Suburban Evolution
11:22 pm
Sun April 13, 2014

This Is Chesterfield: "Bedroom" Community Experiences Business Boom

Chesterfield received plenty of attention recently when it snagged two high-profile festivals away from the city of St. Louis. But the hubbub over the Taste of St. Louis and Bluesweek’s exodus may be part of a larger story. 

Since its relatively recent incorporation in 1988, Chesterfield has boomed in population and established itself as a major commercial center. No longer a remote and largely rural community, Chesterfield has lured big corporations to set up shop and has established sizable retail developments.

It’s an evolution witnessed by Jodi Redler, who’s lived in Chesterfield since 1986. She lives within walking distance of where her grandparents lived during the 1960s. 

Needless to say, there's been plenty of development during that span of time. During her grandparents' time living in Chesterfield, Redler said there wasn't much more than an apartment complex and "a bunch of cows."

"There's a great tax base out here and it enables them to do a lot with the parks program and the kids," she said.

People like Redler see this as a net positive: The business boom has brought along amenities for residents, including the amphitheater that attracted the festivals. Others see Chesterfield's development as a natural byproduct of population shifts and convenient transportation infrastructure. 

A portion of J. Seward Johnson's "The Awakening" sculpture, which is located in Chesterfield.
A portion of J. Seward Johnson's "The Awakening" sculpture, which is located in Chesterfield.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Regardless, Chesterfield is no longer the remote and rural outpost of the 1960s. And as the population moves further west, it’s likely to remain an important city for years to come.

“We used to typically talk about suburbs as bedroom communities, right? And the white middle class fled the city to live in these bedroom communities in the suburbs,” said Todd Swanstrom, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But that’s not Chesterfield because it has commercial and retail mixed in. And in some cases ... [it's] even mixed in a quasi-mixed use kind of planned environment.”

“It’s not that stereotypical, Leave it to Beaver suburb of just single family homes,” he added. “It’s more complicated.”

Growing and growing

In some respects, Chesterfield was always a residential draw, primarily because of its proximity to the Parkway and Rockwood School Districts.  A little over 47,000 people live in Chesterfield, which is about a 10,000-person increase since 1990.

Reinsurance Group of America's future global headquarters in Chesterfield.
Reinsurance Group of America's future global headquarters in Chesterfield.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

But it’s not just attracting people who want to live in Chesterfield. It's also drawing people like David Weiss, the managing officer of Weiss and Associates law firm.  

Weiss is a Central West End resident who wears a city of St. Louis lapel pin. His company has had a headquarters in Downtown St. Louis for 27 years. He joked that his friends were surprised he even knew where Chesterfield was on a map.

But Weiss’ company opened a second location in Chesterfield a little more than six months ago. He says the population density, instant connectivity to Interstate 64 and a welcoming business community make Chesterfield a logical location to set up his business.

“All of these municipalities are jewels. Some have more sparkle, some are larger. Chesterfield is one of the large jewels that really sparkles in our mind,” Weiss said. “And that’s why we thought it was a good fit."

Chesterfield and St. Louis
Credit (Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio)

There are more than 2,300 licensed businesses in Chesterfield, according to city economic development director Libbey Malberg-Tucker. Some are big companies like Reinsurance Group of America, which is building a huge global headquarters within the city borders. Others are smaller firms and companies like Weiss' firm.

“I think the growth certainly helps. It gets people’s attention about what’s coming here already,” Malberg-Tucker said. “When we have project announcements, we see an influx of other businesses from outside the region taking notice and calling to find out what is it about Chesterfield? What’s going on there? Why should we be a part of that kind of thing? Certainly, it follows itself.”

In some ways, the commercial development is not surprising. When Sachs Properties bought up big tracts of land in Chesterfield throughout the 1960s, there was always a “master plan” to develop commercial and retail businesses. That area eventually became Chesterfield Village, which is where RGA and Monsanto are now located.

Much of corporate decision making comes back to the city's residential attributes, according to Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce executive director Nora Amato. Many companies not only want a place to set up shop, but they also want an area for employees to live. 

"They’re now looking for quality of life and balance of work life," Amato said. "So, they are looking for the schools for their executives that are going to be working there. They’re looking for population of how many people they need to work at their corporation. And easy access if they’re going to live across the river or here in Chesterfield." 

Retail Goliath

The other side of Chesterfield’s commercial equation is retail, which, like the city’s residential growth, is not necessarily a new development.

Taubman Prestige Outlets opened last year.
Taubman Prestige Outlets opened last year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

For one thing, Chesterfield Mall has been around since the 1970s. And after the Great Flood of 1993, THF Realty built Chesterfield Commons, which is widely regarded as one of the largest strip malls in America.

But last year, the city’s retail sector got a jolt when two outlet malls opened up relatively close to each other.

Colleen O’Neill is the general manager of Taubman Prestige Outlets. She said Chesterfield’s surrounding demographics and transportation infrastructure made for “a really natural place” to set up shop.

“I do think it’s all very synergistic,” O’Neill said. “You’ve got your big box tenants. You’ve got fast food. You’ve got full-line retail and your malls. You’ve got anchor stores in your malls. You’ve got outlet retailers. So, really, it is a one-stop shop.”

Economic development director Malberg-Tucker estimates Chesterfield Valley has more than 560 retailers that do roughly $800 million worth of sales every year. That, O'Neill said, amounts to “the largest retail corridor probably in the St. Louis market in terms of sales.”

“The retailers that we talked to — a lot of national retailers — have been doing great numbers,” O’Neill said. “They’re very pleased with the property itself. They’re pleased with traffic. We did have a tough winter in terms of weather. I think that was across the board. But still, shoppers were coming out.”

Amato said she’s hoping that the outlet malls bring tourism dollars into the city, especially since people will drive a long distance to go to outlet malls.

"We’re still trying to gather all the data and the numbers of exactly what that means retail wise to our area. But it adds a lot," Amato said. "We’re a destination. We’re not just you come to St. Louis to see the Cardinals. Now, you come to Chesterfield to go to the outlet malls." 

“Edge city”

Political science professor Todd Swanstrom says Chesterfield resembles an “edge city. That's the term journalist Joel Garreau coined to describe commercial and retail-heavy communities that are located close to highways. 

Chesterfield's Central Park is part of the city's investment into parks and trails.
Chesterfield's Central Park is part of the city's investment into parks and trails.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

“I would say that Chesterfield somewhat fits [Garreau's] definition as an Edge City — an agglomeration of commercial and retail,” Swanstrom said. 

Chesterfield resident Stephen Rutherford says the influx of business development has changed his city.

When he was growing up there in the 1960s, Chesterfield was largely rural and remote. Now, many of his neighbors are doctors, IT professionals and scientists. He emphasized that his neighbors “are not from St. Louis,” but rather “people from outside who come here for the job opportunities.”

“I’ve also noticed that the demographics have changed quite a bit since I was growing up,” Rutherford said. “When I grew up, I lived in an all-white neighborhood city street. The street that I live on now has folks from Japan, two families from India, one from China, one from Argentina and one from the Philippines.”

Rutherford’s observations aren’t off the mark. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, while 84.6 percent of Chesterfield’s population is white, 8.6 percent of residents are Asian and 2.6 are black. Rutherford said the population and business growth allows for “more sense of community and more community activities now than there ever was.” That includes an emphasis on developing parks and trails. and showcasing the arts.  

Stephen Rutherford, right, with his wife: Kumiko, and his kids: Nami (10), Alex  (7), Daniel (6), and Sabrina (5) and his son from Thailand (exchange student), Aum (16).
Stephen Rutherford, right, with his wife: Kumiko, and his kids: Nami (10), Alex (7), Daniel (6), and Sabrina (5) and his son from Thailand (exchange student), Aum (16).
Credit Courtesy of Stephen Rutherford

Those types of activities, Swanstrom said, point to how Chesterfield is not a stereotypical suburb. He said it's a positive thing that the community decided to invest in amenities such as the amphitheater which opened in 2011. 

But one thing to be cautious about, Swanstrom said, is that retail in Chesterfield may reach something of saturation point. He said the St. Louis region in general has a tendency to overbuild in that sector. And that can have grave consequences, such as abandoned malls and empty retail space in St. Louis City.

“As a region, we definitely need to be concerned about overbuilding retail,” Swanstrom said. “And Chesterfield could be among those that, years down the line, has vacant retail space which is very hard to recycle.”

Not everybody is thrilled with the influx of new retail options. While praising the city's emphasis on creating parks and venues for the arts, Chesterfield resident Rochelle Brandvein Aaranson said the influx of additional retail has had some negative ramifications. 

While her family enjoyed Chesterfield Commons, she’s been dismayed by how the additional retail options increased traffic and added chain restaurants.

“Now, it seems so overly glutted. It’s too much,” Aaranson said. “Although we were excited that Wendy’s came. But otherwise, we try to eat locally. We’d rather not eat at a chain. We would rather support the local restaurants and the local stores.”

Urban future?

The future of commercial development in Chesterfield may have less in common with big shopping centers or suburban office parks. 

City planners and business boosters are hoping Chesterfield's Amphitheater sparks high-density development in greenspace known as "Downtown Chesterfield."
City planners and business boosters are hoping Chesterfield's Amphitheater sparks high-density development in greenspace known as "Downtown Chesterfield."
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Business boosters hope high-density commercial and residential developments will develop on the green space close to the Chesterfield Amphitheater. The hope is this area will become "Downtown Chesterfield."

“There are plans for more high-density kind of development, be it some retail business or some living kind of things in the urban core area,” said Malberg-Tucker. She emphasized that such development is years away,“so, I would say that’s our future growth.”

Amato said that because of the city's proximity to both Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and the Spirit of St. Louis Airport, her Chamber is also reaching out to international companies.

Both Malberg-Tucker and Amato emphasized that Chesterfield tries to work collaboratively with other municipalities — including St. Louis.

"It’s good for the region if Chesterfield does well or if [businesses] come here. But there are some things that don’t make sense to come here, but they make sense for the region," Amato said. "We work together."

Swanstrom noted that the future of Chesterfield is intrinsically linked to the rest of the metropolitan area. He said that firms with headquarters in Chesterfield will interact with other big businesses closer to and within the central city.

“I think this looking down on the suburbs by central city residents is sour grapes or something. Chesterfield probably has a pretty high quality of life,” Swanstrom said. “It has some investment in cultural institutions. But what I would say is that there really is an interdependence between the Chesterfield and the rest of the region and between Chesterfield and the city.”

Weiss, the St. Louis resident who opened an office in Chesterfield, concurred with Swanstrom. He said the “reality is that St. Louis is still the core of the metropolitan area.”

“I think that people realize that it’s not a we-them antagonism,” Weiss said. “They understand St. Louis doesn’t just draw from within its borders, it’s a boundary line for people who go to activities.”

“They’re all part and parcel of the fabric of St. Louis as a whole,” he added.

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This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.