Elvisville

Downtown Memphis is already where downtown St. Louis hopes to go

"The issue is, the stores don't address the street," says Midge McCauley, a Philadelphia consultant recently hired by the Downtown St. Louis Partnership to develop a plan for revitalizing downtown retail activity. "Its lack of curb appeal, its lack of attention to street-level retail, is a deterrent. St. Louis Centre doesn't spew forth that image. It certainly can't remain in its current condition and have downtown become a major retail center."

There's a symbiotic relationship here. Be it Memphis or St. Louis, the presence of around-the-clock residents convinces suburbanites and tourists that downtown is a safe, cool and interesting place to spend some dollars and time. Residents are also a powerful statement that downtown isn't a pale imitation of the suburban shopping experience or a place only tourists visit.

"While residents downtown might not be an end unto themselves, what we are is the reverse of canaries in the coal mine," says Margie Newman, a St. Louis documentary filmmaker and downtown loft dweller.

But those downtown residents have to be supported by grocery stores, restaurants, shops and schools. Memphis is providing that support. St. Louis is not, say local developers such as Kevin McGowan, who crossed swords with City Hall over his alternative plan for saving the Century Building instead of razing it for a parking garage as part of Mayor Francis Slay's blueprint for reviving the Old Post Office.

"There's no plan, there's no marketing, there's no blueprint to take advantage of this golden goose and make sure it keeps laying eggs," McGowan says.

Not so, says Tom Reeves, head of Downtown Now!, the nonprofit agency charged with steering the renovation of St. Louis' decaying core. With a plan passed in December, based on discussions between civic leaders, planners, bankers, developers and downtown activists, St. Louis is just starting down a decade-long road that Memphis and other revitalized cities have traveled.

"We're still in the infancy," says Reeves, a former banker. "Urban revitalization is a marathon, not a sprint."

Major features of the plan include the $17 million Washington Avenue streetscape renovation and the mayor's favored plan to revitalize the Old Post Office building -- and, off in the distant future, preliminary drawings for a three-block-wide plaza near the Adam's Mark Hotel that would bridge Memorial Drive and connect the Old Court House area to the Arch grounds.

But the streetscape plan has been dogged by construction delays and the appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of deputy mayor Barb Geisman, who has been asked by federal highway officials to step down from ramrodding the project because she owns property on the avenue. The project is also causing considerable financial pain to the retailers who have hung in down there through decades of downturn.

And thanks to a nasty bit of mayoral thuggery directed at McGowan and his partner, loft developer Craig Heller, a strong whiff of old-style St. Louis politics permeates the Old Post Office plan, one that counters Reeves' rhetoric about how Downtown Now! is creating a new dialogue between developers, bankers, planners and politicians.

Still, Reeves talks confidently about his shop's plans and the drive to create development opportunities for private capital with judiciously placed public-money projects such as the streetscape and the Old Post Office. He sees these corridors of development as links to the civic assets downtown already has, eventually extending down to the river and over to Union Station and Busch Stadium -- or its eventual replacement.

But Dennis Judd, an urban-revitalization expert at the University of Illinois-Chicago who used to be on the faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says talk about changing St. Louis' political culture isn't enough. The city must create a cadre of professional planners, freed from politics, who know how to talk to developers and help them swing deals.

Judd disagrees with urban activists such as Ghio and Newman who emphasize the need for downtown residents. He says the key to downtown revitalization is the presence of high-end amenities -- museums, theaters, restaurants, stadiums, clubs and parks -- that bring a steady stream of visitors to downtown, creating the retail network that supports downtown residents.

But to create this kind of atmosphere, St. Louis needs to break the culture of hostility it shows to outsiders with money and vision to make something happen, Judd says.

"I've often thought St. Louis leadership says to itself, 'We know the pie is getting smaller, but at least we're the ones slicing it up,'" says Judd. "But any city that's thriving has outside players with vision, and you have to step up and welcome these people and say, 'What do you need?' instead of trying to shut them out."

At the heart of the problem is the city's fragmented political system -- its 28 aldermen, all of them with a say on development projects in their wards, and executive power that's split between the mayor's office and three or four independently elected county offices. This has kept St. Louis in the silver-bullet rut and has blunted any effort to link its considerable assets, such as the Arch and Union Station.

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