Hartmann: They Shoot White Elephants, Don't They?

St. Louis cannot save its downtown by betting on dead skyscrapers like the AT&T building

Jan 16, 2023 at 6:57 am
click to enlarge The AT&T Tower (left) is going to e renovated into a mixed-use space with no parking.
The AT&T Tower (left) is going to e renovated into a mixed-use space with no parking.

The largest office building in Missouri doubles as its most useless. It is the vacant 1.46 million-square-foot, 43-story AT&T Tower at 909 Chestnut Street in downtown St. Louis.

Occupancy: zero. Potential: far, far less than zero.

The 37-year-old monument to myopia was added last year to the National Register of Historic Places. In related news from 1985, the Iran-Contra scandal was added to the National Register of Political Scandals, and Big Hair made it to the National Register of Fads.

But the problem with the once-glitzy former home to a phone company has nothing to do with a past that was mediocre at best. It has everything to do with a future that looms far worse than that.

Left to the cruel realities of today’s downtown St. Louis, even redeveloped this building will fail, miserably. It will fail because it’s oversized and obsolete. In its heyday, it was unremarkable. Now, in its death throes, it is unusable.

Understand that Missouri’s largest office building has stood vacant since 2017 for a good reason: There is no market for it. It would have been empty much longer than that, but one surviving iteration or another of the telephone company’s bureaucracy remained scattered on its mostly empty floors for a decade.

I’ll take a wild guess that the new St. Louis-based developer Advantes Development Group would beg to differ. That’s the company that the Business Journal reported last week as having exciting plans for the building, which it says it will finish purchasing early next year.

Its vision is something called “The Beacon on Chestnut, a mixed-use ‘vertical city’ with 306 apartments, modern office space, retail and a 300-room hotel, along with shared amenities for use by building tenants.” Best of luck to them. How they proceed is their business.

But here’s the rub: Like so many developments, this one would require staggering amounts of public investment in the form of tax credits, tax abatements and who-knows-what-else in the form of taxpayer assistance. That’s when it becomes everyone else’s business.

In that regard, the former AT&T Tower has shown considerable promise to generate activity. It has already garnered some dubious historic tax credits and all manner of corporate welfare — in turn invigorating the city’s colony of consultants and contractors for whom such handouts are mother’s milk.

The obedient local media is all in. Why, resuscitating this wondrous building will reinvent downtown in ways that can only be described as transformational, cathartic, innovative, dynamic, restorative, revitalizing and metamorphic. Apologies to Greater St. Louis Inc. if I’ve left something out.

Never mind that the building contains virtually no parking within its structure (just a small number of basement spaces). What prospective city resident or hotel guest or office worker or shopper wouldn’t love to walk two or three blocks every night to get home or to their room or to their car? It’s not as if downtown has a crime problem, for goodness’ sake. And thankfully, St. Louis alone came out of the pandemic with no alteration whatsoever to companies’ approaches to downtown office space.

No, but seriously, folks. What part of “it has virtually no internal parking” does everyone not understand? Smart people don’t construct tall buildings with no full floors of parking anymore. They just don’t.

Smart people also don’t construct 43-story skyscrapers in dying downtowns. And if ours isn’t a dying downtown, it’ll do until one gets here.

I have no idea how many hundreds of millions of public subsidies might be needed to clear the real-world hurdles presented by a 43-story structure without significant parking and with an atmosphere and amenities that are just so … ’80s. Certainly $1 billion would get it done.

Unsubsidized is another matter. Let’s be clear: The only way a project like this would have a prayer of success would be achieved through accessing massive amounts of found money to offset the realities of the marketplace. You know, the one that’s been screaming “worthless” at the AT&T Tower since 2017 and before.

You want mixed uses? Here’s your mixed uses: Imagine combining a failed office building with a failed hotel and a failed residential building — all serviced by failed retail space — connected gloriously under one failed roof?

This brings us to the part of the story that has escaped St. Louis’ corporate and political leadership, such as it is, for decades. It’s something called “opportunity cost.”

Rather than ask, “How can we do this with public resources?” regarding dreamy and aspirational proposals like the one at hand, a far more constructive question to pose would read, “What else might we accomplish with those same resources invested in something less dreamy and aspirational?”

Imagine if the same ungodly investment contemplated for this building’s 1.46 million square feet of vertical space were instead invested in the creation of 1.46 million square feet of horizontal space downtown. We’re talking something like 33 acres, right?

Why shoehorn all the incentives into one failed vertical building rather than spread them out over several blocks horizontally downtown? In a horizontal scenario, downtown might have blocks and blocks of smaller buildings revitalized — at a tiny fraction of what skyscraper overhauls cost — and more safely.

Despite all that, I’ll admit, as a longtime preservationist, I like quixotic stuff. Were it absolutely mandatory to pour zillions of tax credits and incentives into a failed skyscraper, I could be sold on trying it with St. Louis’ second-largest office building, the 1.24 million-square-foot Railway Exchange Building at 615 Olive Street.

Unlike the AT&T Tower, it’s actually historic for more than having been designed by a great architect, Gyo Obata. I know that is a criterion for people living in the preservation bubble, but for less intellectual muggles like myself, having the Railway Exchange’s credentials as a genuine example of early 20th-century American architecture — as in being constructed in 1914 — beats name dropping every time.

Still, the Railway Exchange Building has been troubled for decades. It isn’t going to defy reality and succeed as some multi-use thing no one has thought of. It would take an extraordinary amount of creativity and investment to find the right answer. That said, at age 109, it deserves every last benefit of the doubt.

By contrast, the former One Bell South is not historic by any common sense definition of the term. Its chief attribute is that it could be acquired at a bargain-basement price and contorted into receiving massive public benefits.

Far be it from me to advocate tearing down someone else's building. But if the only alternative is to put St. Louis’ time and treasure into backing a certain loser, well, it doesn’t sound so bad.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that a small amount of parking is included in the building's redevelopment plan.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network.

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