Grand Illusion

Ten years ago, Grand Center Inc. set out to create the region's "premier arts, entertainment and education district." They fixed the sidewalks and brought in the lights. It's a nice place to visit, but nobody stays.

A walk through the Midtown district known as Grand Center is a lonely enterprise on a weekday afternoon. There are no people, not even a few friendly winos in the numerous empty lots. A dog chained to protect someone's notion of private property barks. Bright banners proclaiming "10 Grand Years" hang near the burned-out carcasses of former homes and businesses. Along the north boundary of the district -- as the 58 acres was designated in the late '80s for redevelopment -- is the city's juvenile-detention center. On the south side, in contrast, is St. Louis University. A proud array of beauty salons dot the urban landscape. The Lindell Mini Mart is a few doors down from the popular Vito's Pizza Bar. Among the many handsome, vacant buildings to admire are the Beaux Arts building, across from Powell Hall; the Sun Theatre building, with its impressive neon-light display (more meretricious in the light of day); the Medinah Temple, which fits snugly in an obscure block of Olive; and, down the street, the Continental Building, still resisting the wrecking ball, a monument to an earlier, more enterprising St. Louis.

In the light of day, Grand Center fails to measure up to "the premier arts, entertainment and education district in the St. Louis region," the claim made in a slick brochure celebrating the 10th anniversary of Grand Center Inc., the redevelopment agency whose charge it has been to revive decades of urban blight in the area. The rare pedestrian might observe the "sparkling sidewalks," which are mentioned twice in the 30-page full-color brochure, or designer Kiku Obata's brightly colored parking signs, which even at midday add some life to the derelict environment. The prose of the vividly designed catalog of achievements is pure civic boosterism: "Grand Boulevard with its impressive buildings and its shining marquees was 'On-Stage.' The streets leading up to Grand were 'Off-Stage' where people could find restaurants, galleries and other businesses."

At least that was the design plan. "Off-Stage," in most directions, are more abandoned buildings. Although a 1993 feasibility study for housing on Olive is mentioned in Grand Center Inc.'s chronology, "Grand West" has yet to materialize.

An invitation to end a walking tour of the district at Grand Center's Arts Administration Complex -- where Grand Center Inc. and 11 arts organizations have offices in what is sometimes referred to as an "arts incubator" -- might be politely refused. The "old Missouri Theater building" houses the city health department on the initial floors. Passing through a clinic for STDs, standing in an elevator with the occasional medium-security prisoner, doesn't quite communicate "premier arts district."

A symbol of Grand Center Inc.'s success stands on the corner of Grand and Grandel Square. The Grandel Theatre, home of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and the Grandel Theatre Cabaret Series, was built by Grand Center Inc. "The first new theater to open in the City in more than 25 years," their publicity department brags. Adjacent to the Grandel is the environmental sculpture "Tilted Plane," by internationally renowned artist James Turrell. Grand Center is home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Sheldon Concert Hall, the Fox Theatre, the Forum for Contemporary Art and, most recently, KETC (Channel 9). The Pulitzer Museum is under construction on Washington Avenue. The Forum's new building is being planned to stand beside it. Jazz at the Bistro moved to Grand Center in 1995. On any given night, literally thousands of people drive into the city to attend concerts and theater in the district.

Then, after the show's over, those people get in their cars and leave.
Drive along brightly lit Grand Boulevard at 11:30 on a Saturday night and there is no foot traffic to be seen -- not a soul walking the premier cultural district. And, despite the improvements to Grand Center, that was as true 10 years ago as it is today.

Who or what is Grand Center Inc., and what has been the organization's role in the successes and failures of the last 10 years? The answers reflect an ongoing identity crisis.

Don Roth, president and executive director of the symphony, says, "Their job is development." Jim Holtzman, of Grand Center Inc.'s real-estate-development board, says, "We function best as a facilitator. We're not developers." Tom Reeves, chairman of the board of Grand Center, says the agency is a "facilitator of a collaborative effort." Paul Hales, chair of the Business and Growth Association for the district, says, "Grand Center's role is to keep things together, encourage and stimulate development and hand it off to the people who come into the neighborhood." Paul Reuter, of the Sheldon, sees the role of Grand Center Inc. as functioning in two parts: "as a real-estate developer to get the district going, and to promote the district as an arts center." Betsy Wright Millard, of the Forum, admits, "It's taken me a long time to figure out what they are. I'm not sure they fully understand what they are."

Grand Center Inc. is as ambiguous about its role in its own press material as those who try to define it. In one paragraph, a timeline charts the shifting identity of the organization as it has evolved from "organizer" to "developer," again to "organizer" and now to "facilitator."

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