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Proposed high-speed media hub may make Delmar Loop a magnet for innovators

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2012 - The Loop has long been a hub of nightlife and culture; but as the age of wired cities dawns, it may find itself a hub of a different kind, a media hub.

“If you look at the Loop community, there are a tremendous number of creative organizations, innovative organizations, media sources and universities near there,” said David Sandel. “There should be a high demand in that part of town with all kinds of organizations that can make use of the greater speed.”

The greater speed Sandel references has nothing to do with the congested traffic inching by on Delmar. It’s all about internet access, something Sandel, president of Sandel & Associates, a digital city master planning firm, hopes to increase exponentially for businesses and residents in the iconic commercial hotspot that straddles the border between University City and St. Louis.

Sandel is looking to make the Loop’s portal to the information superhighway a lot wider with a new gigabit-per-second interface that he and a coalition of partners have been working to put in place. Drawing inspiration from Google’s heavily publicized commitment to install a much bigger high-speed network in Kansas City, the initiative is made possible by the Loop Trolley project, a $44 million initiative expected to break ground soon, putting in a trolley line from the famous Lions Gate along Delmar cutting south at DeBaliviere to the Missouri History Museum on the north end of Forest Park. Federal funding, which will support a hefty chunk of that effort, came through earlier this month.

The construction would also provide an opportunity to install the high-capacity fiber optic lines that are necessary for internet access dozens of times faster than an ordinary consumer connection.

“It’s a trend that’s starting around the world right now,” Sandel said. “It’s happening in places like Toronto, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Singapore. It’s really the tip of the next evolution in the internet where there is much higher speed.”

The large-scale Googleproject was heralded with copious media attention last year when the company selected Kansas City as the winning location out of hundreds of cities vying for the honor of pioneering its ultra-fast network.

The St. Louis initiative, spearheaded by a group called the St. Louis Cloud Coalition, is an aspect of something dubbed a “smart city” concept, which Sandel’s firm describes on its website as “a community which seeks to accelerate the economic development of its metropolitan Internet and the productivity and quality of life of its businesses and residents through the thoughtful alignment of related organizations, resources and infrastructure.”

Sandel envisions the coalition as a “community oversight organization” that might help facilitate any potential expansion of the hub into other areas.

He said the fiber-optic backbone of the system would be paid for by the Loop Trolley project, though a business model was still being worked out for the connections to individual businesses.

Sandel said the new capacity would create a wide array of opportunities for commercial developments and residents whom he envisions might sign up to receive the “premium” service. Organizers are also working to find a wireless provider that might expand a lesser tier of coverage through a public network that would be available to everyone along the 2.1 mile route.

“It’s a common thought in the industry that if you provide a much higher capacity, companies and organizations will develop new applications so we can see [the area] possibly becoming an incubator for gigabit applications,” he said.

To that end, organizers have issued a call to local technology companies to see what sorts of ideas might arise from the new supercharged internet entrance ramp. The answers have included an analytic database to keep track of commercial activity in the Loop, which could then be sold as a commodity and a virtualization capability. Potential tenants use their computers or tablets to take a virtual building tour or could even construct a virtual building and see the changes in the streetscape. Merchants could also do large-scale video conferences with one another.

“Say something was being performed live at COCA on the stage,” Sandel said. “That could be broadcast in high-definition to everyone in the Loop and they could all watch it at the same time.”

Ellen Bern, executive director of the University City Chamber of Commerce, said that while it may be difficult for the average retailer to envision its benefits now, she thinks it will attract high-end creative technology companies to the area.

“The people I’ve seen at these meetings who are most interested are these startup folks, people with a lot of creative ideas,” said Bern, whose outfit is part of the Cloud Coalition. “They need the high-speed internet to make this stuff happen.”

Washington University is another partner in the coalition, having been strongly active in the initial study phase.

“The university was very interested in that because of the amount of student population that we have living along the Loop Trolley right of way,” said Tara Bone, the university’s special projects director for the executive vice-chancellor for administration. “Our campus community and the community itself were very interested in supporting that area and anything that could provide some economic development.”

Otis Williams, executive director of fellow coalition partner St. Louis Development Corporation, also has an eye on economic opportunities.

“Although this is a small area, it’s primed for redevelopment, particularly if you add a lot of connectivity opportunities to it,” he said.

Attention is even coming from further afield. Last week, Loop Media Hub leaders met with representatives from Taipei, Taiwan, to consider possible collaboration opportunities.

“The local Chinese community has taken a very strong interest in the project and we’re going to be talking about the possibility of having some type of smart city innovation, entrepreneurial and education center,” Sandel said.

A Tuesday afternoon stroll along Delmar shows that local business owners seem enthused as well.

Angie Villa, gallery manager at Craft Alliance, said she had been to meetings on the topic and felt that while many details were still in flux, such as the cost for businesses to connect, she thought it was the right move.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in Kansas City with Google; and I think that if we can bring that type of fast media and internet to the Loop area, then it’ll be a great draw for different businesses and high-tech startups,” she said. “That’ll be good for all the restaurants and shops, so we’re excited.”

At Vintage Vinyl, co-owner Lew Prince, a University City resident, said he wasn’t aware of the media hub aspect of the trolley project but said it sounded like a good idea. As music blared in the background, Prince recalled that his establishment was among first wave of early adopters for the Internet, starting its own website in 1996. He said improving the nation’s Web infrastructure was vital to remaining competitive as a country.

“To me, being wired is the best thing that could happen to a modest-sized store like this,” he said.

At Componere Gallery of Art, owner Eleanor Ruder said she had heard positive feedback from individuals at Special Business District meetings and her own feelings were no exception.

“I think it would bring in young people who want to find offices here and then they might be interested in shopping in my gallery,” she said. “I just think it’s exciting that we bring innovative things like that to the St. Louis area and do it in the Loop.”