Why downtown St. Louis needs more than just office space to bounce back from the pandemic
Downtown St. Louis' identity of being where many of the region's highest-profile companies rent high-visibility offices appears to be fading, and fostering a new one in the post-pandemic era could prove essential for the region’s future.
The Central Business District boasts nearly 11 million square feet of rentable office space, according to real estate services company CBRE. The district stretches from the eastern edge of the city’s Midtown neighborhood to the riverfront.
In recent years, a parade of companies have announced moves away from the business district.
“My goal was to stay in the city,” said Andy Crouppen, one of the firm’s managing partners. “We’ve been in not just the city, but downtown for the entire existence of the firm. Moving out of downtown in and of itself is a big deal.”
The firm was staring down the end of its lease at One Metropolitan Square, a downtown skyscraper, a few years before the pandemic hit, he said. That had him searching high-rises in downtown, Clayton and other parts of the region for roughly 50,000 square feet of contiguous office space, Crouppen explained.
“In St. Louis, there just aren’t that many places if you want to stay in the central corridor,” he said.
Then the pandemic hit, his employees started working remotely, and most of the law firm’s lease expired, Crouppen said.
‘I want to compete with your home’
The firm eventually decided it would invest in a newly developed office in a building that had sat empty for decades.
“I’ve never seen a building in rougher shape,” said developer Hany Abounader. “It had been boarded up since like the 1980s.”
The renovated interior now is quite different. Natural light pours through huge arched windows, bathing the cubicles and conference rooms below.
Some relics remain, like the masonry, wooden support columns, metal scaffolding and a former water tank.
“If you just leave the old parts together, it doesn’t look great,” said Abounader, president of Third Man Development. “If you try too hard to make it look all new, then it looks like you tried too hard to make it look new.”
During the build, Brown & Crouppen employees continued to work from home, Crouppen said.
“We knew that was going to be a challenge to get people to want to come back to work,” he said. “Especially when we started this project, nobody wanted to.”
The need to overcome that resistance and considerations for what attorneys and legal assistants need in their day-to-day work influenced how the space was designed, said Margaret McDonald, senior principal at architecture firm HOK, which designed the interior.
“There’s a lot of collaborative work, or work meeting with a client,” she said. “And then there’s a lot of heads-down writing.”
That meant more individual places where people can work if they want a different view than their normal desk provides, she said. Then, there are the extras: a fully outfitted gym, a curated public art gallery and even an Airstream trailer set up as a conference room.
Crouppen said he hopes the new space will persuade many of his employees to at least try coming back in person.
“We looked at this as a competition,” he said. “You love being at home, you want to stay at home. I want to compete with your home.”
“The firms that are saying, ‘You must go back into the office, you must be there’ — it’s not resonating well with a lot of people,” she said.
Instead, it’s more important for companies to emphasize the things that aren’t as accessible at home, like mentoring, technology or an environment with those extra perks, McDonald said.
The future in the St. Louis region
In the St. Louis region, offices with lavish amenities are not particularly common downtown, and Brown & Crouppen is far from the only business to relocate in recent years.
This kind of movement is normal in any downturn too, economic or pandemic, said International Downtown Association CEO and President David Downey.
“There is always a migration to quality,” he said, adding that the pandemic didn’t start this trend so much as accelerate it.
“Those urban centers who were already diversifying their places and looking to serve a broader audience than just one particular segment of the economy did prove more resilient,” he said. That means having different sectors in a downtown that can cater to visitors in the daytime, nighttime and those from out of town, Downey explained.
But St. Louis lags. Data from the University of Toronto finds activity in downtown St. Louis is about half what it was before the pandemic, the worst of 66 American and Canadian cities analyzed. The study used mobile phone data to compare the number of unique visitors to a city’s downtown before and after the pandemic.
“The underpinning strategy to success is to build mixed-use, diverse communities and neighborhoods throughout your entire city,” Downey said.
St. Louis and other similarly sized cities can do this and distinguish themselves from larger metro areas, which face different challenges, like stifling commutes, he added.
“With the new hybrid work environment and people having the choice to live and work in different places, it’s those midsize cities that really have an opportunity to leverage that,” Downey said.
Local and state governments can help facilitate this kind of transition with changes to zoning rules, faster permits or incentives that encourage developers to take on projects that breathe new life into underutilized buildings and spaces, he said.
“Certainly the market will continue to adapt underutilized buildings, but it’ll be at an extremely slow rate,” Downey said.
Some in the region see downtown already making these changes.
“There’s these ebbs and flows in all things. I think the tide was low for a while in this part of the region, and I think we’re on the cusp of that flow,” said Christopher Randall, director of community impact at 21c Museum Hotels St. Louis, which opened in August.
Randall has worked downtown for the past decade and said newer developments can bring buzz to the area. He points to the new CityPark soccer stadium, renovations at Union Station and the art galleries at 21c, which used to be a regional YMCA, as examples of positive momentum.
“This museum is open 24/7, 365,” Randall said. “It’s open to the public, which hotels and spaces like these are often exclusionary. Everybody deserves to experience this beautiful art in this space.”
But it’s not all about building new things, Randall said. There must also be a willingness by the region’s own residents to adjust their expectations, thinking and behavior.
“Sometimes St. Louisans are bad for doing things the way they’ve always been done and wanting to see things the way they’ve always been,” Randall said.
He’s hopeful though, given the transplants he sees moving into the city and downtown, he said.
“It’s the nonnative St. Louisans that see the best in our city,” Randall said. “These are the people I see in the meetings, these are the people I see that are taking actions and not giving up because they see the potential.”