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His master's thesis was a business plan for the district. After earning his degree, Johnson moved to St. Louis and, along with partners Joe Hartman and Robert Beckermann, formed Integration Development and put his thesis to the test. The goal was to buy a few buildings a year and redevelop them, leasing half the units and putting the others up for sale. The company's maiden venture was Integration's offices, which included a second-floor residence for Beckermann.
"The more I delved into it and saw what the challenges were and what the benefits could be, the more interested we got, the bigger our business plan became," Johnson says now. "We bought a few more buildings, and because of the excitement, and because people accepted it so well, we decided to grow."
Johnson invited a boyhood friend, Landon Miller they were Boy Scouts together to join Integration as construction coordinator. "When we were starting this project, there were the big guys downtown and the little mom-and-pop-type stuff in the city in general doing two- and three-story projects," says Miller. "These buildings are a little bigger, and there's a little more to it. They aren't seven-story buildings, but a lot of them are 50,000 square feet. We saw a potential that other people weren't picking up on, and that's what our niche was: medium-size projects."
Having established itself, Integration had a nice narrative to sell potential investors on, notes Johnson: "Look at what we've done, look at what we were able to do, look how well we were received. Let's continue to do this."
Vince Schoemehl, president and CEO of Grand Center, Inc., likes what he has seen from Johnson and his cohorts and sees development of the Locust Business District as key to the city's well-being in the long term. "Somehow we've got to connect downtown to midtown in the same way that midtown has connected to the Central West End, the way that it has connected to Washington University," says the former St. Louis mayor. Schoemehl calls the Locust Business District the "last critical synapse. Then you have a solid base up and down the center, which extends like a spine, and then supports development to its north and south. Having this central nervous system in place is really going to be critical to the long-term success of the city."
Johnson eventually branched off into architectural consulting and formed a new company, Renaissance Development Associates; today Miller, Hartman and Robert Beckermann's brother Michael carry on with Integration Development. (Robert Beckermann took his own life in January 2006.) "We have projects right next door to each other, and there's some overlap [with Johnson]," Michael Beckermann says. "To a certain extent we're working together, and to a certain extent we're each doing our own stuff."
To date Integration and Renaissance have completed 17 of the 37 projects that constituted phase one of their vision. For phase two, Johnson foresees a condo development that might accommodate a new home for the recently shuttered live-music stalwart Mississippi Nights.
(Johnson cautions that the latter requires further negotiation, explaining, "If we can't work out the incentives package with the city, then the Mississippi Nights project won't happen." Mississippi Nights co-owner Jim Huck says it's too soon to speculate about where the club might rise again, though he's interested in Johnson's proposal if the numbers add up. Huck says other potential locations are under consideration but declines to identify them.)
Looming over any project in the district is the imminent completion of the basketball Billikens' new home, Saint Louis University's Chaifetz Arena.
The arena will hold 10,600 people, many of whom will require places to park. One SLU-owned lot, located at the southwest corner of Compton and Olive a block from Auto Row, has already been earmarked for the arena.
The question that remains is what the university intends to do with the other two dozen properties it owns along Olive, Locust and Washington.
Saint Louis University spokesman Jeff Fowler declined to comment for this story about the university's development plans. Peter Pierotti, the school's director of development, did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment. Additionally, many Locust residents and property owners in the Locust Business District are loath to talk, fearing possible repercussions.
Still, an October 2006 presentation Kathleen Brady, SLU's vice president for facilities management, delivered to the university's Student Government Association offers a glimpse into university officials' mindset.
Pointing to a map of SLU and its area holdings, Brady related the university's plans. She discussed the process of assembling land for the arena, the failed negotiations to put the final piece in place and the subsequent decision to locate the basketball venue south of Olive.
"So the question was what to do with this property here," Brady said, pointing to the intersection of Locust Boulevard and Josephine Baker Boulevard. Brady told the students SLU was thinking of relocating of its departments of fine arts and performing arts into a complex in that area, in order to better integrate the programs into Grand Center. She predicted a synergetic relationship between students and area artists and musicians. "The buildings up on Locust," she said, "we're hoping they'll be renovated with retail on ground floor and probably residences or office space above." Directing the students' attention to the livery stable at 3401 Locust, she explained that the university was holding off taking action, preferring to "wait and see if the theater department can move up there."