Riverfront developments face obstacles, but the Mississippi River itself may be the biggest
Ideas for development along parts of the St. Louis riverfront have become more common in recent years.
Developers of Lighthouse Point plan to build a $325 million marina and entertainment district near the northernmost tip of St. Louis. The $1.2 billion Gateway South project would redevelop a legacy industrial area south of the Arch into a construction and design innovation district.
The surge of interest in development along the Mississippi riverfront is something Colin Wellenkamp first noticed picking up steam around 2005. He’s the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative and said the 2,500-mile river has had many identities over the decades.
“I’ve watched it take on different characteristics from a liability to something that you just don’t go near because it’s dangerous or polluted, to the renaissance that it is going through right now,” Wellenkamp said.
There’s new enthusiasm for projects that promote the Mississippi’s natural assets and expand capacity for transportation, ecotourism and restoration, he said. But this renewed interest also comes at a time when the river itself is seeing massive fluctuations in its level on a regular basis, Wellenkamp said.
“Now the events are stacking up very close together,” he said. “And it’s either feast or famine. It’s either massive flood or what we just went through this fall, a record drought.”
Hazards in the water
The two proposals with approvals have varying degrees of exposure to the Mississippi River’s dynamics. The marina that’s proposed with Lighthouse Point means the project engages with more of the natural hazards of the river.
St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia said this is one of the reasons she doesn’t support the development.
“You have to really understand how big water works; it’s not the same as going on a float trip on the Meramec or the Current River,” she said. “The lower it gets, obviously the more hazards are exposed, including the Chain of Rocks.”
That’s a series of bedrock shelves in the river that’s so difficult to navigate, the Army Corps of Engineers built a multimillion-dollar canal just for tugs and barges to avoid the hazard, she said. Ingrassia speaks from experience, having guided paddling trips on that part of the Mississippi River.
“If you don’t know that it’s there or aren’t familiar with the varying water levels, you can get yourself into a really dangerous situation,” she said.
Ingrassia points to an episode in 2021, when a sailboat wound up stuck on the Chain of Rocks for weeks after its owner missed the bypass canal. She explained she was frustrated that the development proposal won approvals without much scrutiny of the potential public safety and environmental hazards.
“What we were told at the board was, ‘This is just a formality in terms of the tax abatement piece, and the real regulation comes at the state and federal level,’” Ingrassia said. “Which I think is us circumventing our responsibilities to our constituents.”
Tim Morris, managing principal of M2 Development Partners, the group behind Lighthouse Point, said he expects the hurdles from environmental regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers to be rigorous.
“These are agencies that don’t care about our development, they care about the natural resources and the flow of the river and protecting the assets associated with that,” he said.
Morris added the boat that got stuck on the Chain of Rocks was an isolated incident of a boater who was unfamiliar with this portion of the Mississippi River and navigating it at night. He added that the marina will have a comprehensive safety plan and that the harbormaster will provide new boaters a safety overview and other precautions.
“There will be a sign strategically placed at the southern end of the Marina telling boaters to ‘Stop & Turn Around’ to avoid having any boats running aground,” he said.
Critics of the marina and entertainment district also question the placement of the new development on land that has previously flooded.
“It’s always been floodplain,” said Mike Clark, who founded Big Muddy Adventures, which guides canoe and other paddling trips on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. “They’re [now] 50 feet above what it used to be. That mass of land there was never there, it was all bottomland.”
It means that when the river eventually floods again, there won’t be space for the excess water to spread into and instead will push further downstream to a spot that may have never flooded before, he said.
Even though the site has been raised enough for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to say it’s not a floodplain, Clark said that’s no guarantee against future floods.
Mark Repking, also of M2 Development Partners, disagrees and said they plan to outfit the site with streets and utilities this year, before construction of the marina, indoor waterpark and trampoline park begins in 2024.
“It was a floodplain to some degree, but it was protected with an existing levee,” he said. “As the water over the years went up and down, it never flooded the site except for 1993, which was the historic flood level.”
But to Wellenkamp, this misses the reality of modern riverfront development.
“Now, whatever you build, whatever you outfit or change, it really needs to be engineered to flood,” he said. “Putting up a wall around it, putting up a levee around it is only going to make things more risky for you and make things more risky for your neighbors.”
Most of the hundreds of cities and towns that are a part of Wellenkamp’s organization have abandoned trying to engineer the river to meet their needs, he said.
“That is very 20th century,” he said. “So many of my cities have seen new projects wash away or get stuck in the mud because the water is way out there in the channel because it’s a drought.”
It’s pushing them to adjust development projects to the dynamics of the Mississippi River, which can cause devastating damage if water isn’t managed properly, Wellenkamp said.
“Not only do you want that built environment to be able to be flooded and withstand that, but you want to build in natural slack around that asset,” he said. “Other greenspace nearby that can take on the water and relieve pressure from what you’re building.”
He added that this approach is so desirable that banks are even offering cheaper loans on projects that preserve existing wetlands or other natural buffers around developments.
The Gateway South development project is less connected to the riverfront, though developers would eventually like the innovation district to link to the river for commercial use, said Hank Webber, one of the project’s senior advisers. Webber, who was heavily involved in the technology-based Cortex Innovation District, explained that Gateway South is a similar venture but with construction and design.
“The idea was that the design and construction industry has been operating very much the way it has operated for 50 years,” he said. “In fact, there’ve been no productivity gains.”
The development is entering its first phase, which focuses on redeveloping some of the historic industrial area’s old buildings, particularly the Crunden-Martin building, Webber said. That construction will begin in mid-2024, he added.
In later phases though, once the area is more populated with companies producing goods that can be shipped, the project may add an ability to ship on the river, Webber said. Resiliency will need to be core to those eventual plans, he said.
“How do we use the river as a commercial asset as well as a recreational asset in ways that respects the river, respects climate change and respects the challenge which is that it floods,” Webber said. “Any responsible developer and the public agencies that approve development, we all recognize that resiliency has to be at the center of any riverfront development.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.