the view from stockton house

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Apr 2003 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

We are the cultural soul of the city. We are its right brain. Its once and future kingdom of arts and entertainment. We open minds and nourish spirits. We broaden horizons and indulge fantasies. We are a melting pot of creative juices. Mingling, inspiring, educating and stimulating. From the traditional to the experimental, from around the corner and around the world, we bring the finest in art, music and theater to the people of St. Louis. We are a playground for the senses, full of exotic sights, amazing sounds, tantalizing smells and tastes, and overwhelming feelings. We are the center of all that feeds the mind, body and soul. We are Grand Center.

Grand Center, Incorporated, Website

Scraping the clouds twenty-four stories up, architect William B. Ittner's Art Deco masterpiece, the Continental Life Building, demarks with its recently relit beacon the intersection of Grand and Olive, once the busiest intersection in the City of Saint Louis and its surrounding region. Even twenty-five years after the City began losing its population to points west of the innerbelt (ca. 1950), one could still walk to markets, a shoeshine parlor, a jewelry store, book and magazine shops, a Walgreens, a Worth's clothing store, bars and night clubs, Garavelli's Cafeteria and other dining establishments, a billiard hall, and a Woolworth's, providing for all one's basic daily needs. This traffic nexus was then a densely packed beehive of activity. Now, another twenty-five years later, it resembles in many ways the ghost towns of the Old West: sidewalks are mostly deserted and store fronts mostly empty, as litter eerily bounces south on Grand Boulevard like tumbleweeds in the cold winter wind. The streetcar rails that echo the curves of the sidewalk corners beneath the gaze of the Continental are pulling up out of the asphalt, a reminder that the past cannot be ignored. And yet millions of dollars have been spent to determine the reasons why Midtown was dying a slow death, and to subsequently correct the anomaly. Power brokers, attempting to shock the body back to life, implemented numerous studies and master plans, yet Grand Center's lifeline grew flatter with every attempt to bring back a heartbeat. Now it appears dead on the mortician's slab. How did it die? Why did it have to die? Is there anything any of us can do to return it to life? What kind of power and voice do we as ordinary citizens have in enacting this sort of change?

Currently the power and voice to shape Midtown rests primarily upon the shoulders of Grand Center, Incorporated. Having already been in informal existence for ten years as New Town St. Louis, this non-profit organization incorporated on March 21, 1981, under the name of City Center Redevelopment Corporation, and has existed since then in one form or another, usually re-incarnating itself every six to eight years. Now called Grand Center, Inc., its duties are described, according to City of Saint Louis Ordinance 58270 (page 23), as "guiding, coordinating, and serving as a go-between for the numerous public, private, institutional and semi-public actors involved in the revitalization of the [Redevelopment Area] (established as blighted by City Ordinance 56717 on April 25, 1974)." Over time, its directorate has changed as many times as the name: in its current form, it is directed by former mayor Vincent Schoemehl, Jr., and is listed with the Missouri Secretary of State as incorporated under agent BCRA Co., a Missouri "Nominee" Corporation representing the clients of Bryan Cave, LLC, the oldest and largest law firm in the City of Saint Louis. Grand Center, Inc., administers an annual budget of somewhere around $2 million, and is presided over by a board of more than forty directors, who, despite their prestige in the community, are neither artists nor residents of the district.

Let us now turn back the clock exactly twenty-five years, to March 1978, when restoration commenced at the Stockton House, to understand some of the dynamics of the neighborhood's history. Nearly every building in the district with commercial lease space enjoys more than modest levels of occupancy, excepting the Continental Building. The Fox Theatre, fallen from the grace of its movie palace days, still runs third-rate "Kung-Fu" flicks. Many of the properties in the district require significant physical improvement, but the area boasts considerable commercial activity, fully occupied apartment buildings, and active churches. Criminally, most of the dozens of old homes, apartment buildings, and scattered commercial structures are about to be leveled and replaced with only scattered development and seas of asphalt parking lots to create Grand Center, "the Arts and Entertainment District of Saint Louis." Moving forward slowly in time to today, we discover that the dense urban neighborhood that once tightly knitted itself into its surroundings (Mill Creek, Sportsman's Park, the Ville), now features isolated venues sitting amongst dim, metal halide-illuminated parking lots over-lorded by Grand Center, Incorporated's, white-jacketed security troops. There is no sense of place or destination, day or night. Where once an interactive street scene invited pedestrians to buzz around the beehive, today's Midtown Hill, long ago the site of Confederate Camp Jackson, is forlorn and empty when concerts are not scheduled. Like a circus after all the "marks" have returned to the comfort of their homes, the area sits empty, dark, and shuttered. Only automobiles quickly rush from the south to the north side, or vice versa. What could be a very lively cultural district similar to South Grand or the University City Loop today flounders as an urban backwater full of property crimes and male prostitution, the pride-instilling result of thirty years of planning and development and the concurrent infusion of tens of millions of dollars. There is little here to offer the individual City resident. Twenty-five years ago, one could fulfill all of one's needs within just a three-block radius. Today, one must drive nearly a half a mile to buy a can of soda or a pack of cigarettes.

Apartment building at Washington and Spring (circa 1979). All buildings in photo demolished. click to enlarge
Grand at Olive looking northeast showing the fully occupied Metropolitan ("Boulevard") building with continuous small retail shops (circa 1979). Buildings at lower right demolished. click to enlarge
Fox Theatre surrounded by continuous small retail shops (circa 1979). click to enlarge
Grand at Olive looking southwest showing fully occupied buildings with continuous small retail shops (circa 1979). All buildings in photo demolished. click to enlarge
Washington Avenue looking west from Grand showing in the distance numerous occupied apartment and office buildings, since demolished (circa 1979). click to enlarge
One of several apartment buildings with street-level retail along Olive near Spring (circa 1979). All buildings demolished. click to enlarge
Apartment building and commercial building (to left) on Washington near Spring Ave. (circa 1979). All buildings demolished. click to enlarge
Street-level retail shops on Grand near Grandel Square (now the location of the "Tilted Plane") (circa 1983). Demolished. click to enlarge
Stately late-19th century home on Washington Ave. east of Vandeventer (circa 1983). Demolished. click to enlarge
Frederick Medler lamenting the massive destruction of the same home as well as the other splendid 19th century homes around it on Washington Avenue (circa 1991). click to enlarge
Fully occupied retail shops and offices on Grand near Olive (circa 1981). Demolished. click to enlarge

It is important to note that a few jewels in the tarnished crown of Midtown Hill fought eviction and survive, such as the Best Steak House and Grand Center Barber Shop, and that these establishments hold the area in stasis, an inch from the edge of the "ghostscape" void. But when patrons arrive from the suburbs to see a show at the Fox or Powell Symphony Hall, these fine establishments may as well not even exist. Even if these businesses featured Wal-Mart-sized signage, would patrons feel safe enough in their surroundings to venture across the thresholds of the few remaining open businesses? Suppose now that these same men, women, and children visited the district during the day, or when not attending a performance or other unique event: Where would they park to eat a gyro plate or get a haircut without having to pay a premium for the privilege to park near Grand Avenue? Would it not be easier to go elsewhere and avoid the hassle of paying more than a meter fare? On concert nights and non-concert nights alike, small businesses find little opportunity for survival without free or cheap parking. And so has what we see today — a handful of buildings placed amongst parking lots — been the primary objective of those whose job it has been to shape the redevelopment of the neighborhood? While it is obvious that considerable parking is a prerequisite to the operation of large venues, were the negative sides of the demolition of structures that "interfered" with the master plan and their replacement by barren parking lots given much, if any, consideration? This surreal landscape neither pleases the senses nor invites exploration, and has therefore effectively killed any and all potential for the survival of the ultimate form of theatre: the ever active and engaging urban street. Providing convenience to only those patrons who arrive and depart quickly via automobile and who are willing to shell out seven dollars per space per event evening, these lots contribute nothing to create an attractive urban destination where one would wish to hang out on a regular basis experiencing the neighborhood.

Let us examine how Grand Center, Inc., has historically guided and coordinated the redevelopment of the district throughout those twenty-five years. Grand Center, Inc., with financial assistance from Saint Louis University, has directed the renovation of the stone church at Grandel Square and Grand (now the Grandel Theatre) for performances by the Black Repertory and other groups. New streetlights have been installed in specific "high-activity" areas along with new sidewalks, which, despite the fact that they were constructed of expensive granite, are today crumbling into dust. Improvements, including a fountain, have been added to Strauss Park. And numerous parking lots have been added to serve patrons. However, at what cost? Numerous buildings were approved for demolition by this non-governmental organization in order to provide event parking and for future large developments (which never really materialized). In total, the neighborhood has lost an inordinate number of apartment buildings, several historic houses, numerous commercial buildings, and with them, nearly three hundred residents, over a hundred commercial employers providing nearly four hundred jobs, and roughly thirty retail establishments at which another fifty people were employed. Almost all of the street-front businesses, as well as their supporting upper-floor consumers, left as the nature of the parking situation shifted from public to private. How could the neighborhood have survived without ample free or metered parking? Certainly, the transit stops would provide enough consumers to keep some businesses alive. And what of the residents? Could they not sustain the local economy? Certainly they could have, but most of them, like the businesses, are now no longer here.

Perhaps this did not simply happen by chance. Let us hypothesize that this result was instead methodically planned. More specifically, if the goal of a non-governmental organization is to attract an affluent, (and therefore mostly white), patronage in order to "guide the revitalization" of arts venues in Grand Center, it might then be deemed necessary that the then-current, (and mostly black), residents and the struggling local businesses would have to be driven out and replaced by businesses that catered to and would be accepted by this new patronage, while keeping a few elements from the past for tourist photo backdrops taken of Mr. and Mrs. John Doe and their 2.4 children. This statement is conjecture; however, the management of Grand Center, Inc., has historically and unnervingly resembled the "hypothetical" target populous: affluent, primarily white citizens who, coincidently, are non-neighborhood (mostly non-City) residents. Currently, the Board of Directors features not one resident. Of course, that number becomes easier for the Board to justify in the passing of every year, as the population is rapidly approaching zero. In 2000, just over twenty-five hundred people lived in the neighborhood (including Covenant Blu), down from forty-five hundred in 1990. With the recent removal of the housing developments on the northern fringe of the district along Delmar, the gap between Grand Center, Inc., and the people of the neighborhood grows wider, and the potential for the development of an understanding of neighborhood dynamics on the part of GCI grows dimmer. And yet in their self-aggrandizing monologue, they dare to say they are the "body and soul" of the neighborhood, and furthermore, its "right brain." If so, why are the neighbors and legitimate non-commercial artists constantly pushed out? Isolated in their tenth floor offices in the old Missouri Theatre (currently the City Health Department) building, these redevelopment "go-betweens" look down upon an abstract grid of streets and buildings and see land-use color-coding and dollar signs. They have not seen an urban community that maintains a modicum of vibrancy despite all the attempts to kill it. They have not seen people interacting, living, or working in an urban context. They have not understood what makes an artist or a neighborhood, or how either function. In their lofty "Mount Olympus" in the sky, they have concerned themselves with preserving their own jobs rather than with trying to preserve the health of a neighborhood, building upon its strengths and developing a vibrant arts community. They have not realized that those whom they wished to "remove" from the area are thinking, feeling, caring people who may also appreciate art as much as any member of the suburban bourgeoisie. Why? Perhaps it is because they never asked. And when they were told, they turned their backs, saw nothing, spoke nothing, and heard nothing. As William S. Burroughs once claimed, "In politics, if something doesn't work, that is the best reason to go on doing it. If something looks like it might work, stay well away. A thing like that could make waves. And the boys at the top, they don't like waves."

The basic underlying problem to achieving a vibrant urban arts district and living/working community in Grand Center has been the same problem that has plagued the City's return to glory as a whole: an archaic mindset entrenched within the thinking of the powers that be, a provincial way of looking at and solving problems, and an unwillingness to be inclusive and receptive to others outside the confines of the elitist cliques. It is the assumption that "ours is the only way of addressing and solving problems." All others who wish to participate or offer up creative solutions are looked down upon as inferior, locked out of involvement, stereotyped or classified as troublemakers, and eventually, ignored. The product of this mindset does not resemble a revived urban neighborhood where new and rehabbed facilities are actively engaged with the streetscape, inviting and attracting patrons and locals alike. Instead, there are new developments, to the west of Grand Boulevard, for example: the KETC-Channel 9 building, the Sheldon Auditorium Complex, the Pulitzer Arts Center, etc. Each sits isolated and introspectively focused upon itself: self-serving objects and monuments to egotistical non-egalitarianism. The result is an environment similar to Earth City in West County, where all the buildings sit isolated from each other in vast seas of parking lots, inviting individual patrons who service these individual venues with a pseudo-sense of security. Few non-patrons and residents walk the sidewalks in this stark and depressing isolation of uses. Therefore, what makes Grand Center such a complete urban failure from a planning standpoint is the isolationist development policy implemented to discourage buildings and developments from engaging the streetscape and each other as an overall organic entity. Tragically, what continues to save Grand Center and make it attractive in a minimal way is not these new developments but what survives from the old patterns of land use. These older buildings interact with each other and preserve what visual interest is left.

So where do we go from here and how do we solve the problems? First, we acknowledge the obvious fact that the current approach is a total failure and that it must be discarded. Second, we must insist that Grand Center, Inc., should it continue to retain a position of shaping the redevelopment of the neighborhood, assume a stance that is inclusive of residents, urban planners, artists, and anyone who loves and lives in the City and patronizes the arts. Politicians, business elites, and lawyers all have important roles to play, but not in the everyday rebuilding of the urban fabric and community. Third, the reformed Grand Center, Inc., must develop and implement a redevelopment policy that preserves and builds upon the existing urban fabric and historic buildings. If Grand Center is to be a successful arts district and thriving urban neighborhood where one can live and work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, certain conditions need to be met:

All surface parking lots must be obliterated. The biggest obstacle preventing the area from reclaiming any connection to the surrounding neighborhoods are the vast seas of asphalt one must sail to arrive at Grand Center.

All remaining historic and architecturally significant buildings must be saved and re-utilized. No exceptions.

Generous green space, gardens, and pedestrian plazas must be developed. If the area is to be inviting to patrons and visitors, it must attempt to rebuild its outdoor public theatre: the street scene. Sidewalks and green spaces must incorporate large numbers of comfortable benches, kiosks, clocks, water fountains, etc. The unofficial garden district surrounding the Stockton House provides an excellent example of how well this concept works in a neighborhood such as this.

All new construction must be compatible to existing buildings and fit into the established streetscape. Unlike the standards laid out vaguely in the previous redevelopment plan(s), this must be earnestly enforced.

All sidewalks must be redesigned to incorporate generous, dense stands of sidewalk trees. This is the surest, best way to make the streetscape attractive to visitors and residents alike. As much as possible, sidewalks should be replaced with patterned brick and/ or concrete pavers set in a bed of fine sand. Not only is this a softer and more comfortable solution, but it will also allow sidewalk trees to thrive better.

Various housing types must be developed to service the broadest range of incomes and lifestyles possible, respectfully incorporating single-family development, particularly nearest to existing surviving historic homes, in order to enhance their settings and restore the context.

Short-term curbside parking must be added near commercial buildings to serve small stores and shops. On wider streets such as Grandel Square and Washington, angled parking could greatly increase availability of spaces as well as help to slow down traffic.

Numerous parking garages must be developed to serve the various venues. In addition, they must be designed to not look like mere parking structures. Designed to incorporate ground-level retail and rooftop office space, these structures should feature level decks that would allow for the buildings' future use as space able to be leased and occupied.

In specific locations, artists' lofts and studio spaces where local artists can fashion, display and sell their wares must be developed. If we are going to have an arts district then we must make it available to artists, not just bureaucratic arts organizations and their management executives.

A central "arcade" connected to an outdoor plaza where arts and crafts festivals/ events can be held on a continuous or regular basis must be developed.

Wooded pocket park at southeast corner of Samuel Shepard and Theresa. click to enlarge
Historic Wagoner House (center) near southeast corner of Samuel Shepard and Theresa with pocket park at corner. Historic Ives House in far left of photo. click to enlarge
Restored brick sidewalk adjacent to wooded pocket park at southwest corner of Samuel Shepard and Theresa. click to enlarge
Powell Symphony Hall Extension. Grand Boulevard at Samuel Shepard (N.E. Corner). A two-level parking structure with roof-level garden terrace interacts with the sidewalk in the form of dense plantings and a small amphitheatre for intimate performances and informal gatherings. The south wall expansion of the auditorium features an expanded lobby, rampways and art exhibition space. click to enlarge
Marina Center Development. Grand Boulevard at Lindell Boulevard (N.E. Corner). A ground-level arcade of small retail shops opens to extensive pedestrian friendly plazas. The second floor contains leasable office space. Upper floors house residential suites. A two-level below-grade parking structure serves the center. click to enlarge
Grand Center Parking/ Office/ Retail Complex. Washington Boulevard west of Grand and the University Club apartment building. This facility features street-level commercial/ retail space; a three-level parking structure above to serve the various venues, with below-grade parking for the apartments; rooftop offices; and outdoor recreation facilities for residents. click to enlarge

Despite all the damage that has been wrought, there are many signs of life and more sensible development one may find walking around the district. With the opening of The Commonspace, neighborhood residents and office workers as well as patrons of the arts venues now have another option for finding coffee and conversation other than driving to South Grand or the West End. And there is no greater pleasure than attending a summer performance underneath the big top of Circus Flora than perhaps sitting on the terrace at Stockton House with a glass of wine, listening to the sounds of the circus across the street. Integration LLC is adding residential and live/work rehabbed spaces available for lease to the east of Stockton House on Locust Avenue. The Grand Market draws people to Leon Strauss Park on summer weekends when the park would otherwise be empty. And now, Saint Louis University has announced its wishes to build an arena for its Billikens basketball team and other entertainment events. Despite concerns in regards to $15 million dollars of the public's money in the form of a reimbursement from Grand Center's Tax Increment Financing going to a religious institution, the arena, if designed sympathetically to pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns as well as in respect to existing structures, may in fact prove itself a value-added asset for the district. Anywhere you look, there is positive activity, yet most of this activity has been brought about through individual action. Let us remember that thirty years ago, Lafayette Square and Soulard were deteriorating slums, and that only through active citizen participation and democratic community inclusiveness have these two areas arrived today in a beautifully restored state in which they not only thrive, but also can boast both a strong immediate local economy and community.

And so, individual action will continue to be the basis of the solution. The only roadblock to individually achieving these goals stated above is an unwillingness to seek out creative and innovative participation and to welcome those with ideas to partake in the grand renaissance. After all, Grand Center, the district, should be the "cultural soul of the city... its right brain:" there is no other way to turn this marketing posture into reality than egalitarian inclusiveness. When Grand Center encompasses all, only then will it become a "kingdom of arts and entertainment," a place that is a "playground for the senses, full of exotic sights, amazing sounds, tantalizing smells and tastes, and overwhelming feelings."

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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