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Eminent domain threats may spark development at downtown's Millennium Hotel

The Millennium Hotel seen from the Gateway Arch grounds on Monday, March 25, 2024, in Downtown St. Louis. The vacant building may be blighted and acquired by eminent domain.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The Millennium Hotel seen from the Gateway Arch grounds last month in downtown St. Louis. The vacant building may be blighted and acquired by eminent domain.

A prominent and long-vacant property in the heart of downtown St. Louis may soon see new life now that the city is targeting it for eminent domain.

The Millennium Hotel, situated on 4th Street and sandwiched between the Gateway Arch grounds and Busch Stadium, opened in 1966 with 788 rooms. It's sat unused since 2014.

“We have an out-of-town, out-of-country investor who’s really let the property languish,” said Alderwoman Cara Spencer, whose 8th Ward includes the property. “It’s one of the most prime pieces of real estate in our city, and I would argue, our region.”

Last month, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority Board first brought up the possibility of a blighting study and redevelopment plan of the Millennium Hotel site, but the board voted to table that item as the draft of the study wasn’t complete.

“We are in favor of moving forward with an eminent domain resolution,” said Zach Wilson, vice president of economic development incentives at the St. Louis Development Corporation at last month’s meeting. “Anywhere else this would be prime real estate to be developed immediately.”

Wilson added that SLDC and the city have been approached by numerous developers interested in developing or renovating the property.

The LCRA board won’t consider the blighting study and redevelopment plan for at least another month as SLDC is waiting on a revised version of the study, which will not be ready for this month’s meeting on Tuesday, SLDC spokeswoman Sara Freetly said in a text message.

The issue would also need to go before the Board of Aldermen, Spencer said, adding she is committed to bringing a bill on the matter.

“We have been sitting on the sidelines and letting absentee landlords really take advantage of the city, and that’s not OK,” she said. “We’re standing up to that behavior and saying enough is enough, take action or move aside.”

The Millennium Hotel on Monday, March 25, 2024, in Downtown St. Louis. The vacant building may be blighted and acquired by eminent domain.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The Millennium Hotel last month in downtown St. Louis

It appears the city’s posture may be working. Since the possibility of eminent domain first came up in March, the property has been listed for sale with commercial real estate firm JLL leading the efforts to sell the property.

JLL Managing Director David Biales is leading the sale of the building and will conduct tours with interested buyers and have a call for offers through a closed-bid process, he said in a statement. He added the seller would review the buyers and select finalists to interview.

“Millennium Hotel is an important landmark within the city, and this is a great opportunity to restore its significance within downtown,” Biales said. “Our goal is to identify a reputable buyer that will infuse new energy and resources into the property while nodding to the hotel’s history.”

Benedict Ng, a representative of Millennium Hotels & Resorts, the property’s owner, said the company is working with the SLDC to speed up the redevelopment process of the site.

“By working hand-in-hand [we aim] to prevent potential delays associated with blighting and eminent domain processes, allowing the project to commence without unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles,” he said in a statement.

To Steve Smith, CEO of Lawrence Group Architects and New + Found Development, avoiding the use of eminent domain would be a good thing.

“Just put it up for sale, let [someone] buy [it] at market price and you’re done, as opposed to creating a fight in the courts,” he said. “At the end of the day we need the ownership of that property in the hands of an organization, whether it’s public or private, that is not a speculator.”

Smith is familiar with the challenges of the Millennium Hotel. He explained the property’s current owner hired his firm in 2014 to put together a redevelopment plan for it.

Smith said his team presented a proposal that would have put the property on the national register of historic places and renovated the taller tower into multifamily housing, while the shorter building would be a hotel.

“We presented that, we presented a financial model. Anyway, obviously they didn’t move forward,” he said. “What I was told was that St. Louis was not a place at that point in time where they wanted to deploy the kind of capital that would be required to do this project.”

But the owners still held onto the property, likely because it would increase in value, Smith said.

A tarp covers the pool at the Millennium Hotel on Monday, March 25, 2024, in Downtown St. Louis. The vacant building may be blighted and acquired by eminent domain.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
A tarp covers the pool at the Millennium Hotel last month in downtown St. Louis.

Moving forward

Redeveloping the Millennium Hotel property could unlock a better experience of a critical part of downtown St. Louis for residents, workers and visitors, said Catherine Hamacher, a professional urban planner and associate director at PGAV Planners.

“For that entire block, if you are walking, biking or driving up 4th Street, there is zero activation at the street level,” she said. “It’s also particularly gross. It’s empty. There aren’t people coming and going from it.”

There’s an opportunity to create more positive impressions on people passing between two of the region’s biggest tourist attractions in Busch Stadium and the Arch grounds, Hamacher said.

“I see tourists all the time when I’m coming and going from work taking that Walnut Street connection,” she said. “Right now when they do that they walk by an empty, vacant pool and weird fenced area. People are just unsure what it is.”

While Hamacher admits some nostalgia for the spinning restaurant at the top of Millennium Hotel, she said the current configuration of the 4.2-acre site may not be its best use, adding it may be better to demolish the building and build something new in its place.

Smith agrees.

“I’m normally not a proponent of tearing down buildings,” he said. “But this is one of the premier sites in our region.”

Smith’s own development portfolio includes older buildings like the Park Pacific and Marquette Building. But he said the Millennium Hotel site could benefit from more density, especially since it’s right next to the Arch grounds.

Smith said it could also serve as a strong development site for a corporation wanting to visibly signal their future commitment to the city and the region.

“Because it’s on literally every postcard of the Arch taken from the east side,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to present St. Louis as the progressive, forward-thinking innovative city that it is.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.