Monday, December 12, 2016

Mixed-Use Proposal At Delmar And Skinker Boulevards - 2016 St. Louis City Talk Development Favorite

I'll be sharing my thoughts on twenty of my favorite proposed or under-construction St. Louis projects that were announced or broke ground in 2016.

The projects are in no particular order, so I am simply diving in.

First is a proposal for a mixed-use project on the northwest corner of Delmar and Skinker Boulevards.

One of the appeals of this proposal is the indisputable higher use at a prominent location. And being on the northwest corner of Delmar and Skinker, it's easy to be supportive of any development north of Delmar Boulevard as a step in the right direction toward attacking the "Delmar Divide".

This property sits on the western edge of St. Louis in the West End Neighborhood and currently has a Shell gas station/car wash and Circle K convenience store.

This key property is on the popular entertainment district "The Loop". The Loop is home to ~145 specialty shops including restaurants, galleries, clothing boutiques, gift stores, entertainment venues and a boutique hotel.

The American Planning Association recently voted this street "one of the ten great streets in America". It's one of the shopping and entertainment strips people throughout the region really identify with and it showcases the character of the city and it's one of the best examples of a connection to the inner-ring suburbs.

People love it here, especially visitors. 

You can also think of the Loop as the closest thing we have to a college town commercial/entertainment strip. Nearly every Midwestern Big 10 University city I've been to (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Columbus, Ohio, Iowa City, Iowa and Madison, Wisconsin) all have their "strip" with international restaurants, drinking holes, ornate theater and music clubs. For Washington University students, this is that strip. 

There is no doubt that the Loop is one of the areas that we get judged upon by visitors and tourists.

In many ways, this intersection at Delmar and Skinker feels like the entrance to the Loop although the district extends roughly from the Delmar Loop Metrolink station at Des Peres Avenue in St. Louis all the way west to the U-City City Hall building near Delmar and Trinity.

Many people come to the Loop in a car and Skinker is the main artery to get here.  Currently, the view from this intersection is not a good one at three of the four corners.  Pedestrians are shut out with fences on two of the corners, and the third has a constant stream of cars entering and exiting the gas station due to the double curb cuts that make walking here inhospitable.

The southeast corner has a shuttered Church's Fried Chicken that has been sitting empty for years. The property is surrounded by a fence to keep people out.
southeast corner-shuttered fast food joint

Crossing Skinker you come to a surface parking lot surrounded by another fence next to an AT&T exchange building.
southwest corner-fenced in surface lot

The northeast corner of Delmar and Skinker is the only good one with a perfectly scaled retail building hugging the corner. In fact, if you like cannoli check out Piccione Pastry, one of the small businesses in this building. Yum.
northeast corner - a perfect urban building

And then the Shell/Circle K property:
 northwest corner
We need to do better at this important intersection and a recent proposal by suburban real estate investment firm Pace Properties (Brentwood, Missouri) does just that. In fact the project is deemed "Northgate", a fitting designation as the entryway to the Loop and North City.

Envisioned is 15Ksf of ground-floor retail and two floors of office space, totaling 50,000sf. The project appears on the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agenda this month. Pace is set to request support for a $4.4 TIF. Materials provided to the TIF Commission state the project would support 280 full-time jobs and target “technology and creative firms”.
The St. Louis Business Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reported on the project in November.

Pace is proposing an urban building that hugs this important corner. Three stories is just enough to match the handsome building across Skinker. It appears to be a modern design with a lot of glass which would be a perfect counter to the classic blonde brick across the street and the classic St. Louis red brick building just west of the property which currently houses Thai Country Cafe. More detailed renderings will surely come out as the project progresses.



This building would change the corner from a 100% auto centric establishment to a mixed use office/retail building all the while getting rid of the curb cuts near the corner, easing the pedestrian experience.

We also need bona fide crosswalks and traffic calming measures here too. This district deserves it, especially with a trolley car passing through here in the near future. Plain and simple: cars need to slow down at Delmar and Skinker.

This is not just my opinion, the need for change at this intersection was recognized by a design firm and consultant as well. Per a November, 2011 report called "The Delmar Loop Area Retail Plan & Development Strategy" prepared by HR&A Advisors for Washington University. The plan included an urban building at the northwest corner and more pedestrian improvements:
 before
after
The building in this study is much bigger, but I like the Pace proposal better as it matches the northeast corner and is not too much. We need to fill holes vs. building up, so three stories seems just right. Yet, notice in this rendering, the AT&T lot is still fenced, but at least has sculptures to break up the monotony of a surface lot.

The other thing to like about this project is the increase in jobs. We'd go from a gas station employing one maybe two cashiers/attendants to ~280 creative/tech jobs. That is a clear win. If those jobs come from outside of St. Louis, even better. If it is musical chairs from another neighborhood in St. Louis, this loses a lot of steam. Especially when you know the suburban developer will be asking the people of St. Louis to give our tax dollars that this property would generate to them and not our schools, parks, etc.

Now, I'm not one of these people that is completely anti-gas stations all the time. That would be the ultimate in hypocrisy as I own two cars and a scooter. But, the location of gas stations is something I feel okay being critical about, and this is all about location.

An entryway to such a high profile area that serves neighborhood people and visitors should have a better welcome mat. I'd like to see the gas station move just north of here along Skinker to keep the petrol option open for people who live around here. There is plenty of empty space to the north of this development.
The gas station/Circle K is owned by a Clayton, Missouri company called Spirit Energy, LLC. Their tax bill in 2016 was ~$16K; that's a nice chunk of change for city services. A move north would be a win:win.

Now there is a minor downside of this project, as the little single-story urban building just north of the Shell station at 621-623 North Skinker Boulevard would be demo'd. Wash U most recently owned the building, so no taxes have been paid since they bought it in 2012, but it is a perfectly good building. 
 621-623 North Skinker Boulevard will be razed
However, the trade off is acceptable and a good example of compromise.  

The Loop, the pedestrian and the future employee in Northgate win on this one. What a great location to introduce street-level retail and office space.

Replacing the Shell station/Circle K with a three story, 50,000 square foot office building with 15,000 thousand square feet of retail space most definitely improves the intersection and the city. From a handful to hundreds of jobs that will bring people to root down and keep the businesses filled at lunch and after work. Imagine grabbing a workmate and jumping on the trolley and eating lunch in Forest Park in the shadow of the Missouri History Museum.

Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, construction could begin September, 2017 with a target completion toward the end of 2018.

My next post will address "the Everly" student housing project just east of here that will bring even more density, activity and patrons to the East Loop.

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