By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
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By Timothy Lane
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By Dennis Brown
In some instances, the city's preparations date back years and include some of the most striking changes to the downtown area, construction of Busch Stadium II notwithstanding. The renovated Old Post Office Plaza on Locust Street and Citygarden, the shiny new sculpture park on the Gateway Mall, are two notable public-works projects that were completed in time to wow the All-Star crowds.
These projects, says Rollin Stanley, the city's former director of planning and urban design, signal a positive trend, especially when coupled with planned improvements like the Kiel Opera House and the fact that nearly 12,000 people moved downtown over the past five years.
Then again, adds Stanley, the entire St. Louis region must alter its mindset to achieve meaningful change. "What hurts is the region's inability to look inward and see how they're growing. They're stealing from Peter to pay Paul. It's like Bernie Madoff," Stanley muses. "I don't work there anymore so I guess I can say this: If we keep building the St. Charleses of the world and mowing down corn crops in areas that were under four feet of water in 1993, the region will never succeed."
Stanley, who left the city in 2008 to take a similar post in Montgomery County, Maryland, says the project with the most promise is Ballpark Village, the much-maligned mixed-use development north of Busch Stadium. "A lot of cities would kill for that kind of opportunity," he says. "Even successful cities that have expanded outward can't find the land and assets to pull off that kind of a large transformative change."
But so far, Ballpark Village has nothing to show for itself except for a modest softball field and parking lot in a downtown already thick with asphalt and cars.
When plans for the Ballpark Village project were first announced in 2006 during the Cardinals' World Series run, it was billed as a $600 million entertainment-and-business district that would revitalize the area around the stadium. It was supposed to have been completed in time for the All-Star Game.
Instead, there has been more than two years' worth of delays. For much of that time the site was a massive crater, filled with litter and muddy water, earning the pond the derisive nickname "Lake DeWitt," after Bill DeWitt III, the Cardinals' president who championed the project. Under pressure to fill the hole in time for the All-Star Game, DeWitt had the parking lot and a softball field built as stand-ins.
"I had been thinking about what we can do in the interim and thought: That's a natural. We've got the field crew, and they can help us with some of the details," DeWitt says. "We thought of having it be green grass and have it be an open space for touch football or throwing catch, but we thought something a little more organized might make sense."
DeWitt says the temporary improvements cost more than $300,000. Whenever construction on the actual Ballpark Village begins, adds DeWitt, the parking lot will remain, but the softball field will be bulldozed. The timetable for completion remains unclear.
"It's hard to say when it will be done because so much of it depends on the bond market," DeWitt explains. "How long that takes is somewhat speculative. We hope to break ground at the end of the year, and if not, we'll look into next year."
The softball field does make for a picturesque prop. It's easy to imagine a TV camera trained, say at sunset, on the downtown skyline, then slowly zooming in on a group of kids playing ball on the idyllic little diamond. From the broadcast booth, native son Joe Buck and ex-Cardinal Tim McCarver will surely remind the world that the Redbird faithful are widely regarded as the finest in the land, and that St. Louis is a veritable baseball utopia.
There is also a good chance that many pundits will cast the softball field of dreams in a different light.
"The All-Star Game is the place where commentators and columnists kind of take stock," reflects sportscaster Bob Costas, a long-time St. Louisan. "There have always been skeptics about stadium financing, even in the best of times. Now skepticism has increased, and I'm sure you'll hear about Ballpark Village: 'Where is it? When will it be here?' People may even bring the Yankees and their ticket structure and the empty seats at Yankee Stadium into it."
"Columnists are going to use St. Louis as metaphor for the economic downturn and what baseball has to do with it," agrees Will Leitch, founder of the sports blog Deadspin. "You'll see a ton of those stories. Some Mike Lupica equivalent will be sitting at the Drury Inn, and he'll say, 'When you think about baseball's economic woes, look no further than outside my hotel window.'"
As Costas and Leitch point out, the way the media portrays the city relative to its coverage of the game will play a significant role in determining whether St. Louis was successful in its makeover.
Event planners understand that winning over the nation's sportswriters is a tall order. "They can get cynical," says Jim Cloar, president of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "Maybe something will be said tongue-in-cheek."
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