St. Louis Zoo Expansion Presents Huge Opportunity for Dogtown

I am fascinated with the Dogtown area of St. Louis. This part of town is a gamisch of three neighborhoods including Clayton/Tamm, Franz Park and Hi-Pointe...maybe more depending on who's talking.  Whatever the boundaries, I find this to be one of the more compelling, densely populated and "real" parts of town.  It has soul and it is kind of like the city's version of Maplewood, MO, a popular and gentrifying suburb of St. Louis directly to the west of this area. Dogtown boasts a diverse housing stock and a rich connection with Irish ancestry and identity.  Dogtown helps give St. Louis a sense of place and the intersection of Clayton and Tamm Avenues feels like the heart of this part of the city.

It would make a great place to live...and with its many locally owned and operated bars, restaurants and businesses, it's certainly a great place to visit as well...hence the point of this blog post.

When I walk the streets of Dogtown, I see a hilly, dense, urban neighborhood with rich traditions and pride.  The diverse housing stock is largely prideful and well cared for:

                                                 Looking west over the dense grid in Dogtown

Dogtown's architecture is a real mix best appreciated by a walk up and down the streets.  Slow down and take a look at how these humble particulars make a handsome sum and you can't help but love it:

At no time is the charm of Dogtown more apparent than around the break of Spring and St. Patrick's Day, an important day for people of Irish and Catholic descent, and Dogtown is the center of a parade and street party to honor the day.

A nod to the Emerald Isle

This part of town has remained stable and strong over the years and I think the future will be even brighter for the western edge of our city.

Try to see Dogtown through the optimistic lens that I do:

There has been much investment and development in the last five or so years around the fringes nearest Hampton and Oakland Avenues.

The Cortona at Forest Park was recently ranked as a "Top Five New Residential Development" by St. Louis Magazine.  This development brings much needed density and vibrancy to the former Checkerdome/Arena site.  The building is mod, bright and cool.

Photo Source:

The Tri-Star Mercedes dealership is nothing short of a sleek, modern and as urban as an automotive dealership can be.  Nice building, nice German cars!

Tri-Star Mercedes Benz at Hampton and Berthold Avenues

And then you have the promise of the St. Louis Zoo expansion.  This future addition is exciting and holds much promise as the Zoo does most things top shelf and classy.

From the Zoo website:

Unlike the existing Zoo campus in Forest Park, the expansion site is next to a residential neighborhood and retail corridor.

Plan recommendations include:

  • Using the expansion site to create a new entrance to the Zoo, anchored by a major attraction—an orientation point for visitors that would serve as a welcome center and be a hub of activity providing a unique experience and iconic architecture.

  • Moving parking facilities — from the existing campus and congested Forest Park roads to surface lots and a structured parking facility at the expansion site (This facility would capitalize on existing topography and provide both above-ground and underground spaces.)

  • Linking the expansion site to the existing Zoo campus with an iconic bridge, a gondola, wheeled trolleys or trams.

  • Placing not only parking but Zoo administrative/service/distribution operations at the expansion site, allowing room on the existing campus for new animal habitats and expansion of the Zoo's veterinary hospital.

  • Developing Zoo-themed retail, dining and lodging (an animal-themed hotel, for example).

  • Enhancing public space (creating a dog park, farmers' market or an outdoor event area)

While it was sad to see the former Forest Park/Deaconess Hospital go the way of the wrecking ball, it is hard not to see the St. Louis Zoo's expansion as a great replacement and even an upgrade for the western edge of our fine city.

image source:

site as of March 14, 2015

While typically it's hard to get excited about a field and pending parking lots, this is an exception.  There is very real opportunity here.  The St. Louis Zoo is a destination locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Approximately three million people visit the zoo each year (source).

Encouraging these visitors to park on the south side of I-64 affords Dogtown with a massive opportunity.  Thousands of hungry, curious, meandering families, friends and tourists (each with a wallet) will descend on Dogtown without the physical barrier of the massive I-64 highway.  Many of these visitors know that a hotdog, pretzel and cold Busch will be available at the zoo, but they also need to know that there are a vast assortment of neighborhood restaurants and drinking establishments within walking distance...all with a lot of soul and local flavor.

But, many visitors don't like to take chances...they want safety and security.   With little ones usually in tow, I can understand. They need to be led.  Many suburbanites and tourists would not be characterized as "adventurous" or "urban explorers".  That's why we need to spoon feed them; we need to hold their hand and guide them on an extension of their St. Louis Zoo adventure, right into the heart of Dogtown.

Turn right to the zoo, turn left for Historic Dogtown...

So what's it gonna take?

Well, when I visited Boston, MA I walked a 2.5 mile "Freedom Trail" which led you on a self-guided tour of some of America's most historic places.  It was fun, but most of all, it was easy.  It is a fantastic way to take in the history and of course the city itself.  There are red stripes and bricks that mark the way.  You never get "lost" because the map is right there beneath your feet.

Dogtown needs something like this leading from the new parking lots of the Zoo to the many AWESOME spots in the heart of Dogtown nearest the zoo expansion site.  Heck, the stripes and bricks could even be green to honor the Irish history:

The "Walking the Dog(town)" tour could lead visitors down Graham Street to Clayton Avenue and circle around Tamm Avenue, which feels like the heart of Dogtown.  A simple cell phone application and signage could lead people to the dining, drinking and other stops.  It could easily be updated to include businesses as they come and go.  Ten restaurants within ten get my idea.

Want to experience a truly local treat, the Slinger?  Walk to the Courtesy Diner through the streets of Dogtown and belly up to the counter for a slinger with onions and peppers.

photo source:  the13blog

Want to have a cold, rich beer brewed on site?  Walk to Heavy Riff Brewing Company.

How about pizza and a local microbrew from 4-hands, Civil Life, Modern Brewery, Urban Chestnut, Schlafly, etc at Felix's?  The building itself has windows that open up onto the street to give it that al fresco feel.

How about a delicious hamburger and a side of fried mushrooms at Seamus McDaniel's?

The smoked on-site chicken salad at Nora's is off the charts and nestled among a nice row of small businesses built right up to the street.

That's not it, there is much, much more.

All, locally owned, all neighborhood, all St. Louis.  The REAL St. Louis, the one with the soul.

Demolition is now complete on the parcel of land between Hampton, Graham, Berthold and Oakland.

The future is bright, the slate has been wiped clean and is now ready to be reset.  Even if/when the Zoo decides to build it's own restaurants, etc, it won't simply compete with the existing neighborhood, it will attract more to the area.  It can only build critical mass, it can only add to Dogtown.  I dream of visitors leaving St. Louis and saying "the Zoo was awesome (and free) and the sandwich and beer we had at lunch in that charming neighborhood was good too."

Improving connections to the zoo on both sides of I-64 is important.  Connecting the zoo visitors to the heart of Dogtown is equally as important if we are ever to turn people on to the great neighborhoods we have in the city.

Getting people to walk neighborhoods is important toward having them connect with them.  You have to interact with people who live there, you have to look inside homes as you pass, watch kids playing in the alley, pass by people porch sitting/drinking and observe the connected-ness of urban lifestyles. You don't get to know your city until you slow down, park the car and walk it. You won't "get" many subtle parts of St. Louis by blowing by at 35 MPH plus on Hampton or Clayton.  Park the car and walk around.

Dogtown is a treasure, now the visitors and tourists need to experience and see what we, the locals, already do.