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.

The Fox, Powell Symphony Hall and the Sheldon already stood as cultural anchors for Grand Center. But what the district lacked then, it lacks now. In 1988, the first of a series of consultants -- John Bos, of Washington, D.C. -- was hired and had this to say about Grand Center: "People go to the symphony or the Fox, park their automobile in secured parking lots, and then leave the area immediately afterward because there's nothing for them to do."

The consultancy team recommended that housing be built for artists in the district to stimulate the introduction of grocery stores, restaurants, drugstores, art-supply stores and other services. More galleries would emerge, and with them a vibrant cultural scene. (Ruwitch says there are no plans for artist housing in the future, saying it "boils down to economics.")

In 1989, California artist Robert Mangurian was commissioned to create a wooden scale model of the district for $40,000. Weighing about 200 pounds and 5 feet tall at its highest point -- the Continental Building -- the model also came with $42,000 worth of lighting (the money coming from an NEA grant) -- all for Gaddes to present Grand Center Inc.'s vision of the next decade. (It's now "in pieces in Mangurian's office," says Ruwitch. "It was remarkable. I remember going to see it. It was like going through an enormous Lego installation."

In 1990, "art-friendly" condos were designed to be placed in an abandoned two-level parking garage on Washington Avenue. Leon Strauss, who had saved the Fox and was serving as "development consultant" to Grand Center Inc., told the Post-Dispatch, "I think this project fills a need for artists, and will do a lot to add the visual-arts component to Grand Center."

A microbrewery -- what would become the St. Louis Brewery Tap Room -- was being discussed for inclusion on Olive Street. Tom Schlafly, the Tap Room's owner, was looking at the old Wagner Mortuary building, next to the Continental. One of the issues for Schlafly, he says today, was parking. People will pay $5 for parking to see Phantom of the Opera, but that becomes an extravagance if someone's just looking for a beer and a hamburger.

Parking wasn't the only issue with Schlafly. "They wanted us as a tenant," he says. Schlafly would have spent his own money to renovate the property, but Grand Center Inc. would retain ownership. "If we paid for the renovation and the business failed, we were still liable for the rent, and if the business did well, our rent could go up. Part of the decision I made with the current building was that if the business would fail, we would at least own the real estate."

If Grand Center Inc. couldn't make a more suitable deal to invite a successful restaurant business into the district, it could always deliver the visuals. A "laser light canopy" was installed over Grand Center at a cost of $160,000. With plans for the renovation of the Sun Theatre stalled, neon was placed on the facade at a cost of $20,000 (although, at the time, the Black Rep was forced to rent lights for its new theater in the Grandel).

Gaddes talked of a renovation of the Medinah Temple to provide much-needed rehearsal space, art classes and other educational programs. In 1993, the first feasibility study for housing on Olive, Grand West, was completed.

Such were the early ambitions of Grand Center, punctuated with gaudy, expensive lighting displays, models and grand schemes -- most of which never made it from concept to reality, or onto Grand Center Inc.'s list of achievements.

For all that didn't materialize, though, there is much that Grand Center Inc. implemented that has improved the district in ways that are not always obvious to anyone who is ignorant of what the area was before. Bruce Coppock, former executive director of the St. Louis Symphony, remembers that sidewalks were just being put in when he first came 10 years ago. Ruwitch, a lifelong visitor to the symphony, says, "I still have visual images of parking down here and climbing over glass and broken sidewalks and weeds because I wanted to go to the concert."

So there's good reason for the sidewalks, the lighting and the "infrastructure" that Grand Center Inc. helped bring to the district to be highlighted in its promotional material.

Grand Center Inc. renovated the former First Congregational Church to create the Grandel Theatre, with James Turrell's "Tilted Plane" adjacent to it. Grand Center Inc. brought the Backstage Bistro into the district. The old Block Bros. Photography Studio was renovated by Grand Center Inc. to create the environmental education center EarthWays. The Portfolio Gallery was renovated by Grand Center Inc. The Forum and RAC moved to Grand Center. Jazz at the Bistro was invited to move to the district from downtown. More and more arts organizations have housed their administrative staff in the Arts Annex for a $1 rental fee.

KETC's move to its new facilities on Olive is Grand Center Inc.'s greatest coup in recent years. The agency demolished the former Beaumont Medical Complex, then took responsibility for an extensive waste cleanup. KETC received the property for $1.

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