Formerly Dead Parts of the City Starting to Feel Alive Again

We have a son going to high school in the Central West End Neighborhood, so we've been spending more time in that part of the city. This particular high school has open campus, so the students can get out for awhile and walk the city a bit. It's a great perk.

I swing by after work and pick him up after basketball practice. There's a restaurant on our route that he's brought up several times: Black Market Eats which occupies a storefront in the beautiful Gerhart Lofts Building right at Vandeventer and Laclede.

Let's not forget what this place used to look like, drab and underutilized, this image from 2007:

2007 Google Streetview Image

2007 Google Streetview Image

I finally gave in and we took him and a pal to Black Market Eats on a Friday night around 7:00. The place was PACKED. There was a line out the door, carry out mostly, and the small seating area was fully occupied. The workers had that look in their eyes during a rush...only folks who've worked in a restaurant know how time passes during a rush. It's exhilarating and exhausting but everyone was keeping cool and working together well. 

The food was fresh, fast and healthy. I ate a massive sushi burrito and didn't feel like I got hit by a truck. Check this place out.

We looked around at the crowd. Living in the city, and being Gen-X peoples, we have come to call certain scenes "Sesame Street moments". We grew up watching that show daily from our suburban homes and it defined what we though cities were like. Sesame Street seemed to always have black, white, Asian and Latino kids playing together. Living in the city, you stumble upon these scenes of harmony that seem completely unplanned, unforced and by our purview, uplifting. I never experienced that kind of thing until we moved to St. Louis and started traveling to other cities.

Sesame Street moments happen where there are lots of young people who are light years ahead on race relations. They have to be unforced and natural unlike the "diversity" private schools try to pitch, this is the more real looking one. The kids' fountains in Tower Grove Park are a perfect example of such a quality scene.

Well, Black Market was one of those Sesame Street moments and it left us wondering where in the hell all these people are coming from? This part of town just west of St. Louis University's campus has been dead for years. I've been here long enough to confidently make this claim. And SLU played into it with surface parking lots and fences at the prominent south and northwest corners of Laclede and West Pine.

But, as we were walking out, we both noticed that the street was happening. There were people in the Kaldi's, a bar around the corner and it felt like a city all of a sudden.

So the lingering question was if this is just a destination spot on the weekends, or is this place becoming a neighborhood again?

Not to be smitten with the Friday night rush, I had to visit this formerly lonely part of the Central West End when it's slower: the weekend mornings.

I decided to take a walk during the day to see what is happening on the block of Laclede west to Sarah and then West Pine back to Vandeventer.

West Pine Boulevard is a Central West End street that has seen a lot of change in the last ten years. There is a lot to be hopeful for.

The street itself, a continuation of Pine Street which ends around Wells Fargo/Harris Stowe University to the east, starts at Vandeventer Avenue and terminates at Lindell Boulevard after a brief jog through Forest Park.

The section between Vandeventer and North Sarah especially, has seen a lot of development in recent years. This one block stretch of West Pine is just that, a one block stretch as it dead ends at North Sarah and then picks up again west of North Sarah after a dead end.

There are lots and lots of new apartments in this part of town. You know what residences bring? People. You know what makes a city a city? Lots of people walking around and hanging out and spending their money and time close to where they live.

That's exactly what I discovered on my walk. People everywhere, jogging, walking dogs, yakking on phones, holding hands. This part of the city has people in it now. It didn't used to when I first moved to St. Louis. Look closely at the photos...there are people in them.

Now what would any blog post be without a quick look at what others have written about the area. Good ole NextSTL popped up with this fantastic, short of scathing review of the new construction in the area from Michael Allen. While this 2014 take was focused on IKEA and the suburbanization of an intersection of our city, Here's a couple excerpts from what Allen called "Nowhere City" back in 2014. 

Within the next year, the intersection of Forest Park and Vandeventer Avenues – a crossroads between downtown and the Central West End, the Tower Grove neighborhoods and north city – might well look like any intersection anywhere. Anywhere but a hand-built older city, that is. The alluring yellow-and-blue big box of IKEA will join with an anemic cement-board student apartment spread and a potential strip mall.

The visual mess hopefully will draw design-minded citizens to start realizing that St. Louis can retire its low self-esteem mantra of “any development is good development.” Either that, or we can stop mocking Phoenix already.
— Michael Allen - NextSTL

I respect the take, but I come from a very different place. One where I think I share the disdain for contemporary building materials, but I will trade urban form (built to the street with parking outta the way of the sidewalk) for loath of the end result. I'm a compromiser. I don't have an idealism based on history/high design. I think it's simple, we need higher uses of our property and I think that's what we have hear whether you like the colors, finishes shapes or not. I'll keep the commentary to a minimum and just share what I saw.

Let's start with the Standard building at the north east corner of Vandeventer and Forest Park. It's no site to behold, with the a drab, unfinished-looking color scheme.  A simple change in colors would have made this much more palatable. Remember the blue Mobil gas station on this site? At least we've got a building that brings people to this important corner. The Standard is likely not going to age well, but maybe a new paint job will come in the future and make this less of a masking-tape looking box. But this place is a vast improvement over the gas station that I recall from this corner. We are getting better, albeit slowly.

2011 Google Street View Image

2011 Google Street View Image

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The real bummer here is the loss of a perfectly decent brick building at the north west corner of this intersection...now a vacant lot after demo...devaluing the area way more than a shuttered STL classic. The thing I'll miss about this building is the weird 2nd story iron work at the corner and of course, the massing. I still can't find my way at this intersection cause I'm wired to expect this building to be there. I just keep driving even though I needed to turn left on Forest Park.

2009 Google Street View Image

2009 Google Street View Image

Head west on Laclede from the Gerhardt building and you come to a couple police operations where the vehicle fleets are maintained. The one on the north side of Laclede is quite handsome, across the street is more utilitarian.

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Just west of the drab police garage there is a building that you can image with open arched windows and open air entries.

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There's a long vacant massive empty lot adjacent to the above just lying in wait for more infill. Keep your eye on this spot, if the momentum keeps building, this will get developed.

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Then you come to a place that brings the city prize: people!. The residential Laclede Lofts, a reuse of a former industrial building. Now, as a result of this conversion, we lost a single story building on the street just to the west which is now an entrance to parking...but people are here now and just 9-5 for work. Not perfect, but so it goes.

Gone is the little blonde brick building to the left.

There's a Post Office just to the west. Man, I am a sucker for these buildings, the fonts, the folded plate roofs...just so American. Don't plow these things down, future peoples. These are so "of the times" in which they were built. Icons of both small and big cities.

Then you come to what I consider one of the best examples of new construction in the area called 6 North Sarah. Color, shape and most of all, the industrial looking, tilt windows. This is a champ and is mixed use with a popular restaurant on the corner, and lots of residential.

Across the street is a St. Louis treasure, the New Market Hardware store. This should be on the historic registry of important places, because in my 20 years in STL, these hardware stores are disappearing in time. When the owner decides to retire, the places close. The good news is, there are lots and lots of new potential customers in the area.

There are still some beautiful brick homes just east of the hardware store, some occupied and and good shape, others shuttered, one open to walk right in.

Even in St. Louis' best neighborhoods, and the Central West End is likely #1 on that list, we have issues with bad owners and abandonment and neglect. Both 4046 and 4048 Laclede Avenue are owned by the same entity. Due to proximity to the hardware store, and the likely desire for parking, one could surmise the owners are sitting and waiting for them to become adequate "eye sores" so they can be demo'd for a parking lot. No inside word or hard evidence, just a hunch.

All the best to the hardware store by the way...you guys don't need a parking lot when there's ample spots on the street.

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Catty corner from the hardware store is another new mixed use project including residential and ground floor retail, this one called 4101 Laclede and it'll bring 54 luxury 1, 2 and 3 bedroom town homes and condos to this corner that has been a vacant lot for years.

Keeping in mind, this is a luxury price point, whereas the Standard is targeting college students, think back to the Standard's drab finishes and colors, this one will be much more interesting, I really like the way the blonde brick is taking shape.

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Cross Sarah Avenue again and you come to the massive West Pine Lofts. This used to be a metal shed building as well as a couple cool one-story brick buildings that were lost to make way for these new residences. 

These are good looking and have the nice urban form we all want. 

One of the real pluses of these new developments are the plantings of street trees and landscaping in the easements between the buildings and the sidewalks.

There are some Mid-Century attempts along West Pine that don't fit in at all, complete with their parking right out front layout. Here are two examples from 1963 and 1964 that are straight outta the suburbs:

It's good there is a diversity of price points here, but man, we have to do better than these 60's suburban structures if we want our city to look like a city and not the burbs. Other disruptions exist on West Pine include the massive surface parking lot and garage that front the sidewalk and break up the pedestrian experience and make a cars-only dead zone...complete with "keep out" chain link fence.

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Then you come to a couple more apartment buildings, one recently completed "The Piazza" and another under construction across the street "The Piazza II". Again, say what you will about design and finishes, but these are bringing what we need, people and they are built right up to the street. I'll include what these replaced so you can make up your own mind on whether this is progress or not.

2011 Google Street View Image - Now Site of The Piazza

2011 Google Street View Image - Now Site of The Piazza

In all fairness, a couple handsome multi-family brick homes were destroyed to make way as well.

Across the street where Piazza II will be ready in 2018 replaced a one-story building complete with bad mansard. I like how this one will be snug right up against the nice brick building adjacent on the right.

2011 Google Street View Image

2011 Google Street View Image

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See that off white brick building just to the left of the Piazza II? That is the relatively new Jesuit Archives and Research Center. Here's a before and after on that building:

2015 Google Street View Image

2015 Google Street View Image

Then across the street is the long standing Cafe Ventana and an 1891 mansion that I hope some day gets put back into use.

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I already mentioned SLU's love of high-profile surface parking lots at prominent corners, killing the campus and pedestrian vibe, and those do exist along Vandeventer. You also have a dead street face wall with the Public Storage building that winds up my tour back at Vandeventer and Laclede.

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Notice the lack of street trees, sidewalk care, windows, lighting, anything. A true deadzone from a pedestrian perspective.

There are a lot more housing units on former light industrial and vacant properties in this neck of the woods. The density is becoming noticeable. This part of the city is really coming back to life.