Jan. 26--St. Louis and some inner suburbs lost population during the last decade, but countering that trend is the robust corridor that begins at the Arch and runs eight miles west.
That corridor is a narrow stretch from the riverfront to Interstate 170, roughly bounded by Delmar Boulevard to the north and Interstate 64 (Highway 40) to the south.
Yet this is where St. Louisans fill offices, run companies, conduct medical research, visit museums, attend plays and concerts, dine, study, go to court, ride mass transit and launch startups. They live in grand old homes, vintage or modern high-rises, lofts and modest houses.
In short, it's where St. Louis succeeds as a city. And it's growing, led by a boom in life-science research and health care. As elsewhere, St. Louis is benefiting from the changing perception that cities are good places to live.
The 2010 census shows that the corridor's population approached 60,000, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2000.
From busy downtown Clayton, the march to the Arch of institutions and neighborhoods includes the Moorlands, Claverach Park, Fontbonne University, the Delmar Loop, Parkview, Washington University, Forest Park, the BJC medical complex, Cortex, the Central West End, St. Louis University, Grand Center, Midtown Alley and downtown St. Louis, part of which had a triple-digit growth rate from 2000 to 2010.
Sarah Coffin, associate professor of public policy studies at SLU, and other urban experts said the corridor's growing vitality will continue to attract new residents who prefer to walk more and drive less.
"People's tastes are changing about how they want to live and where they want to live," Coffin said.
She and others said the presence of Ikea, which plans to open a store at Forest Park and Vandeventer avenues in 2015, will show that the corridor can lure a retail heavyweight.
"Ikea will change the tenor of the entire area," Coffin said. "Before Ikea, (city officials) would say yes to any developer for almost anything. Now they can ask developers for streetscape improvements and other amenities. We used to be happy to have table scraps."
Zack Boyers, chief executive of St. Louis-based U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp., said the corridor's future is bright because its anchor institutions are investing in themselves. A result is a "virtuous cycle" of more residents, workers, commercial activity and investment, he said.
For example, Cambridge Innovation Center, a leading business incubator, decided last year to establish a startup facility at the Cortex life sciences district, Boyers noted. The facility will be CIC's first expansion from its home in Cambridge, Mass.
"Cambridge Innovation spent a lot of time looking all over the world where to open," he said. "It looked at London, New York and San Diego but picked Cortex because of the support of the area's anchors."
PULL OF TRANSIT
Like many older U.S. cities, St. Louis developed along its streetcar lines. The streetcars are gone, but the MetroLink system traverses the east-west corridor with rail transit. The Central West End station, the system's busiest, serves the BJC and Washington University School of Medicine complex, which is in the midst of a $1 billion construction spree.
The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis is pushing a plan to increase the area's rail transit options with a streetcar line between downtown and the Central West End. Boyers, chairman of the partnership's board, said the streetcar would be an important new connector.
"The idea of a streetcar and fixed rail is not only important transit but is also a signal to developers that this is where we're going to focus," he said.
Peter Pollock, an urban planner and fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in Cambridge, Mass., said the presence of mass transit encourages development in the St. Louis corridor.
"As assets of access and transit and all these fantastic activities happen along this corridor, it's no surprise that additional players would want to be in the corridor," he said.
He pointed out that a similar corridor exists in Cleveland, where a nearly seven-mile bus rapid transit line on Euclid Avenue links downtown to University Circle, a hub of medical facilities and arts institutions. Cleveland officials have said that since the bus line began service in 2008, the formerly run-down Euclid corridor has experienced $3.3 billion in new construction and $2.5 billion in building rehabs.
Businesspeople, academics and residents of the St. Louis corridor said they pay scant attention to the Richmond Heights, Clayton, University City and St. Louis boundaries that overlay the area.
"It does all kind of blend in as an urban core," said Tyler Stephens, a principal of CORE10, an architecture firm in the Central West End.
CORE10 relocated from Clayton in 2010. Stephens said most of the firm's clients saw it as merely a move from one side of Forest Park to the other, adding that the rejuvenated park is the linchpin that connects the city to points west.
He said the Central West End's "fantastic building stock" is a factor in the residential growth, enhanced by the stability of BJC and the St. Louis County government center in Clayton.
Hank Webber, Washington University's executive vice chancellor of administration, said Forest Park is indispensable to the corridor's vitality.
"It went from being a great park in need of work to one of the great urban parks in the world," he said.
Webber, who spent 22 years at the University of Chicago before moving to St. Louis in 2008, said the concentration of business, education and culture centers along St. Louis' central spine forms the region's identity and provides much of its employment.
"For many of the major attractions, the last decade has been a time of strength," he said. "If you compare St. Louis to other cities, they're quite geographically disparate but they have the effect of driving demand. And the progress of the Cortex development in the past two years has been remarkable."
Parts of the Central West End provide hard-to-top urban vibes, added Webber, who directs the university's building projects.
"Walking down Euclid (Avenue) in the Central West End compares very favorably with the urban experiences of about anywhere in the country," he said.
Successful cities do more than attract couples with kids, Webber added. They are magnets for young, creative, college-educated people who crave a wide variety of things to do.
"What core cities sell to residents and visitors is density -- the opportunities and experiences of density," he said. "Cities can't compete with backyards and barbecues. What they can compete on is restaurants and music venues."
Blueprint Coffee, recently opened in the Delmar Loop, draws the crowd that will pay several dollars for lattes and other hand-crafted coffee drinks.
Mazi Razani, 26, who formerly managed a coffee bar near Washington University and is now one of Blueprint's owners, fits the demographic of young, college-educated businesspeople drawn to city living. He resides in the corridor neighborhood of Skinker-DeBaliviere and says he is a committed urbanist.
"I don't know if I would have made it out in Chesterfield," he said. "Seeing the high rises makes me feel like I'm in a city."
Jeff Winzerling, co-developer of a project to fit 50 apartments in a 1940s factory west of SLU, said development of the east-west corridor "has been happening in St. Louis since 1875."
As factories, offices and warehouses went up near the Mississippi River, wealthy residents moved west, constructing -- and sometimes discarding -- institutions as they went, he said.
In Grand Center, for example, the Centene Center for Arts and Education was an early 20th-century showpiece for the Knights of Columbus. On Lindell Boulevard, the Moolah Temple of the Mystic Shrine, built in 1912, is now a movie theater, a bowling alley and apartments.
"What we're seeing now is that the terrific buildings left behind are attractive to a new generation of development," Winzerling said.
An overview of buildings by their age shows that the corridor was largely developed by 1900. It experienced a building boom after World War II. Another wave of construction began in 1992 between downtown and Forest Park.
Underway now is a burst of new construction or building rehabilitation just south of the park and west of SLU.
Experts said that central corridor development is promoting overdue growth elsewhere, particularly south to the Botanical Heights and Shaw neighborhoods and through the Forest Park Southeast area to the Grove entertainment district.
"We're finally creating a lot of opportunity in housing choices and job choices for people," Coffin said.
Boyers said development is moving south along Tower Grove Avenue to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is a Cortex partner. Development means growing areas will eventually merge.
"The idea of building off success instead of leaving it as an isolated instance is taking shape," he said.
The improved development climate also is prompting fresh looks at a couple of long-stalled projects in the corridor.
In Clayton, Montgomery Development will decide soon whether to proceed with an apartment tower at South Central Avenue and Forsyth Boulevard.
On Laclede's Landing downtown, Drury Development Corp. and Lawrence Group are considering construction of a 30-story apartment building on a parking lot next to the Eads Bridge. The developers said the Arch grounds renovation project is a catalyst for their plan.
Downtown's residential population will continue to rise, but future developments might be a "new brand" of project that blends offices and live-work space, said Doug Woodruff, the downtown partnership's president.
Webber applies what he calls "the kitchen test" to neighborhood development. "Lots of individual decisions" by residents can make or break a neighborhood, and a spate of kitchen remodelings indicate an upswing, he said.
"People who remodel their kitchens have either decided to stay or think they can get their investment back if they sell," Webber said.
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