"If you walk down South Grand at 10 on a Tuesday night, it's dead," says Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, former manager of the Side Door club on Locust Street and currently producer of the local-affairs show The Wire on KDHX (88.1 FM). "Go to the Loop or the West End, people are running around. A music venue seems, to me, to be the best answer."
Both the thriving University City Loop and gradually reviving Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis built their early success on a vigorous nightlife, boasting hotspots that draw people from all over the region. The Loop would be very different today had not Blueberry Hill, Cicero's and other venues been there in the early years, offering congenial surroundings for late-night fun along with the all-important live music.
South Grand (roughly defined as Grand between Magnolia Avenue and Utah Street, in the Tower Grove area on the city's South Side) has thrived, thanks to an eclectic mixture of shops, restaurants and services. You'll find the most authentic Southeast Asian cuisine in town here in restaurants such as Mekong, the King & I and Pho Grand. The Vintage Haberdashery and Re:Generation offer affordable vintage clothing, and specialized boutiques such as T.F.A. and Curve of the Earth are part of the mix as well. Essential services -- a barbershop, a dry cleaners, an optical store and a post office -- preserve a taste of the old city streetscape. The shady paths and Victorian pavilions of nearby Tower Grove Park provide an oasis of natural calm.
But after the sun goes down, the options narrow. Only Mangia Italiano regularly offers live music, primarily jazz, improv and acoustic. The smallish Upstairs Lounge, located above Mekong, presents a steady schedule of DJ-based entertainment, and CBGB occasionally lets a rock band play. MoKaBe's, a coffeehouse around the corner on Arsenal Street, is open late but doesn't serve alcohol; nor does it have much space for performers. Although each of these establishments adds great personality to the district and enjoys a substantial and devoted neighborhood clientele, none is a regional destination for music lovers.
So what gives? Where's the live-rock venue or big dance club on South Grand, catering to the area's young hipsters and music lovers? The answer takes us into the world of city-development politics, a place far murkier than any smoke-filled nightclub.
South Grand is divided territory in more ways than one. The west side of the street is in the 15th aldermanic ward, represented until recently by the now-retired Marge Vining and now by freshman Jennifer Florida. Neighborhood affairs west of Grand are handled by the Tower Grove Heights Neighborhood Association (TGHNA). The street's east side is in the 9th Ward, represented by Ald. Ken Ortmann and home to the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association.
But geography isn't the only polarizing factor. The unique small businesses that give the street its flavor sit alongside national chains such as Domino's Pizza and Hollywood Video. Another fault line divides the commercial district and the residents, both of whom have a legacy of poor communication. South Grand's bureaucracy is also fractured; a variety of city agencies, from the St. Louis Development Corp. to the Cultural Resources Office, have jurisdiction over various aspects of South Grand's development. According to some in the neighborhood, this tangle of authority has provided convenient cover for developers to carry out their plans away from neighborhood scrutiny.
"It's a difficult thing to figure out, because these developers like to operate outside the public eye," says Brian Marston, president-elect of TGHNA. "Conversations are made, and deals are cut."
Anyone scratching the surface of the South Grand situation will hear one name over and over again: Tim Boyle, president of City Property Co. and owner of some of South Grand's most prominent properties. As a developer whose vision for the neighborhood's future is based on a profoundly suburban perspective, Boyle nicely fits the villain's role in this particular drama, and people around here have strong opinions about him.
"Boyle calls himself a developer," says Marston, "but he's just sitting on thousands of square feet of empty property in what is supposed to be an up-and-coming commercial district. He's got enough contacts and influence to tie that property up but not enough to do anything with it."
The decrepit state of several of Boyle's properties supports this claim: the old Anderson Garage at Grand and Sidney Street; the boarded-up storefront of the old Dickmann Bakery on Grand; three unoccupied ramshackle houses on Juniata Street that locals call the "Three Stooges." Boyle is also part-owner and manager of the Dickmann Building, the tallest building on South Grand and, with its gorgeous whitewashed terra-cotta façade, perhaps the jewel in South Grand's architectural crown. But its six floors are mostly empty, housing just one tenant.
Newly elected Ald. Florida, whose husband, Mike, owns a wholesale-framing business in University City, believes South Grand could learn a lot by looking closely at the success of the Loop. "What we should do is look at working models. The businesses in the Loop organized and created a vision and then implemented it. If they can do it, why can't we?"
The analogy doesn't hold up for Boyle. "South Grand and the U. City Loop are not synonymous," he says, citing the Loop's proximity to Washington University and supposed "denser housing" (although Tower Grove is packed with occupied duplexes, homes and apartment buildings). "Also, the Loop is the only commercial district that University City has to worry about, while South Grand is only one of many in the city. They're not even close to being analogous." Nor, alas, are Joe Edwards and Tim Boyle.
Joe Edwards, Blueberry Hill owner and U. City Loop impresario, would seem to be Boyle's model as a culturally oriented urban-renewal specialist. But there's one big difference: Edwards gets things done. Blueberry Hill has been a crucial anchor in U. City since long before the crowds arrived, and the restaurant's expansion a few years ago has added to its magnetic appeal. In the past five years, Edwards has spearheaded the renovation of the Tivoli Building and the theater that occupies a part of it; he successfully pushed for a new public parking garage; and, despite the so-called hassles of doing business in the city, Edwards managed to turn a rubble-strewn lot into the Pageant in less than two years.
Why the difference? Edwards' development projects have been completely congruent with their urban setting, whereas Boyle tries to impose a suburban mentality on an unwilling city neighborhood. His lone South Grand success story, St. Louis Square, was originally planned as a park-in-front strip-mall-style development. Only pressure from locals forced him to build it in a more urban "storefront" style, and even then he ended up with the St. Louis Bread Co., Kinko's, Streetside Music, Sears Portrait Studio and Hollywood Video -- businesses often found in strip malls -- as tenants.
The men themselves account for some of the difference, too. Edwards is a Loop personality and works well with the merchants, residents and City Hall. But Boyle, time and again, has displayed a knack for irritating the residents of South Grand. Edwards is a Loop hero; in the minds of many on South Grand, Boyle occupies a spot somewhere below Mussolini.
Tim Boyle says his low standing among area residents is the doing of a small group of fanatics intent on smearing his name. But there are some real-world reasons so many people say the same nasty things about him. Boyle's recent adventures are instructive because they touch on one of the hottest flashpoints in urban development today: parking.
In December, Boyle outraged Tower Grove residents by demolishing a house at 3617 Hartford St. to build a parking lot. Boyle received permission to do this without a public hearing; contrary to widespread belief, a hearing is not legally required for building demolitions. "There's not a financial or development decision we make without significant discussions with the other players in the area," Boyle says. But in this case, the nearest neighbors of the demolished house were not important enough to be included in the discussion.
The resulting outcry has made it impossible for Boyle to remain under the radar. His current plan calls for the razing of two more houses on Hartford, this time to add parking for a proposed expansion of the St. Louis Bread Co. The 20 new spaces would be reserved for Bread Co. customers.
Boyle simply considers himself a realist. "When I try to bring new businesses into the area," he says, "the first two questions they ask are 'How safe is it?' and 'Where's the parking?' If you don't answer those two questions correctly, they won't give you a chance to answer any more."
On April 9, the Preservation Board of the city's Cultural Resources Office voted 4-3 against recommending the demolition. Boyle says he will continue to pursue his plan but hasn't yet decided how. Before the board's nay vote, an estimated 30 anti-demolition residents picketed the Bread Co. during the Saturday lunch rush, hoping for that very result. But Boyle believes that the protesters are simply a loud minority.
Ald. Ortmann, whose ward includes the houses in question and who supports the demolition, echoes this view. "The people that support this don't have to picket," he says. "It's the opposition that's jumping up and down. When you get the same 30 or 40 people coming out to picket all the time, it looks like a lot. But a lot of people tell me I'm doing the right thing" in supporting the demolition.
In Boyle's view, the Bread Co. -- an established business that took a chance by investing in the neighborhood years ago -- deserves some credit as an anchor of the district. "I chose to offer this expansion to them because St. Louis Bread, day in, day out, brings in customers that benefit businesses up and down the street."
But the Bread Co., with a multitude of locations around the metro area, is hardly a unique destination; nobody will be driving to South Grand from the county to eat there.
The masses of young adults who have flooded the Tower Grove area were attracted not only by sturdy, attractive brick homes and leafy streets but by the diverse urban culture, rare in the St. Louis area. Unfortunately, they now find their neighborhood's cultural destiny in the hands of someone with views sharply contrary to theirs.
"Here's what I think Tim fails to recognize," says Marston, "and this is painfully obvious to me: What makes the Loop work is those kids with spiky hair and multiple piercings. Middle America wannabe hipsters see that and say, 'Ooh, wow!' They want to be close to the action. That's what makes people come down."
If those long-ago hippies and punk-rockers had never inhabited the downtrodden Loop, the yuppies and their heavy wallets would never have arrived. Can a rebounding urban district leapfrog over the "weirdo stage" in this well-established pattern? Maybe, but it doesn't seem ever to have happened. More important, is the suburban-based strip-mall model of development good for South Grand?
"I do not want to turn South Grand into a strip mall with nothing but big chain stores," counters Boyle. "That is not my vision. But big national businesses do bring credibility and financibility, which is something that people overlook. All this takes money, and in order for people to give you money, whether it's investors or banks, they have to be reasonably sure they'll get their money back. So you need credible tenants who can pay their rent."
"Credible tenants," in this case, are tenants who meet Boyle's goal of attracting "people with higher discretionary income." Such an attitude is risky in an urban milieu where people of different social and economic backgrounds live and work side by side.
As for the slowness of any real progress, Boyle says it's unfair to blame him for the glacial pace of development. "With a lot of these properties, it takes a minimum of three to five years to really put together a good agreement," he says. "With options, it could take 15-20 years. So you really have to take the long view. It's very important that it be the right agreement at the right time." The city bureaucracy shares some culpability, too, he says: The process takes too long and is too cumbersome.
Residents counter that it's much easier to "take the long view" when you're not the one who must live next door to a boarded-up building. Some say Boyle is sitting on his empty properties, waiting for a real-estate bonanza at some point in the distant future. If not, he's doing a convincing imitation of someone who is, and area residents would like to see something happen with these properties soon.
Clearly no consensus exists as to what kind of businesses South Grand needs. Nor is there an agreed-upon plan. Lacking this, the district's many constituencies and interests wander in countless directions, and the result is frustration and confusion.
"There is some sort of development plan from SLDC in place for South Grand," says real-estate agent Cheryl Jones, past president of TGHNA, "but it has not been generally made available. The neighborhood association hasn't seen it, and we don't know which business owners have or haven't seen it." The plan Jones refers to was drawn up in 1986, under drastically different conditions, when keeping out strip clubs and liquor stores was the most urgent neighborhood issue.
The parking situation, which has been so divisive, may in the end become the glue that unites South Grand's businesses, residents and bureaucrats. Florida has shown a desire to mix it up with the powers that be and seems interested in pushing for some sort of consensus.
Boyle and the bulk of the development community supported Mike Daus in the Democratic primary to fill the seat Vining vacated. When Florida won the race by a razor-thin margin and began meeting with the power players in the 15th Ward, she found a commercial district that she says has historically been "very hesitant and afraid to build a relationship with the community."
Before Vining left office, she and Ortmann assigned money for a comprehensive study of the parking problem in the commercial district. The project has become a priority for Florida, who sees it as a way to bring the businesses and residents together and set a new precedent for the way decisions are made on South Grand.
Florida isn't staking out a hard-and-fast position on building demolitions; it's the process that concerns her. If a broad consensus of the neighborhood supported some demolition for parking, she wouldn't obstruct it. "But I am pretty much a building-hugger," she says. "We cannot have every business owner buy a building and knock it down for their own parking. That's crazy. We have to have a plan."
Although he agrees with the theme of cooperation, Ortmann, like Boyle, is leery of doing anything to alienate potential investors in the neighborhood and says he doesn't want South Grand to lose out because of a restrictive plan.
"No, you can't tear houses down for every business," says Ortmann. "But our reputation now is, we're not seen as a business-friendly city. If you were going to invest $100,000 or $200,000 in a business here, wouldn't you make sure that there's going to be sufficient parking to satisfy your customers? Because without parking you can't exist."
Not surprisingly, Boyle is also reluctant: "You can plan all you want, but if the people with the money don't agree, nothing's going to happen. The reason there's a controversy in the first place is that I'm being pro-active in development. You need people who are willing to take a risk, who have a vision and who have access to money and the other things you need to get anything done."
One of the biggest hurdles facing the district won't be cleared with ample parking, though. Visitors to South Grand may have space galore for their cars, but that won't prevent them from parking, making a beeline for their destinations and then leaving as quickly as they came. Current TGHNA president Michael Renner, who also works with the Grand South Grand coalition, a marketing group dedicated to promoting South Grand as a unique local destination, says more is needed. "A lot of places on South Grand, especially the restaurants, are destination-type places. The goal of Grand South Grand marketing work is to get people to move from place to place. The biggest lack is nightly entertainment."
In the past, the neighborhood associations and the aldermen have opposed the issuing of cabaret licenses on South Grand. Such licenses are required for any establishment that permits "dancing," which has been interpreted to apply to almost any live-music venue. Vining in particular had a reputation as an old-style machine politician who had no interest in anything edgy happening on South Grand. (She declined to comment for this story.)
But South Grand's political landscape has been altered with the election of Ortmann two years ago and Florida this year. "I look at the district and say, 'OK, we have a lot of different kinds of restaurants,'" Florida says. "'What do we need to draw college kids and have some nightlife that's also family-friendly?'"
Ortmann, part-owner of the Cat's Meow bar in Soulard, is one of several aldermen who have declared liquor-license moratoriums in their wards, moratoriums that are still in effect. But, he says, the moratorium is intended to prevent a number of liquor stores from opening on Cherokee Street, also in the 9th Ward, and a process exists for circumventing the ban if a potential business has gained both his support and that of the neighborhood. He declares his willingness to work with potential club owners: "Would I like to see live entertainment on South Grand? Definitely, as long as the place is well managed."
"What the neighborhood association is looking for right now," says Jones, "is some kind of interaction between the commercial district and the neighborhood to determine how to incorporate nightlife into South Grand." Jones lives "right around the corner" from the Upstairs Lounge and hasn't personally noticed any problems.
Marston adds, "Obviously I'd hope music wouldn't be so loud that people couldn't sleep, but I think it could be accommodated."
One telling question: Where are the young entrepreneurs who are willing to gamble on a new music venue, the boisterous likes of which brought life to Washington Avenue? Some area denizens say the chilly climate for such ventures on South Grand has given the area a bad reputation. Stories about past failures are swapped over beers, implying that a cycle of apathy and resignation has set in. Says one South Grand bartender who has watched his employer's ideas for expansion be rejected time and time again by the city: "I like to complain that there's no good music club on South Grand, but I'm not at the point where I want to get a license and do it."
Is anyone? A music-venue gambler would have to be willing to take on a confusing bureaucracy, would have to give birth to a fragile new venture in a climate tainted by historical grudges. Such a person may never emerge. But until one does, South Grand's nighttime potential remains untested. The local hipsters will continue to travel elsewhere for their nightly kicks. You can still get a beer here late at night, but the occasional subwoofer cruising by will be your only soundtrack.
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