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St. Louis showing ‘definite signs of life’

When Tom Bussmann first moved into a loft condominium six years ago, this city's downtown scene was "pretty bleak," a dilapidated urban core largely known for a mass exodus at the end of the work day. But St. Louis is shedding its after-hours ghost town feel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Tom Bussmann first moved into a loft condominium six years ago, this city's downtown scene was "pretty bleak," a dilapidated urban core largely known for a mass exodus at the end of the work day.

But St. Louis is shedding its after-hours ghost town feel.

Three new entertainment districts are planned: a casino complex along the Mississippi riverfront, Ballpark Village at the new Busch Stadium and the Bottle District just north of the Edward Jones Dome.

Bussmann, co-owner of the Philip Slein art gallery who works on now-bustling Washington Avenue, counts himself among those looking forward to the additions.

"There's definite signs of life now," Bussmann said.

For decades, St. Louis saw its population decline as the wealthy and middle class moved to the suburbs. The city's population was about 850,000 in the 1950's; by 2000, it dipped below 350,000.

Thanks in part to tax credits, developers have taken a liking to a downtown filled with beautiful old buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Five years ago, many were boarded up and vacant. Today, those buildings house condos, boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs.

For the first time in a half-century, the city's population is on the rise again, up 1.2 percent in 2005. About 10,000 people now live downtown, an increase of about a third in the past five years, said Jim Cloar, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

Soon, residents and visitors will have even more to do, thanks to the three new projects pumping more than $1 billion in development into the city — all three within view of the Gateway Arch and walking distance from the convention center.

Patrick Welch, an economics professor at Saint Louis University, noted the city already has a reputation for its arts and entertainment — from blues joints to one of the nation's most highly regarded symphonies. Big-time entertainment districts can only add to the options for a region that already attracts 20 million visitors annually.

"I think there could be a useful synergy that's being created," he said.

Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. is building a $430 million casino and hotel complex called Lumiere Place, with plans that ultimately could transform 20 acres next to the Laclede's Landing district, including new residential development. The current construction includes a walkway across the street from the Edward Jones Dome that will tunnel under Interstate 70 to near the casino complex, said Pinnacle spokesman Mack Bradley.

The casino complex was designed by Marnell Architecture, the firm responsible for the Mirage and Bellagio resorts in Las Vegas. A 24-story glass and steel tower will be lit from within to frame the building, intending to create an iconic feature for the district. The casino, scheduled to open later this year, will have 40 gaming tables and 2,000 slots. A 200-room hotel will include a luxury spa, and the complex is planned with a nightclub and six dining options, including a steakhouse and an Asian restaurant.

To the south, the St. Louis Cardinals are working to develop a six-block neighborhood called Ballpark Village. It will be built next to the new Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals are working with The Cordish Company of Baltimore on the project. Cardinals senior vice president for business development Bill DeWitt III said construction could begin in April or May on the $387 million first phase, scheduled to open in spring 2009. The plan calls for residential, office and retail components. The development could eventually raise the project value to $650 million.

"I think it'll really take downtown St. Louis to the next level," DeWitt said.

While 81 home dates draw sellout crowds to most games, "people have traditionally gone to a ball game and gone home," DeWitt said. The Cardinals are looking to change that trend, in part by planning plenty of free events to draw people to the district on nongame days.

Concert series, wine tastings, book or job fairs and family nights are among the special events being considered to attract visitors.

The district could include 10 to 15 bars and restaurants with a boutique retail area.

The Cardinals Experience will combine a restaurant and Cardinals Hall of Fame museum, featuring memorabilia and a spot where future inductions can be held, DeWitt said. A grocery store, bookstore, a place for live music and brew pub are among the potential tenants being considered.

Just north of the Edward Jones Dome and along I-70 is the 17-acre area known as The Bottle District, site of another major development.

A large green bottle-shaped sign advertising Vess soda, a St. Louis-made product, is the most famous landmark of an area with a long tradition for brewing and bottling companies. The district is taking its name from thousands of distinctive bottles unearthed as work began on the $300 million complex.

Three brothers, who are the third-generation owners of St. Louis-based McGuire Moving and Storage, are working to transform the property.

Dan McGuire was in Atlanta when the St. Louis Rams won the 2000 Super Bowl and liked the energy there. He began to wonder why something similar couldn't be done in his city. His project has changed course along the way, and parted ways with an outside developer, but he remains committed to it. Plans call for an eight-screen movie theater, as many as six restaurants, an upscale bowling alley and martini bar, a park and residential development.

Demolition has already taken place along five blocks. McGuire said renovation to two existing buildings could begin this spring, with all the work taking about two years.

St. Louis-based Forum Studio is the architect, though McGuire said talks continue with architect Daniel Libeskind, the ground zero master planner who also designed a new wing for the Denver Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, about designing something for the district. The overall look of the district has not been finalized.

But those watching the changes downtown like what they're seeing so far. Architect John Berendzen, president of the American Institute of Architects in St. Louis, called the three plans "very handsome proposals" and said more contemporary buildings — such as Pinnacle's — next to turn-of-the-century properties will be refreshing.

"It's an exciting time to be downtown," he said. "It's never looked better."