St. Louis' Retail Rock Bottom

There is plenty to be optimistic about in St. Louis these days. We are on the verge of right-sizing our number of aldermen to match the needs of a city that has suffered massive population losses. We are doing things that, progressive? Think bike share. Think pedestrian infrastructure. Think traffic calming. Think conversations around equity that never used to exist. Think about the amount of affordable housing projects under construction or in planning throughout the city.

These are all cause for celebration. But things aren't rosy on all fronts.

One of the most troubling trends that has continued in my 20 plus years living in St. Louis is population loss. It is starting to level out, but we're still dropping. I'm not sure what rock bottom is, but I could see parts of North City continue to show staggering losses as people continue to vote with their feet.

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With the loss of people, comes the loss of business, including retail.

It's getting harder and harder to buy stuff in St. Louis and not have to go to the suburbs or online to spend your money. 

Call me petty, parochial, myopic, whatever...but I loath spending money in the suburbs. I take no joy in subsidizing their game plan. I don't believe in it. A soul sucking endeavor like no other is having to going to the Brentwood Promenade. I don't find happiness or joy in the suburban strip malls, indoor malls and shopping plazas.

This book sits in my bedside drawer keeping me critical yet optimistic that St. Louis can do better:

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But, as a normal person, you have to do some shopping in the burbs, there just isn't enough retail in St. Louis. Realizing this may not be a local phenomena, retail appears to be dying in general; one could easily look toward the disruption of online commerce taking down store fronts and retail chains nationally.

But, I'm old school and still like to shop for some things. And I'm not talking about boutique retail, I'm talking national retail.

Going to JC Penny, Kmart and Target in St. Louis were my go to's for the stuff you need to be a normal person raising a family in modern America.

JC Penny is now gone adding to the list of lost St. Louis retail including Macys, Kmart, Venture, Frank's Nursery and Crafts, Sears Appliance and Hardware, Sam's Club etc...I can go on and on.

Target is the ONLY place to buy stuff in St. Louis. The massive population losses in St. Louis have taken the retail options with it.

It's great to have IKEA in St. Louis for their offerings. But man, we need more places to buy clothes, electronics, home goods, you name it.

Need to buy a TV? Suburbs. Need to buy an affordable suit? Suburbs. Need to buy a pair of Levi's? Suburbs.

So, what can you do? We've reached a retail all time low. Walkable retail district? Forget it, non-existent. These stores can and do exist in more densely populated cities. We've seen it all over.

I have a feeling retail in general will continue to struggle as Google and Amazon and other tech firms make home delivery even more appealing. Amazon's recent purchase of Whole Foods is a clear indicator they are getting in the food home delivery game. It's easy to imagine a near future where food delivered to your home is as affordable and high quality as other offerings via Amazon.

And remember, retail runs on numbers. If the customer base is dwindling, as our population numbers show, we will not be considered for the strong retail brick and mortar players.

Further, the suburban cities have waged war on St. Louis and even neighboring municipalities in the County to lure retail tax dollars from one tiny town to another. Couple that with the continuing population losses and you have little to nowhere to shop.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but we need to take some of our empty surface parking lots and building a walkable shopping district with parking hidden in the back to blend new large bay retail spots with the city. We need to set ourselves APART from the suburbs in every way. We have to be the civilized alternative. Let them do that. It works for them. We have to do better.

Look at the failure of the mid 1990's St. Louis Market Place, the massive suburban strip mall on Manchester in the Ellendale Neighborhood?

This was the city's first dive into Tax Increment Financing and it was a massive blunder trying to play the suburban game...if we can't beat em join em mentality. St. Louis tax payers are on the hook for ~$15M in bonds backed by the city as anchor tenants like Builder's Square, Kmart, Sam's Club and Sears all went out of business or left (Sam's got a better deal in the small town of Maplewood, MO). 

The design is horrible. It needs to be torn down and redesigned. Maybe this is an opportunity for big retail, mixed use development. The population density in this area is actually pretty good with the Hill and the neighborhoods of Dogtown being quite steady and even gaining residential.

One of the OG urban writers of St. Louis, Steve Patterson, called the St. Louis Marketplace a "predictable failure" in his December, 2004 story on UrbanReviewSTL. This is a must read.

Some quotes and critiques from Patterson's article:

Wow, this is really inviting isn’t it? The empty sign frame and vacant lot in the foreground is a former McDonald’s. Yes, in the 12 years the site has been redeveloped McDonald’s has come and gone. I find it interesting they decided to raze their building rather than leave it behind. Maybe they didn’t want to be associated with St. Louis Marketplace?

This project is so interesting you might think you were in – I don’t know – any ugly suburb in the US! Oh wait, I’m being redundant saying ‘ugly’ and ‘suburb.’

Vast seas of parking with only a handful of those pesky trees to block your view of the cinder block buildings with the oh so trendy teal horizontal stripe.

Seldom seen is the back of the project – the loading docks. The shear amount of space & paving is amazing. What a waste. When you don’t value land this is what you get. Do we really need more of this in St. Louis when what we’ve got is such a failure?
— Steve Patterson, 2004 - UrbanReviewSTL

But, it would be better if there was a retail strip in a walkable part of the city. Think downtown or midtown or even a redo of Gravois Plaza in Tower Grove South, one of the most populated and economically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

Again from Patterson:

No sidewalk exists on the Southside of the project. If you live in Dogtown near Prather and you want to rent a video from Blockbuster at the opposite end you’ll probably just get in your car and drive down to get it. If you wanted to walk you’d need to stay on the other side of Manchester or walk through the vast parking lot. Sidewalks and actual places to go on sidewalks are a first step in good city building.
— Steve Patterson, 2004 - UrbanReviewSTL

One of the comments from the UrbanReviewSTL story stuck out as prophetic:

"It is good to know that it was St. Louis’ first attempt at a TIF. A lot of lessons were learned. First this was a city driven project, not a market driven project. It was doomed to fail from the beginning because there was no demand, no access and no customer density around the site. But the city and alderman (were) offering handouts, so stores were able to come with little risk. Also they displaced a viable industrial business and its site for something that is now pretty much useless. Most agree that someday it will need to be converted back to an industrial site."

- Commenter: Matt - December 16, 2004

"Even though the Marketplace has been an abject failure, I think that a grocery store could succeed there. With 100+ new homes planned for Dogtown and the slow but continuous renaissance of Forest Park Southeast, the residential base north of Hwy 44 could be able to support a new store."

- Commenter: Brian Spellecy - December 17, 2004

Retail may be at an all time low in St. Louis.

I used to have a Metropolis STL bumper sticker on my 1995 Saturn SL that said: "Shop The City". It's getting harder and harder.

My next blog will look at the current state of grocery stores and supermarkets and the possible big changes on the horizon.