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The Failed Promise of the St. Louis Riverfront – and How We May Yet Achieve It

San Antonio, New Orleans, New Jersey, Baltimore – each city has found creative, bold ways to take advantage of their waterfronts. With special pedestrian walkways and commercial experiences, these cities were able to capitalize on their greatest geographical assets with productive, attractive, and impressive corridors. For residents and tourists alike, these places are landmarks that set cities apart, while simultaneously providing an excellent setup for businesses and tax revenue generation.

St. Louis has long held a distant relationship with the Mississippi River. Even now, most buildings have a considerable setback partly justified by flood risk. One might expect still that the nearest structures would be designed with street activation in mind, particularly with a National Park right around the corner. Instead, there are abandoned buildings like the long vacant Millennium Hotel and brutalist midrises like the Hyatt Hotel and Gateway Tower building that hardly offer any use for an active Downtown. Moreover, their designs evoke a cold and harsh feeling that cramps visitors and residents within the Gateway National Park.

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The St. Louis riverfront’s lack of street activation is a relic of the compromise made for the Gateway National Park. In the early 1900’s, the city and Federal officials decided to raze a huge portion of Downtown, including residential and commercial buildings, to lay the groundwork for the site of the Arch. Of course, hosting a National Park in the most prominent location in a major Downtown seems positive on many levels. St. Louis City was an incredible population center in 1930, with over 800,000 residents (compared to around 300,000 today). At the time, it was the nation’s 7th largest city.

It’s understandable that some may have thought the Arch would cement St. Louis’ position in American culture, a mega-city with a history of Westward Expansion. Most residents love the Arch and its unmistakable design and prominence on our city’s skyline, and it undoubtedly attracts tourists and history buffs alike. The positives, however, came at a steep cost for the city, people of color, and urban density. As St. Louis rid itself of predominantly Black communities, it also engaged in redlining and restrictive covenants, essentially restricting Black residents’ right to live in the city.

Nearly 500 buildings were demolished for the Arch grounds, beginning in 1939. 39 blocks were cleared for the Arch that would not be completed for another 26 years. The decision to destroy so much of St. Louis’ urban character was hardly a one-off, with decades of urban renewal projects that violently obliterated neighborhoods, which generally were communities of color.

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The Arch, while impressive, does not replace the density and character lost in the demolition of hundreds of riverfront buildings – an entire district turned to rubble. Moreover, just North and South of the Arch grounds sit neighborhoods that have languished in the years since, despite their sizable potential and historic character. What remains is a long stretch of riverfront with little to no activity whatsoever, made worse by the even more egregious lack of activity, investment, and development on the East side of the river. Despite an impressive skyline and its status as a river city, St. louis fails to capitalize on its river on the East and West shores from North to South alike.

Chouteau’s Landing, which is just South of the Arch and the 64/40 ramp Downtown, is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and yet, woefully neglected. The neighborhood consists of a rather small 12 blocks, but holds some of the oldest buildings in the area that were built on the original city street grid. Unfortunately, some of the structures have succumb to fires and even accidental demolitions in the last decade, making any proposal for redevelopment all the more necessarily expansive and expensive.

The buildings that remain are predominantly warehouses and manufacturing sites, but to leave it at just that would be a disservice the historical architecture and grandiose of the structures. Many of the warehouses appear as though they would make excellent residential conversions, like the one pictured below, compared to Soulard Market Loft apartments. There is vast potential to create intricate, dense, and mixed use city blocks with the buildings that remain, and the neighborhood would evoke some of the best historical character of St. Louis.

The potential for redevelopment is huge, and Chouteau’s Landing could with some work become a dense urban community with a strong St. Louis architectural character. Much is the same for Laclede’s Landing, another historical neighborhood just North of the Arch. While Laclede’s Landing isn’t quite as abandoned or underutilized as Chouteau’s Landing, it has low commercial and residential occupancy with buildings in need of large rehabs. Making matters worse, the blocks that make up the neighborhood are unusually cut off from the street grid and very difficult to access from Downtown.

“The nine-block area of Historic Laclede’s Landing—once the manufacturing, warehousing and shipping hub of St. Louis—is today the home of more than a dozen local restaurants, clubs, and attractions in the heart of downtown St. Louis.”

Laclede’s Landing Riverfront District

The streetscape and design of Laclede’s Landing are second to none in the city, with incredible cobblestone streets, brickwork, and commercial storefronts (many of which vacant, unfortunately). There certainly are still some successful and well-known restaurants and bars, including Big Daddy’s on the Landing, Kimchi Guys, The Old Spaghetti Factory, and a few others.

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Laclede’s Landing – Explore St. Louis

The accessibility of Laclede’s Landing is such a hinderance that the lack of entrances to the district is often credited with hindering the rejuvenation of the area. Cut off by the highway and the Arch, there are few ways in or out. The issue is so pronounced that a parking lot owned by Drury Hotels was seen as possible a solution, with a plan to add a road connecting the district to the rest of Downtown through the parcel. Drury has long planned a hotel in Laclede’s Landing, and has since simply sat on its property with no action despite the hurting of the neighborhood. This strategy and speculation are common for the chain, most notoriously in the case of its demolition by neglect in The Grove as we covered here at Missouri Metro.

With no hotel developed by Drury over the last decade, Laclede’s Landing has been in a state of stasis, despite its incredible potential. With huge brick buildings and former warehouses primed for redevelopment similar to those in Chouteau’s Landing and their proximity to restaurants, the Arch, and the spectacular built environment, the area could become St. Louis’ best destination.

There is some good news, with St. Louis based Advantes Group beginning a major redevelopment of two historic buildings on Second Street in the Landing, with a price tag of at least $12.4 million. The developer is so bullish on the area that it has even relocated its headquarters to the district. Rejuvenating large and historic buildings is nothing new to the developer, which also rehabilitated an old school in Lafayette into 36 apartments. In 2018, Advantes began their work in Laclede’s Landing, taking their experience in historical renovation to the Christian Peper building at 701 1st St. With 49 gorgeous lofts completed in what was the first recent multifamily development in Laclede’s Landing, Advantes created a roadmap for success and increasing residential density in the neighborhood.

Peper Lofts – Advantes Group
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Advantes’ $12.4 million plan for the district will include two additional renovations, including the buildings at 618-624 North Second St. and 700 North Second St. The proposal calls for 76 new apartments and street-facing retail space. Combined with their completed Peper Lofts project, the developer is introducing over 100 residential units to a neighborhood that formerly had almost no permanent residents. There are huge benefits to a residential community joining a commercial district, with the added density providing critical economic support and demand for businesses in the area. The effect is even greater considering the historical nature of the community and proximity to a National Park.

Although Laclede’s Landing has seen some recent success, with people now calling the neighborhood home and millions in investment, Chouteau’s Landing is just now seeing some promising proposals. A to-be-announced developer has partnered with St. Louis based Arcturis for architectural plans. The extensive proposal, which you can read in detail at CitySceneSTL here, calls for thousands of square feet of office, residential, and street-facing retail. There would also be multiple new mixed-used buildings constructed, as well as significant rehabs throughout the district to modernize the physical landscape. The proposal is rather breathtaking, and would, if completed, be one of the largest redevelopments in St. Louis over the last decade. That said, while many are optimistic about the trajectory for the project, this is such a large plan that anything can happen. We hope that we will see this completed, but the neighborhood has seen hope and failure so many times before.

Rendering from CitySceneSTL

While St. Louis’ two most storied riverfront neighborhoods that remain have promising, ambitious paths forward, there is so much ground to make up. Cities across the nation have found smart and resourceful ways to repurpose their riverfront districts into lively neighborhoods that residents love. With a landmark right in the middle of the two neighborhoods, St. Louis has its work cut out to integrate the neighborhoods to the city more broadly.

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The difference is stark when comparing St. Louis’ riverfront vibrancy to that of other cities like San Antonio and New Orleans, but we have immense potential that we can capitalize on if we set out to do so. The bones exist in both Laclede’s Landing and Chouteau’s Landing for high residential density and commercial activity, combined with historical architecture and charm that would give a distinct character unable to be matched by other cities. We also have the Arch, for all its flaws in relation to cutting off historic neighborhoods Downtown, to provide a jaw-dropping view and outlook for residents and tourists alike. It can complement these communities, if we do things right. It will take effort, investment, and perseverance to restore our riverfront, but if the last few years are any indication, momentum is on our side.

2 comments

  1. We need leaders, corporate and political.

    Corporations need to bring pride to citizens which will encourage support. The Cardinals and Blues have done that. We need more from outside the sports world.

    Politicians need to be smarter. Intelligence not a requirement for election and has hurt the city. Many of the electorate don’t vote. Govt emphasis on supporting families will reduce crime and crime is often the first thing people think of regarding St. Louis. It hurts the entire region because stats are skewed to the the poorer neighborhoods within the city limits.

    Reduce crime, boost pride, fight for businesses, and support entrepreneurs!

    Like

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