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New study suggests St. Louis’ downtown should prioritize becoming a social district

The Gateway Arch, Old Courthouse and Kiener Plaza are pictured on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, as seen from the Peabody Plaza building in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Gateway Arch, Old Courthouse and Kiener Plaza are pictured in January 2023 as seen from the Peabody Plaza building in downtown St. Louis. A new report calls for more street-level activity on the Gateway Mall that stretches from the Arch to CityPark.

A new report on the Gateway Mall in downtown St. Louis calls for the reframing of the green space that runs from the Gateway Arch to the CityPark soccer stadium to help bolster new economic drivers in the region’s central core.

The study by the Urban Land Institute’s Advisory Services Program and commissioned by Greater St. Louis Inc. and the St. Louis Development Corp., recommends steps to transition downtown’s economy into one driven by social interaction and culture in the region.

The longtime paradigm in downtown St. Louis, that of a central business district with millions of square feet of office space, has faltered in recent years, with some companies opting to move their operations to other locations in the region.

“We know that downtown cannot survive simply as a place where people work,” said Ryan McClure, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. “It needs to be a community and a vibrant neighborhood that has cultural opportunities.”

The report lays out a vision to achieve more of that community feel, starting first with small-scale activations, like murals, food trucks or places for music along the mall that can grow into more permanent features as they begin to resonate and attract people.

It also suggests Greater St. Louis Inc. and SLDC acquire real estate along the mall to spark “new uses that support, incubate, and help launch the cultural foundation of a new central social district for downtown.”

The report argues this could give those organizations more control over the changes that come to downtown and the ability to help entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, which haven’t benefited from economic development initiatives in the past. It’s a priority that’s woven throughout the study.

Downtown resident Denis Beganovic participated in some of the panel discussions that informed the final report on the Gateway Mall and said this kind of study is helpful in bringing outside perspectives to the area. The person who led his discussion, for example, came with experience making a vibrant and successful district in downtown Los Angeles, he said.

“I think it’s very helpful because sometimes we locally can’t see the things that others on the outside may see,” Beganovic said.

He explained that living downtown, he often sees visitors marvel at the Arch, Citygarden and historic buildings.

“We have this good base,” he said. “But I think locally, sometimes we don’t see that.”

There’s energy building behind this kind of transition for St. Louis’ downtown, McClure said, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars invested into the Arch Grounds last decade.

“The visitor experience is vastly improved and we’re seeing the dividends of that,” he said. “We’ve got 2.4 million visitors coming to the Arch every year, and those folks are walking through downtown St. Louis.”

McClure and others like Catherine Hamacher, a professional urban planner and associate director at PGAV Planners, argue it’s an important next step to help the region’s downtown become a place people can visit every day and not just for specific events.

“Downtown, for example, has a lot of reasons to come and visit, but we don't do a great job of providing a lot of reasons for people to stay,” Hamacher said.

Creating more sustained activity, especially on the mall, will require more street-level activity, she said. It means stores, restaurants and other spaces that are open and inviting for pedestrians, Hamacher explained.

“That feeling of liveliness, the feeling of a place you want to go,” she said. “So businesses you can go into, places you can purchase things. Even just having patio tables outside when establishments are open creates a sense of street-level activity.”

This would aid in the report's goals of transitioning St. Louis’ downtown from a central business district to more of a neighborhood, which many regions in the country are also focused on, she said.

And the city comes to this moment in a better position than other cities, Beganovic said.

“We’re usually never ahead of the curve on a lot of stuff as a city and as a region, but specifically in downtown over the last 20 years, we’ve started converting buildings into residential,” he said. “That’s a discussion that’s happening around the country now.”

Steve Smith, CEO of Lawrence Group Architects and New + Found Development, agrees, noting the downtown residential population has grown as more historic buildings have been converted.

“The fact that we don't have an abundance of modern office buildings, which have really big floor plates and are very hard to convert to residential, I think we're arguably in a better place than a lot of other cities,” he said.

There are still a few prominent older buildings that are vacant, like the Millennium Hotel and Railway Exchange building, but St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has asked the leaders of Greater St. Louis Inc. and SLDC to turn in a plan this September that would address them.

“We then start to create, hopefully, a positive buzz and a positive reputation around the country to offset what we tend to focus on, which is the negatives,” Smith said.

And that reputation needs work, said Mark Sundlov, managing director of Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, which is situated along the Gateway Mall.

While crime downtown is improving, the perception, which is still important, is that spaces downtown remain unsafe, he said.

“The No. 1 thing I hear from visitors and those who are reluctant to visit is safety,” Sunlov said. “We can’t lose sight of the importance of people feeling safe downtown.”

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