Downtown Is Alive and Well (Thank You Very Much)

I was listening to Charlie Brennan reading comments on air from the KMOX Facebook page, comments from all the people who say they won’t be coming downtown to see the fantastic improvements planned for Union Station. In fact, they won’t come down at all. Ever. Because they believe it’s a ghost town or that they’d be shot.

Insight PR St. Louis

This belief is unfortunately very common among people in the suburbs and quite perplexing to many of us who live and/or work in the City every day, love it and clearly don’t see what they hear. It also makes it impossible to improve or draw people to the area when the natives are running scared and verbally trashing the place.

Here’s the thing. Downtown is booming. I see it every single day.

I’ve worked downtown for 12 years and it is NOT on the decline. It’s gotten better. Each year brings improvements, rehabs, more residents, more excitement, more buzz, more attractions, more investment. But still, some refuse to be convinced.

Girls on the Run 5K, one of dozens of race events to bring tens of thousands downtown. (Photo by Debbie Monterrey)

The news this week that Mike Shannon’s and Harry’s are closing after several decades in business has exacerbated talk of the death of downtown. But those believing that fail to see all the new restaurants and attractions that have opened.

George Mahe, dining editor for St. Louis Magazine, says not only are there a number of new and high-profile restaurants opening (Porano, Sugarfire, The Kitchen Sink), but a number of existing eateries are doing quite well.

Porano Pasta on Washington Ave., the latest restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef, Gerard Craft.

As for Shannon’s and Harry’s, both beat all odds by staying open for a quarter-century when the average restaurant life span is 5 years. Mahe says because people have memories of those two places, even if they themselves haven’t been for years, it makes it seem like a bigger deal and makes more headlines than a suburban strip mall restaurant shutting its doors (which happens all the time).

A decade ago, the lofts on Washington Avenue were some of the only places to live. Now many high-rises have been converted to luxury apartments with occupancy rates of 90% or higher.

According to Downtown STL, almost 18,000 people now live in the greater downtown and with even more apartments becoming available, thanks to a flurry of renovations of late, that number continues to grow.

KMOX’s building, the Park Pacific, has three levels of retail/business and the rest of the building is filled with residents.

Park Pacific rooftop. Photo by Debbie Monterrey

The Arcade Building, after years of bouncing around through foreclosures, is ready to open and looks absolutely gorgeous.

The Arcade Building. Renovation almost complete. Photo by Debbie Monterrey

Across the street from the Arcade is the Gallery 720 Luxury Apartments that just recently came online (the former Laclede Gas HQ). It joins the Gallery 515 and Gallery 400.

Gallery owner/developer Brian Hayden attributes some of that disconnect (those who believe downtown is dead) to the “show-me” state mentality. People can’t just be TOLD that downtown is cool, they have to see it to believe it.

“I have had many people change their opinions of downtown once I have given them personal tours, taken them for dinner downtown, a movie at the MX Theatre,” says Hayden.  “They’re always amazed at what is available, as if they had heard but didn’t actually listen. Our residential tenants moving downtown love what is happening [with the] great history and so many improvements [and amenities].”

View from the balcony at the Galley 515 apartments on Olive. Selfie by Debbie Monterrey

Across from Gallery 720,  the building at 705 Olive has been purchased by Amy and Amrit Gill of Restoration St. Louis, who plan to turn that property into a boutique hotel, condos and retail. The Gills have done extensive work in Midtown and The Grove. Why downtown?

“Investment in the city is good business,” says Amy Gill. “Regions have to invest in downtowns—they are the nucleus of the region and no region rises further than its core.”

Webster University isn’t hiding outside the city limits. They’ll be taking up a huge portion of the Arcade Building’s first floor.

Webster University Downtown, Arcade Building. Photo by Debbie Monterrey.

Webster University President Beth Stroble says this is a continuation of their commitment to downtown.

“We know that vibrant and thriving cities are anchored by institutions that make investments in the education, health, recreation, and working and living environments of city residents and employees.” Stroble continues, “Webster is proud to open this new site for our Gateway Campus in an historic building that offers academic programs downtown in the center of living and learning.”

Photo by Steve Millett

With the National Blues Museum set to open officially this spring, right near the MX Movie Theater, Pi Pizza, Copia Wine Bar and more, there will be even more to see and do.

Of course, no urban center is without problems and more people moving downtown isn’t the answer to everything.

Pi Pizza’s owner Chris Sommers says, “The perception that Downtown is dead is accurate to some who visit only periodically, or who don’t see it different times of the day and week. While Pi Downtown is our highest grossing restaurant in STL, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it feels like you can safely shoot a cannon down most streets many hours of the day. Why? Because we lack the office tenants we once had. Until we can get a good mix of office and residential, it will have some of the attributes of sleepier suburbs.”

Sommers continues, “I believe we can fix this, but it will take the same energy spent trying to keep a corporation that never wanted to be here, the Rams, to be redirected to attracting and retaining corporations that actually move the needle and provide year-round traffic on Downtown streets.”

It also takes people in the metro to support downtown, see for themselves what is happening and stop spreading fear, mistruths and half-truths.

Clearly, there has been a rise in shootings in St. Louis, as there was in 2015 in most cities in this country. The number of illegal guns in this city is a huge problem. Crime is an issue. I get it.

Note that neither Harry’s nor Shannon’s blamed crime as the reason they were closing, although many just assume that’s what it’s about.

People who don’t live in the City hear about a shooting and attribute it to THE WHOLE CITY. The City is made up of dozens and dozens of unique neighborhoods. Downtown is just one. Many non-City residents refer to everything in the City as “downtown.” Therefore, any crime in the city is happening downtown.

Downtown STL, Inc. is investing in more cameras and other technology to help the police do their jobs more effectively.

The mayor’s office, police department and Board of Aldermen continue talking (and talking and talking) about hiring more police, or how we just can’t find the funds. Saying we can’t afford it rings hollow in light of Sommers’ comments. We can afford to spend millions begging Stan Kroenke to stay here, but we can’t find that same zeal to take downtown to the next level.

That is hugely frustrating and needs to change.

A few weeks ago, I had jury duty. At lunch break, I began walking to Central Library to have a bite to eat inside at Urban Eats. On the way, I chatted with a woman while we waited for the light to change. Chatted with another guy at the next light. Walked to the Library with a big grin on my face.

I love Downtown St. Louis. No lie. I love it.

If you don’t, maybe you need to spend more time here.