Monday, March 1, 2010

The Gentrification of Washington Avenue

This Thursday evening City Affair will take on the topic of gentrification in St. Louis.  The event will be held 7:30 PM at Style House, the new retail outlet & headquarters of StL Style, located at 3155 Cherokee.  The topic got me thinking about the changes that have occurred over the past decade in Downtowns loft district.  The redevelopment of the Washington Avenue is widely acclaimed as one of the big success stories of Downtown St. Louis.  The story that is usually not told however is how is how when the grit disappeared, so did many businesses and the affordability of the district.

In the early 90's, long before speculators moved in and jacked up building prices, a developer offered wide open lofts for sale in the Rudman Building at 13th at Washington for $90,000.  Each loft was a quarter floor with over 2,500 square feet of space.  These were not going to be the "luxury" lofts that you see advertised today, but the real raw thing.  Unfortunately they did not move forward.

While the upper floors of the Lesser-Goldman Building were still used for warehousing, the first floor had several long time retailers including Gus's Fashions and the amazing A Amitin Book store, which was jam packed with more used books than one could imagine.  Nearby was Cummels Cafe, which started in the Leather Trades Building on Locust, and offered a different delicious home cooked menu each day.  Next door Cummels was a small shoe shine and repair shop that extended the life of many pairs of shoes for a very reasonable cost.

Both photos of the Lesser-Goldman by Rob Powers at Built St. Louis

After the building had been through the hands of Dave Jump, it was sold to Jacob Development, who attempted to develop the building into the Bogen loft condominiums.  In the change of hands, all of the ground floor tenants were thrown out.

Today the entire ground floor is composed of a now defunct sales center (the many unsold units are being leased as apartments), a few fake storefronts with a few items sitting in the windows and mostly wide open vacant retail space.  The prime corner at Tucker and Washington has never been occupied since Gus's was given the boot.

Then there was 1227 (and its successors), one of the many night clubs that brought more life to Washington Avenue at night than there has ever been since their calculated disappearance from the district.


Photo by Rob Powers at Built St. Louis

Before its redevelopment, the Fashion Square building offered very affordable loft space that was mostly occupied by creative companies and a few artists.  Our first office of Pyramid Architects was located here on the 6th floor from 1999 through 2002 (when we took free space in the recently acquired Paul Brown).  We had a spacious 2,500 square foot loft for $600 per month!  On the ground floor was the tasty Studio Cafe and Velvet.  Down the block were several longtime businesses including Marti's Shoes and some remnants of the garment days including a few wholesale fabric shops.

When Fashion Square was redeveloped by the McGowan's in 2004, all the creative companies were replaced by standard loft apartments.  Another architect on the 7th floor moved to the A. D. Brown Building at Tucker and Washington where he was then kicked out again not too long after the move when that building was redeveloped.  The ground floor of the building has unlike the Bogen, been pretty well leased to newer more upscale retailers.  

Another Vitrolite storefront that one housed a great antique & used furniture store.  The location is now occupied by Macro Sun.  Photo by Rob Powers at Built St. Louis

In full disclosure, I worked for Pyramid Companies for nine years during the height of the transformation of Washington Avenue.  During that time I witnessed and took part in these transformations with very mixed emotions.  I thoroughly enjoyed working with the buildings and tried where possible to retain some of the character that the buildings had acquired over time (see the Dorsa Building, whose green facade some wanted to destroy).  It was great to see new residents move into the area but at the same time very disheartening to see the existing residents and businesses leave, which was almost universally the case.  

The experience leaves me asking the question: Is it possible to redevelop or improve a district like Washington Avenue without what some have called the Disneyfication effect taking over?  Is it possible to retain existing businesses, residents along with some of the character and gritiness of pre-development days and still attract an economically diverse new group of residents and businesses?  Hopefully we will find out on Cherokee Street.

8 comments:

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STLgasm said...

Washington Avenue has undergone one of the most drastic and (for St. Louis) fastest transformations in recent history. I remember riding the Bi-State bus with my brother from my house in Creve Coeur to Washington Avenue when I was in high school, and the old days of Wash. Ave (early '90s) was an eye-opening experience. The street was gritty and cold, but oh so cool. One time a dude walked up to us, opened his trench coat, and revealed a collection of gold chains that he aggressively tried to sell us. I remember Knickerbocker, an old Jewish-owned men's clothing store with an old-time elevator that even had an elevator attendant! My brother and I spent entire afternoons popping in and out of the old garment stores-- Goodman's, Weinberger, Marte Shoes, Levin's, etc, and caroused the endless aisles of Amitin's for hours on end (usually looking at old St. Louis books or flipping through Penthouse magazines from the '70s). We bought a bag at Herkert & Meisel luggage company just sowe could own an authentic product from the St. Louis garment district. Ate lunch at Chinese Wok (a hole-in-the-wall that later became Hungry Buddha), where a pimp sat down with us and offered to find us some "girlfriends." Around the corner at 9th & Washington, there was Jimmie's Diner- a 24-hour greasy spoon that was right out of a sitcom. One night a hooker walked in with her pimp-- she was wearing nothing but a leather mini-skirt high-heeled boots, a red lacy bra, a leopard fur coat, and eye shadow that would make Cindy Lauper jealous. The pimp was wearing a purple double-breasted suit with a matching feather hat, gold rings on every finger. There they were, eating toast and eggs at 2:00am, completely oblivious to the table of suburban teens at the next table (us). A few years later, the backdoor rave clubs found a home on the street and added a raw late-night energy to an otherwise desolate thoroughfare (too many to mention)...

The old days of Washington Avenue are long gone, and while I'm glad to see (most) of the buildings restored and reused, but I miss the old shabby garment district that screamed "St. Louis is still a big city" (albeit a shabby one) at every corner.

Perhaps the grimy warehouses of North Broadway will become the next frontier for those adventurous souls who relish the hard-luck feel of old St. Louis and want to keep it that way.

Greg said...

Paul:

I think I understand what you're getting at in your post, but don't you think that you're taking this a little too far? Disneyfication? How is removing vitrolite and restoring the original charm of a building now a bad thing? Would you really prefer that Vitrolite over the structure at the Kinckerbocker?

Furthermore, when we rehab anything there is a direct cause and effect. Having worked for pyramid, you understand this.

That virolite/grittiness was years of neglect and lack of respect for the beauty of the original structure. If there is any sin in all of this it's that someone thought that putting a fake facade on the original somehow improved it.

Those stores and people were all on Washington for one main reason, rent was cheap. They get credit for bringing attention back to the area, but they weren't the ones reinvesting in the area.

The developers of the last ten years are the ones who saw the potential of the buildings and the beauty that was the original structure (with some exceptions), they chose to take the risk to invest and rehabilitate these buildings.

I too worked for a construction company that did a lot of the work on Washington. Those buildings were in dire shape and required a ton of capital to bring them up to code and for the most part the developers chose to do the right thing when it came to redoing the facades and restore the original charm of the buildings. I don’t think the average reader understands how much money was put into bringing these buildings back to life and the developers could have just as easily covered them with another tacky façade and further hidden the original charm, right?

Again, I understand that Washington had a unique feel in the late 90's for the people that occupied the artist lofts, but now we have the beginning of a neighborhood down on Washington, with a great mix of people, culture, and commerce. Is it different, sure. Is it better for the city and more stable, absolutely.

stlexplorer said...

There's usually good and bad in every trade. I love Washington Ave as it is today but I have fond memories of the old Wash Ave as well. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say on Thursday!

Doug Duckworth said...

Artist lofts were not an important element of a neighborhood?

I wonder where these neighborhood residents happen to be during the day and weekends as the streets are quite dead. Maybe parking or driving their cars.

Anonymous said...

wow this post made me sad. Grimy grittiness and all that is very cool and attractive. That element of danger. I don't know how you rehabilitate St Louis and keep that. Of course no one wants to actually be harmed but I worry about becoming a city that looks like it has a curfew.

I don't like homogeneity and I hope downtown isn't at risk of becoming that.

Everyone wants the city to take on their on ideology of cool. Definitely a difficult balancing act. We have to embrace each others differences. I'd like to see a young couple pushing a babystroller through the city. I'd like to see breakdancing and hip hop on one corner. Or a jazz musician on the next. The fashionable pessimism of struggling artists. The old retired couple taking in the cardinals baseball game. The crazy Rams frat-boy type fans on laclede's landing. Hipsters even have qualities I like. We're big enough for everyone but we're going to have a turf war. The Gangs of St. Louis, but hopefully we can reach our destiny a bit more peacefully. We're still growing. Nothings entrenched yet. We haven't figured out where everything goes. Maybe artists will have to move around a few times, however long that takes, before they find a home (sad). We're adding on to what it means to be a St Louisan. Let's not lose sight of that and try our best to be unique. We've got a unique city and a unique history already so that's a good start.

*places cardinal hat on head* *puts on stl-style t-shirt*

Anonymous said...

We should be mindful that everyone here loves, or should love, this city. I don't want the next guy telling me I'm ruining St. Louis because I dine out at an upscale restaurant every now and again.

Vanishing STL said...

Thanks Anonymous, that is possibly one of the most thoughtful comments that has been posted on Vanishing STL. I couldn't agree with you more, although avoiding shoving artists out should be a priority.