By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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Jassen Johnson pounds the pavement of the Locust Business District like a small-town mayor. Walking from his midtown office on Olive Street to the center of his domain on Locust Boulevard, the tall and reedy transplanted farm boy (whose first name is pronounced like "Jason") seems to know just about everyone he encounters. A car rolls by, a horn toots. Johnson waves. Passing the old DeLuxe Automobile Company building, a pedestrian smiles, Johnson nods back.
Johnson's long legs take big strides. He wears a pressed pink oxford that complements a natural tan and doles out Crest-commercial smiles at every opportunity. It's overcast, and a storm is brewing in the western sky. The sleepy urban neighborhood, with its rows of storefronts and the occasional flowering window box, has the feel of a grumpy Mayberry. Gusts stir up dust clouds, but the wind can't muss Johnson's neatly cropped hair. Thunder rumbles in the distance, but the architect keeps walking. If he gets caught in a rainstorm, he can always just zip back to his office.
Until that happens he's on a mission to show off a corridor into which his various ventures have sunk $62 million since 2002. And they're just starting. When finished with phase one, it's on to an $80 million second phase, which will consist of new construction geared at housing including, in Johnson's perfect world, new digs for Mississippi Nights, the long-time live music venue that recently closed its doors on Laclede's Landing.
Johnson developed a crush on Locust while he was an architecture master's candidate at the University of Illinois in the early '00s and working on a class project in East St. Louis. During his many excursions into then-unfamiliar St. Louis, he was struck by the redevelopment taking place in the Locust Business District, a mile-long swath that separates downtown from the Grand Center cultural district. Looking closer, he discovered a curious little stretch in the center of that swath that seemed virtually untouched. The buildings had a personality, with rococo flair and odd quirks. "As I started to become familiar with St. Louis, I started to see all of the opportunity here, all the amazing architecture," Johnson says. "I really kind of fell in love with the neighborhood."
He was drawn, as well, by the short distance to Grand Center to the west and Saint Louis University to the south, and the cultural amenities offered by both. Residents would be within walking distance of performances at the Fox Theatre and at Powell Hall, home of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Johnson envisioned a quarter much like the Delmar Loop, one that lay in close proximity to a university and that integrated restaurants, boutique-style shops and cultural venues into a pedestrian-friendly whole.
He consummated the relationship in 2002, when he and two partners formed Integration Development and purchased their first property, at 3118 Locust. Soon the group bought and rehabbed the gloriously eccentric Dinks Parrish Laundry building on Olive Street at Compton Avenue, now home to the Loft Jazz Club, a stir-fry restaurant called Santo Bento and nine apartments, one of which serves as headquarters for Johnson's new company, Renaissance Development Associates.
He enters another building he has redeveloped. It houses Elder and Associates, an accounting firm. Johnson greets the receptionist, then gives a tour of the place, which was constructed in 1914 to house an early car-parts manufacturer called Champion Auto Springs. Save for a pair of display windows, the single-story building is unremarkable from the outside, but Johnson's minimalist, efficient design has made great use of the big, open space inside.
Daniel Elder moved his firm here from Clayton, where he'd been since the late 1980s. The reason he relocated is "short and boring," he says: Good office space in Clayton runs about $23 per square foot, and Elder pays about half that on Locust. "I'm an accountant, you understand. It's all about the money."
Taking his leave, Johnson heads across Locust to Clarion Marketing and Advertising, which relocated into a former industrial building three years ago. Clarion founder Gery Kotthoff's office is just inside the door; if this were still a blue-collar compound, he'd be sitting in the foreman's office.
Entering the main room, a bevy of cubicle-like offices, Kotthoff explains that the structure, erected in 1917, used to house a company that manufactured automotive transmissions. Johnson retrofitted the space to include offices, video facilities and a little blue-screen soundstage for shooting commercial spots. After eighteen years in Ballwin, Kotthoff moved in. "We were a little surprised that this area was relatively undiscovered," he says today. "Everything around it was thriving, and it had long-term commitment for growth and investment. And this little street just seemed to be totally ignored."
Johnson continues his tour. In the early years of the automotive industry, he says, architects hadn't yet figured out how to design the optimum space for selling. "When these were built, there was still confusion as to what a car dealership would look like," he explains. "They still weren't sure how to configure a showroom." Many of the buildings were fitted with heavy-duty elevators that moved cars from showrooms on the first floor to maintenance bays on the second level to rooftop parking lots where Cadillacs, Dodges and Oldsmobiles awaited their new owners.