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Will area near UMSL become Plank Street Station?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2012 - Picture an area filled with restaurants and retail, anchored by a university and a Metro stop, in one of the most historic parts of the St. Louis area.

Sound like Grand Center? That’s the idea behind the vision for Plank Street Station, the proposed development of the land around the UMSL South Metro stop, right near the Normandy City Hall.

The project is far from a reality, of course. But a panel from the Urban Land Institute presented the possibilities at a session on the UMSL campus Tuesday morning as part of the transit-oriented development thrust being championed by groups such as Citizens for Modern Transit.

Developer Amos Harris, one of the members of the technical advisory panel that presented the plan, said in an interview afterward that there was no way to put a timeline on the project, whose cost he said “has got to be somewhere between $15 and 30 million, just to throw out a number.”

Now that the panel has spelled out what the area can become, interested parties — including the university, the municipalities in the area, Metro and others — need to come together to do the detail work to make it happen. Normandy Mayor Patrick Green said a lot of those discussions have already begun taking place, along the lines of the 24:1 housing initiative made up of the north St. Louis County cities that are part of the Normandy School District.

Such cooperation will be crucial for the plans to ever approach becoming reality, Harris said.

“Somebody’s got to call the meeting and get everybody together,” he said.

Three key questions

The panel’s presentation centered around three major questions:

  • What potential uses for the site will attract development and investment capital?
  • What is the best strategy to move such development forward — tying the parcels together or pursuing separate opportunities?
  • What kind of incentives would increase the desirability of the project to potential investors?

The panel said that the site — centered around the Metro station on UMSL’s campus south of Natural Bridge Road — could include anything from housing to restaurants to a business incubator to an event space to retail to restaurants to an urgent-care center to a small grocery.
Panel member Kent Evans noted area residents don’t always have access to such amenities now.

“Medical care is far from that area,” he said, using one example. “People in the community don’t have access to it as they once did.”

As far as the best way to proceed, the panel recommended designation of a master developer to guide the project and bring in smaller investors to fill in the individual projects. Such a developer could also work with municipalities and North County Inc. to help the project along.

For the incentives needed to get the development accomplished, the panel said a whole range of existing incentives — tax-increment financing, transportation taxing districts, other tax credits and more — could be leveraged as part of a comprehensive package.

“You’ve got a pretty good toolbox,” Harris said after the presentation. “You just have to be intelligent about how to use the tools.”

Plank Street Station

Two more keys, the panel said, will be to get the necessary density to the area, so it serves not only as a community resource but as a destination for others, and to give the newly developed area a recognizable identity.

The suggested name — for the developed area and for the Metro station — is Plank Street Station. The panel noted that both Natural Bridge and St. Charles Rock Road were the first planked roads in north county connecting the rural areas to the west to the growing urban area to the east in St. Louis, so Plank Street Station would evoke that era.

As examples, members of the panel pointed to Grand Center near Saint Louis University as well as the South Grand area, which like Natural Bridge is part of the Great Streets Initiative.

“It’s a gesture to the past and a connection to place,” Harris said.

Rachel Witt, with the South Grand Community Improvement District, talked about the importance of branding and marketing as well as the physical changes in her area, including traffic changes to make visitors and residents feel safer.

One big key, Witt said, is to take advantage of the attributes and the legacy of the surrounding area.

“Our bread and butter is the neighborhood,” Witt said, adding: “You have to get people to know the history of your area and why they should come there.”

As far as increasing the density of activity in the area, Harris said a good mix of destinations would be a big draw. For restaurants, for example, you could have a taco place next to a white-tablecloth restaurant next to a noodle shop, he said.

He also stressed the importance of creating a strong pedestrian connection between the Metro station, which is below grade and generally out of sight, with the redeveloped entertainment district.

Getting it done

To move the project along, the panel proposed establishing a not-for-profit Chapter 353 redevelopment corporation that could acquire, build, maintain and operate the finished products. It would have a board of between three and 13 members and use a 25-year property tax abatement to attract and help pay for the plan — again, similar to Grand Center or the Aviator Business Park going up on the site of the old Ford plant in Hazelwood.

“By using 353,” said Laura Radcliff of Stifel, Nicolaus, “you can leverage a series of tools.”

Partnerships with UMSL, Normandy, North County Inc., Express Scripts, Glen Echo Country Club, Metro and other groups would also help turn the plan into reality.

Betty Van Uum, assistant to the provost for public affairs and economic development at UMSL, told the presentation that the work is just beginning.

“You’ve laid out a plan of action for us,” she told the panel. “We’re ready to move forward.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.