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Growth in Grand Center seems to find a firm footing

Co-owner Jeanne Spoto poses with the City Diner cutout.
Elia Powers | St. Louis Beacon | 2010

The one-two punch of audiences spilling out of The Fox Theatre at night and Saint Louis University students spilling out of their dorm rooms at all hours was enough to motivate Jeanne and Peter Spoto to open a second location of their popular diner earlier this summer.

City Diner at the Fox (541 North Grand Blvd.) is on the same street as the original City Diner (3139 South Grand Blvd.). The new eatery, which is about one-third as large as the flagship, is at the busy intersection of Grand and Washington Avenue in the shadow of the Fox.

“When we first looked at this neighborhood we saw potential but there were failing businesses,” Jeanne Spoto said from the new diner location on a recent weekday. “That seems to have changed, and we think we’re in an area now that’s ready to pop.”

The Grand Center district of midtown St. Louis, stretching roughly east of North Vandeventer Avenue, west of North Compton Avenue, and between Lindell Boulevard and Delmar Boulevard, is in a period of growth. The Grand Center Arts Academy is set to open this fall. A boutique hotel is in the works, and a seven-room inn is already in place. St. Louis Public Radio is scheduled to break ground soon on its new facility. Several new restaurants and other businesses have opened in the past year.

Owners of the new establishments say they like what’s happening in the neighborhood. “We wanted to be a part of something upcoming,” said Richard O’Connor, owner of Salon Edge . “Growing up, I always liked this area and its focus on the arts. I followed Saint Louis University soccer and liked how many students were in the area. It seemed like a natural place for us to open.”

Richard O'Connor says Grand Center "seemed like a natural place for us to open."
Credit Elia Powers | St. Louis Beacon | 2010
Richard O'Connor says Grand Center "seemed like a natural place for us to open."

Grand Center Inc. sponsors many of the projects that often involve rehabbing historic, decaying structures that present myriad financing challenges for building owners. The nonprofit community development corporation facilitates redevelopment in the district and is the designated developer of the Grand Center Tax Increment Financing Re-Development area.

Ken Christian, a real estate consultant to Grand Center Inc., said he’s noticed an increase in new businesses and institutions opening of late. He said renovations to the Woolworth Building (home to Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Kranzberg Arts Center), the old Medinah Temple (home to the Centene Center for Arts and Education) and the Humboldt Building (home to the new City Diner) have helped spur investment in the neighborhood.

“The big pieces are looking better, so the smaller pieces are starting to come in line,” Christian said.

Vincent Schoemehl, president and chief executive of Grand Center Inc., said he agrees that “the more big projects we get done the easier it is to push smaller projects forward, and vice versa.” He added that “the general sense is that we’re headed in a positive direction against a stiff financing wind right now. It’s a question of whether we can sustain districtwide growth amid the uncertainty in the financial markets.”

Grand Center, like other districts, has been hurt by the economic downturn. Projects have stalled. Credit continues to be difficult for developers to attain. Schoemehl and Christian said they are optimistic that development will continue.

Both said that now that many of the historic buildings have been rehabbed, the next step is bringing new housing into the district. “Ideally what you want in an arts district is a mix of residential developments that attract people who work and use the surrounding institutions,” Schoemehl said. “I’ve always felt that residential development would be the capstone phase of this project.

“We’re hopeful that by the end of 2011, the only undeveloped real estate in the district will be vacant land,” he added.

Here’s a look at some of the new (or soon-to-be new) arrivals to the Grand Center neighborhood – and the projects that still are in the planning stages.

Grand Center Arts Academy: This new performing arts charter school is set to open this month in the Third Baptist Church. The plan is for the school to operate inside the church for a year, after which the renovation of its permanent home inside the Beaux Arts Building (711 N. Grand Blvd.) is expected to be completed. The school is enrolling for grades six and seven and plans to add older classes over the coming years.

Schoemehl said having an arts academy in Grand Center “is a precise fit for our arts district and will tie in nicely with the institutions we have in the area.”  

St. Louis Public Radio headquarters: The station is awaiting groundbreaking on its new home on 3651 Olive St. near the KETC-Channel 9 building. The building will be three stories and 27,000 square feet. Two floors will be dedicated to the operation of the radio station, while the third will be for academic and public activities.  

The Metropolitan: A developer is seeking to finalize financing plans that would enable this historic building to become a mixed-used development in the heart of the Grand Center district on the northeast corner of Grand and Olive St. The idea is to offer affordable work and living space for artists and to fill 2,500 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

In what would become the Metropolitan Artist Lofts Building, 75 residential units would become available for artists on floors two through eight. Residents would also have shared studios, gallery space and soundproof recording rooms in the building.

The building was foreclosed upon, is currently vacant and “has pretty advanced deteriorations,” as Christian notes. State and federal low-income tax credits have enabled the project to advance. Christian said he expects financing to be in place within the next two months.  

Hotel Ignacio: A 51-room boutique hotel is expected to open in early 2011 at 3407 Olive St., next to Triumph Grill. St. Louis University is partnering with Steve Smith, chief executive of the development company Lawrence Group, on the project. (Smith is the owner of Triumph, which opened at 3419 Olive St. in October 2008, and the Moto Museum. Triumph will be connected to the hotel).

The upscale hotel is set to open in the former Interiors Unlimited Building. Plans call for it to include a business center, a spa and fitness center and, potentially, gallery space. Lease space also will be available on the ground floor. SLU parents, alumni and guests are among the groups the hotel is targeting.

Two buildings on nearby Locust Street are being renovated as 25 apartments and ground-level commercial space.  

Missouri Theater Building: Plans for this building at 634 N. Grand Blvd. include a new, 124-room Hyatt Place hotel and high-end housing. Hyatt is interested in opening its first St. Louis hotel tailored toward business travelers. Most of the floors would be occupied by the hotel, while a few would be residential space.

The developer is a commercial real estate firm that specializes in mixed-use properties. The project has stalled and “there is no definitive schedule for completing financing, although everyone involved remains optimistic,” Christian said.

Schoemehl said hotels are an important addition to Grand Center because they help ensure a continuing flow of visitors and a customer base for nearby restaurants.

Grand Center Inn: This new three-story bed and breakfast  at 3716 Grandel Square (at left) has seven guest rooms on the upper levels. The historic Meriwether Mansion underwent a restoration that included adding modern fixtures. There’s a study, dining room and breakfast room for guests.

ArtHouse: Developer Kyrle Boldt wants to build seven attached townhouses at 3732 Grandel Square, on the site of a grassy lot just north of the Contemporary Museum. Each home would be 2,600 square feet. The current asking price is $485,000. Ted Wight, a sales agent with Dielmann/Sotheby’s International Realty, said Boldt wants to have several buyers committed before he breaks ground.

“The real estate market has been soft, so we haven’t been actively marketing the housing,” Wight said. “If the market looks good next year we may start to market this more.”

City Diner at the Fox: The new location, marked by the hip female cutout standing on Grand Boulevard, seats 85 people. The eatery is open 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, and from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday and until 10 p.m. on Sunday.

Kota Wood Fire Grill: This restaurant opened the day after Valentine’s Day at 522 N. Grand Blvd, the site of the former Reggie’s Backstage eatery. Kota is owned by Triumph’s Smith.

Smoothiville: This independently owned smoothie business opened Feb. 19 at 3325 Olive St. Co-owner Sam Hale said he and his business partners spent months evaluating possible locations, including Shrewsbury, Webster Groves and Clayton, before settling on the Grand Center neighborhood.

“We saw all of the work going into Locust Street and the remodeling taking place on Grand, and we knew this is a historic area, so we wanted to be a part of the growth,” Hale said. Hale is banking on Saint Louis University students, faculty and staff as some of the main clientele. Smoothiville is marketing heavily at SLU. When students return in the fall, the store will resume noon to 7 p.m. hours on Sunday. (Monday through Saturday hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.) A printer/copy machine is also on site, and Hale said Wi-Fi is coming.

Salon Edge: Owner Richard O’Connor is also hoping for strong student business at this new hair salon that’s been open at 3526 Washington Ave since January. He is offering cuts starting at $15 for students. Non-student men’s cuts start at $18; women’s at $23. O’Connor worked previously at the salon his father owned near the corner of Big Bend Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway.

Café Ventana: It’s a bit outside the aforementioned boundaries, but the expansion of this popular two-year-old coffee shop and bistro at 3919 Pine Blvd. is worth noting. The café is taking over an adjacent building and adding 1,800 square feet – including 80 to 100 more seats (on top of the current 80 seats), four conference rooms and leather couches.

Amy Cox, a CaféVentana spokeswoman, said the business quickly outgrew its current space. The expansion is scheduled to be completed by mid-August, in time for SLU students returning to campus. CaféVentana is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to midnight.

Elia Powers, a former Beacon reporter, is working on his Ph.D. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Elia Powers
Elia Powers is a Freelance Writer in St. Louis. He worked on several stories for the STL Beacon.