assume that the vacant units in Plaza Square would make that 800 number go up.
TCS: Is there a number of residents that's being targeted?
Geisman: It's not memorized, but the number's somewhere in the range of 8-10,000 new residents. It depends on where you're looking at Downtown's boundaries. There are 3,000 in the immediate vicinity that would include O'Fallon Place, Cochran Gardens and existing housing development.
TCS: I had a chance to see "White Christmas" at the American Theatre recently and wondered what might be in store for that building.
Geisman: On the record, I would say that we are hopeful that both the American Theatre and other spaces in Downtown can be used for more events like "White Christmas." Our director of special events, Sheila Banks, is working on a film series, like the "Seinfeld" thing that happened a couple years ago, showing films on walls. We want to get people used to coming Downtown for special events like that.
TCS: How would you say this administration has differed from previous ones in the approach to developing Downtown?
Geisman: There're a bunch of answers.
TCS: Such as?
Geisman: First of all, the thing that Mayor Slay has done an excellent job of with Downtown — and a bunch of other things — is using a teamwork approach to getting things done. He's been working very closely with everyone involved in Downtown: the Partnership, 2004, Downtown Now!, RCGA, major employers, everyone involved with a stake. We want to build consensus to get Downtown moving forward. The second difference, once consensus is reached, is that he makes decisions. He acts on the decisions, already having built a team to move forward in the same directions. In the past, the teamwork structure was non-existent, things weren't happening. The other thing we should do is give credit to the new leaders in Downtown; you have a whole group of people who want to get something done, it's not so much a clash of egos. Thirdly, I think the mayor's done a really excellent job of promoting Downtown wherever he goes; he highlights the positives wherever he's going. A big part of Downtown is convincing people that it's already a great place to live and work and it can be a really great place if we have a positive approach. The other thing he's spent a lot of time on with Downtown is talking to Downtown businesses. When he even gets a hint that someone's thinking of moving out, we truck down there and give the full-court press. That — just having a mayor that cares if your business is in the city — is a big difference in terms of how people perceive the city administration and the future of the city.

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