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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.
As dealers moved west, where acreage was abundant, they stored their cars on surface lots, not on roofs. Perhaps fittingly, the efficiency with which the dealerships sold their product on Locust created the very circumstances that led to the district's demise. Reliable cars meant carefree commutes, and a demand for the convenience of nearby maintenance. When the last of the dealerships deserted Locust in the 1960s, the area faced obsolescence. Tucked away in a vestigial neighborhood, the buildings languished. To the east, a dead downtown offered little hope for expansion. To the west, Grand Boulevard managed to maintain a semblance of sparkle thanks to the newly revitalized Powell Hall and the symphony. The major bright spot and engine of development was Saint Louis University, which was quietly transforming itself from a well-defined little campus to a midtown power broker and majority landowner.
In 2002, at about the same time Johnson embarked on his buying jag, SLU began assembling real estate for a new basketball arena at the Locust Business District's western edge, ending up with sixteen properties in a three-block radius. But one stubborn holdout refused to sell, so the university headed south of Olive. Construction on the new Chaifetz Arena, to be located at the eastern edge of campus, is set for completion next March.
SLU still owns all that Locust District land, though a wide stretch that extends from the rising new arena north to Powell Hall. As the neighborhood revives, developers, residents and businesses have been left to guess what the university has in store for its holdings. All the while, the school officials have kept virtually mum.
SLU did speak recently, however, via the wrecking ball, which it deployed to flatten two buildings. One, a former Oldsmobile dealership, was nearly identical to a complex a block east that an architecture firm called Vessel is transforming into new office space. Vessel HQ's former twin is now a surface parking lot, one of nine such expanses that form a de facto barrier between the Locust Business District and Grand Center. A second property, a single-story storage building, came down at the same time for another parking lot.
The demolitions upset many neighbors, who fear they're a portent. And they might well have been precisely that. Early this month SLU revealed its intention to demolish a third building, a livery stable next door to the flattened storage building that dates back to 1885. That structure, located at 3401 Locust, had long been coveted by Jassen Johnson, who was drawn by its size and proximity to Grand Center. He'd been negotiating to buy it in 2003 when the university swooped in and snatched it out from under him.
Today, as Johnson leaves Clarion Marketing, the rain comes down hard. Unconcerned, the 28-year-old entrepreneur looks to the sky, then begins a quick, steady jog, his loafers dodging puddles as he scurries back to his office.
Last year Carter Hendricks' auto-repair shop at 3336 Washington Boulevard was extensively damaged when an Alfa Romeo caught fire in the garage. As the blaze spread, Hendricks attempted to push the vehicle outside, but the brakes locked. Forced to abandon the building, he realized his dog, James, was stranded inside.
Now he points to the spot where he found his companion. "There was a wall of fire right there," says Hendricks, a sturdy man whose head is crowned by a thick helmet of salt-and-pepper hair. "And I had to walk through it to get to James."
Hendricks retrieved the dog, and he's got the scars to prove it, having suffered third-degree burns on his left arm, shoulder and neck. "It looked like a fucking pork tenderloin," he says of his arm. The building's second floor was gutted and the façade destroyed.
It's owner's tenacity was by no means out of character.
In 2005, having declined Saint Louis University's offers, Hendricks watched as the university gradually devoured his neighborhood, concerned that he might end up in a legal fight over eminent domain. But SLU abandoned its effort when another property owner, Jon Pyzyk, refused to sell the Drake Plaza, an 87-unit apartment complex located at 3307 Olive.
Today Hendricks' shop is virtually an island, surrounded by SLU-owned real estate. He says he and university president Lawrence Biondi have resolved their differences. (It didn't hurt that the school didn't need his property any more.) "I look at the positive side," Hendricks says, taking care not to topple a delicate balance. "I look forward to their transforming their land into a theater district."
And, he adds, "I like Father Biondi."
Hendricks specializes in Italian sports cars. His daughter Anna's middle name is Aurelia, after a certain Lancia model ("We had to tell her grandmother that it meant 'fair hair' in Italian," he confides). The storage room at the back of his garage is crammed with old Italian parts. In the middle of the mess sits the shell of Hendricks' own 1955 Lancia Aurelia, which he intends to rebuild, once he clears through the customer waiting list, which he estimates to be four years deep.
Hendricks embodies the spirit of the Locust district. He's connected to the car industry that birthed it. He's a passionate advocate of the district and committed to reimagining it for the 21st century. Rather than simply return his property to its former state, he and his wife, architect Lynn Grossman, opted to rebuild in what he describes as a "modern European vernacular" a phrase that sounds funny coming out of the mouth of a grease monkey but starts to make sense the more you talk to him. He's a cultured fellow who quotes Shakespeare, likes a good bottle ("at least") of Scotch and has strong opinions. "We decided to discard what was no longer relevant, while at the same time respecting the character of the neighborhood," he says.
That character was built on the back of the automobile. With the rise of the car in the early 1900s, the industry found its St. Louis home along this stretch of midtown. From the 1920s through the 1950s, the city's dealerships, repair shops and parts companies were centered in the Locust Business District, and the buildings still show it. In 2005 the National Register of Historic Places recognized a two-and-a-half-block stretch as the Locust Street Automotive District, a designation that has made Hendricks and other property owners eligible to receive tax credits for rehabbing their buildings. (Hendricks declined the credit, because it would have limited his ability to add his modernist touches.)
Jassen Johnson, who had begun investing before tax credits were on the table he and his partners are grateful for them now half-jokingly describes the architectural style as "early automotive." As evidence he points to the eccentric detail work that adorns many of the edifices, from tires in terra cotta to turtles stamped into bricks. (One building Johnson is working on features bricks with decorative tension springs stamped into them; when completed, the space will house a sushi bar, a second restaurant yet to be determined and, on the top floor, an expansion of the Toky Branding + Design firm. Toky's flagship location, an anchor of the neighborhood, is located across the street from the Dinks Parrish Laundry building.)
Most of the original buildings were showrooms, but as cars started breaking down, companies realized they needed supplies nearby, so parts shops opened up. When urban sprawl pushed the dealerships westward, the parts shops remained, though they too eventually pulled up stakes, leaving much of Locust abandoned. One old remnant, the Locomobile Company of Missouri Building, at 3029 Locust, was transformed in the 1950s into Premier Studios, a combination television soundstage and recording facility. The narration and studio segments of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, a 1960s nature show featuring Saint Louis Zoo icon Marlin Perkins, were recorded at Premier. Miles Davis laid down tracks there, as did Ike and Tina Turner.
When Carter Hendricks opened his shop in the late 1980s, the area was, in his words, "a Wild West neighborhood with a lot of problems."
"It was pretty sad," adds Jeff Williams, who owns Zane O. Williams Signs & Displays on Locust. His company bought the six-story building in 1992, and he has hired Johnson to redevelop it into apartments and retail space. (He plans to relocate his company a few blocks north.) "I'd come in on a Sunday morning, and there'd always been a couple of small boys sitting across the street," Williams recalls. "There'd be these dirty old men parked in front of my building." Williams learned from police that the boys, some as young as twelve, were prostitutes.
"There was considerable deterioration, a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings on Locust and Washington. We had a lot of vandalism going on," confirms Alderwoman Marlene Davis, whose 19th Ward includes the Locust Business District. Davis deems the area's renaissance "a pioneering effort."
Like Johnson, Hendricks and Williams, Erich Kollinger is a Locust frontiersman. Five years ago Kollinger bought the old Cadillac dealership at 3222 Locust, which he has transformed into some of the most luxurious apartments in the city, high-end, high-design lofts that sport polished concrete floors and raw brick interiors. The highlight, the fourth-floor penthouse, is a 10,000-square-foot modernist paradise that wouldn't look out of place in Architectural Digest, furnished with a Frank Gehry-designed chair, a simple, elegant Mies Van Der Rohe coffee table and an Antonio Citterio sofa. The kitchen features a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Kollinger himself is the current tenant, but if you're looking to rent, the asking price is $9,000 a month.
Kollinger's penthouse perch commands a 360-degree panorama. To the east, downtown; to the south, the arena rises; to the west, Saint Louis University glimmers at dusk. The view of Locust to the north is less picturesque; it looks down upon the roof of one of SLU's decaying properties. Kollinger has heard rumors that the building will soon be demolished.
That would be fine with him. The hole in its roof is twice as big as it was the last time he looked.
The Dinks Parrish Laundry is a peculiar and beautiful structure. Located on Olive at Compton Avenue, the two-story, 49,000-square-foot building was erected in 1891 and named for Dinks Lucien Parrish, who commissioned respected St. Louis architect William M. Levy to design a home for his laundry business.
Sitting in his office on the second floor, Jassen Johnson recounts how he became smitten with this building while studying architecture at the University of Illinois. Part of the curriculum involved the East St. Louis Action Research Project, an interdisciplinary program that demystified the processes behind resuscitating struggling neighborhoods. Working on the east side was an eye-opening experience for a farm boy from Watseka, about 60 miles north of the U of I's home in Champaign-Urbana.
"It's so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days," Johnson jokes of his hometown. His father raised corn and soybeans, but Johnson's fate was sealed at age eight, when he saw his first architectural masterpiece: "My uncle took me up to Chicago on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour," he says, "and I just fell in love."
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."
Not long after the meeting, a YouTube user uploaded Brady's presentation to the video-sharing Web site, where St. Louisans curious about the future of midtown can still access it.
The livery stable, though, won't be around much longer.
In early June Locust residents and property owners got ahold of a May 17 letter from Brady to Alderwoman Marlene Davis and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
"I'm happy to report that contrary to the rumor that we had plans to demolish seven of our properties north of Olive, we're only doing one," Brady writes. "We've received bids for the demolition of 3401 Locust."
On Thursday, May 24, Davis introduced Board Bill 129, which would essentially turn over to SLU an alley that separates the livery stable from another university property directly to the north, in order to create a surface parking lot a block wide. The following week SLU applied for a demolition permit.
Says Davis: "They changed their mind. They are going to tear the building down." Does the alderwoman favor the decision to demolish? "I have no reason to be one way or the other," Davis responds. "They are private owners, and they can do what they choose with the property. I have no designs on putting a development there or anything."
But others did have designs. Jassen Johnson dreamed of transforming the livery stable into office space and condos. "SLU basically out-trumped me on it," he says, recalling the day two years ago when the university aced him out. According to one neighbor who asked not to be named in print, another prominent local developer had drawn up plans on spec to further the idea of a university theater district. It had as its centerpiece a renovated livery stable.
The building is one of a handful in the district that predate the automobile. Initially it served as a sort of prehistoric parking garage for the horses owned by residents who lived in the neighborhood's stately homes. When the dwellings gave way to auto row, the stable was renovated as a salesroom for the Salisbury Motor Company.
"It's a building that could certainly become yet another active and vital part of the Grand Center area," says Carolyn Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. On June 3 the nonprofit group placed the stable on a list of 2007's "Eleven Most Endangered Buildings." Toft says she can't fathom why the university would tear it down for parking, reeling off a litany of arguments against doing so: "There's public transit, [the new arena]'s right on bus lines, it's close to MetroLink, Saint Louis University has tons of garages, there's endless street parking. What is this?"
Johnson says SLU's demolitions have damaged the streetscape at the western edge of the district. Pedestrians headed to dinner on Locust after a show at the Fox may be wary of traversing a row of unsightly surface lots in order to get to a restaurant and might head straight for their cars and drive elsewhere. Moreover, Johnson says, what originally drew him to the district was its cohesiveness: It was rundown, but the infrastructure was still intact. "You still have that continuity and infill," he says. "And as you're walking down the street there's always something to look at, either in a storefront or a restaurant, keeping that pedestrian, urban feel to it as opposed to just desecrating it and putting blocks and blocks of surface parking. It just doesn't work."
The Zane O. Williams redevelopment project is next door to the livery stable, whose demolition will leave the rehabbed building surrounded by surface parking lots. "Everything else around it is going to be gone," Johnson laments. "It's unfortunate that they're not going to keep a community feel like we were hoping. I think the bodies will still be down there. But there won't be the continuity."
Rollin Stanley, executive director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency, deferred to the mayor's office when asked to comment about the present and future of the Locust Business District. Barb Geisman, the city's deputy mayor of development, failed to respond to repeated phone messages requesting comment.
Zane O. Williams owner Jeff Williams says he learned of the plans via a notice affixed to his back door: a city document he was to sign, agreeing to forfeit his rights to the alley.
Williams says he has been assured by SLU officials that he won't lose access to the alley while he needs it. Still, he's miffed at the process. "No one with the city called us or said anything about it," he says, adding that Marlene Davis, his alderwoman, hasn't returned his calls. "It's very frustrating. I've called and e-mailed her and haven't heard from her."
Jassen Johnson says he'll press ahead with his projects regardless of the university's actions. "I've spent four and a half years fostering relationships with building owners in the neighborhood," he says. "As they decide that they want to make a move with their business, or relocate, I'm the person everybody knows. Either I helped them develop themselves as an investment or we did it ourselves. Regardless, they know that I more than likely can help find someone to develop it."