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Grand Center's to-do list keeps on growing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2009 - The past year hasn't been an easy one for Grand Center.

The down economy took its toll, derailing two big renovation projects. Despite hard times, officials are firming up plans for developers to take on the 12-story Missouri Theatre Building at 634 North Grand, one of four large buildings still needing major renovation. The estimated $35 million plan includes a 120-room hotel, apartments on the upper floors and street-level retail.

The project is one of about a dozen piled up on drawing boards these days. You'll find everything from new buildings and a Maya Lin art installation to more housing and retail and perhaps even a performance green.

If the Missouri Theatre project makes it off the drawing boards, it would be another step forward for the district that's certainly evolved but still isn't as thriving as it could be. At least that's the view of business owners, directors of cultural institution and others with interests in the district.

On the district's to-do list

Kathleen Brady is vice president for facilities management and civic affairs at nearby Saint Louis University. Brady says Grand Center is in much better shape than a decade ago when the dilapidated Continental building towered above the street "almost like a beacon of blight." When Powell Symphony Hall, the Fox Theatre and the Sheldon Concert Hall are lit now on weekends, she says, "loads of people are there."

"But we've still got miles and miles of asphalt lots that are empty all day. And a lot of times, you can walk around up there and not pass a soul."

Over at the Fox, Richard Baker ticks off the progress he's seen in recent years -- new buildings such as the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and Contemporary Art Museum, small galleries opening and, lately, more restaurants.

"But we don't have a destination restaurant yet. I think we are going to have to have retail before it really takes off. During the week, we are still more of a ghost town than we'd like to see," says Baker, president of Fox Associates.

And at Wm. Shakespeare's Gastropub, a restaurant that opened in October, owner John McDowell says: "A huge big thing missing here is a hotel to anchor the place. And, we need more people who live in the area."

Nobody knows all that better than Grand Center's president and CEO, Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., and his staff at Grand Center Inc. There's no doubt there's been progress and in recent years, what Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha calls, "a growth spurt."

Since 2000, more than $115 million has been invested in major projects within the original eight-block district. Among them:

  • the architecturally distinguished Pulitzer and Contemporary buildings
  • the renovated Continental (for apartments)
  • the restored Medinah Temple (the Centene Center for the Arts)
  • the Woolworth building (including the Kranzberg Arts Center and Craft Alliance)

Now, more than 30 arts-related groups call the place home.
In addition, nearly $240 million has been invested in projects just outside the district but within a broader Grand Center tax increment financing district (TIF) that Schoemehl and his associates got underway in 2003. Included there are St. Louis University's Chaifetz Arena (TIF assisted), and the renovation of the nearby Coronado Hotel, Moolah Temple and Lindell Towers by developers Amy and Amrit Gill (without TIF money).

But the to-do list at Grand Center still has plenty of projects that Schoemehl wants to finish over the next five years or so. The top priority is the renovation of four historic buildings:

  • the Missouri Theatre, opened in 1921 with a theater that's long-gone
  • the nearby 101-year-old Metropolitan
  • the so-called Beaux Arts, a late 1920s structure built for the Knights of Pythias organization just west of Powell
  • the Sun Theatre, built in 1913 as the Victoria

Then, Schoemehl says, he'd like one or ideally two 500-car parking garages "so we can begin to roll up the asphalt lots and make Grand Center more pedestrian friendly and a destination district." With two garages, he says, "you could free up about about five acres of parking lot use that could be used for new development."
"And," he adds, "we need to get more housing."

Take those four top-priority buildings, for example. Schoemehl says the Metropolitan and Beaux Arts were supposed to be under construction by now by Pyramid Cos. But Pyramid folded last year leaving them in limbo.

Since then, Anthony F. Sansone Jr., principal of Abstar Disbursing Co., got a contract to buy the Metropolitan. He's been mum about plans, saying only that he's doing "due diligence."

The Beaux Arts, meanwhile, has attracted Steve Smith, president and CEO at the Lawrence Group, who owns the Moto Museum and new Triumph Grill in the 3400 block of Olive Street.

Smith says he's been talking with Peoples National Bank, which owns the Beaux Arts, about possible ways to revive the building. "I'm not sure we would take it on ourselves," he said, "but we are very bullish on Grand Center, so we are always looking for more opportunities."

Plans for the Missouri Theatre are expected to be made public soon. As for the Sun, Schoemehl says he's been talking with a possible developer but, for now, won't elaborate.

All of which would make Ronald Greenberg, a long-time art gallery owner in Grand Center, particularly happy. Greenberg's main complaint these days? "Those derelict buildings around here."

Greenberg is, at least, trying to help resolve that. Along with Grand Center Inc. and arts patron Kenneth Kranzberg, Greenberg bought a building at 3626 Washington Ave. Part is being renovated for Grand Center Inc., now in the Missouri Theatre. Ken Christian, Grand Center's director of real estate development, said that retail attractive to university students is planned for the building's first floor and for a building next door owned by Grand Center Inc.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis has raised at least $4.5 million and committed $2.5 million of its own money for a new home for KWMU radio station in Grand Center. A new $12 million building, with space for academic programs, galleries and performances, is to rise next to the KETC/Channel 9 building on land donated by Grand Center Inc. University spokesman Robert Samples says that "we are moving forward." Construction could start early next year.

Projects on the "slower" track

Several others projects on the drawing boards also are progressing but might not be completed for some time to come.

Amy Helfant, one of Maya Lin's assistants, said in an email that the internationally acclaimed artist is "still interested" in doing an installation at a 125-year-old burned-out stone church. Christian said talks are continuing about a scaled-back installation, one that no longer includes a dramatic roof so the church structure can remain open as a setting for other things, such as the popular lighting display there recently.

The Repertory Theatre temporarily canceled its Off-Ramp productions at the Grandel Theatre next season because of the economy; it also tabled talk about a possible move to Grand Center. But Rep managing director Mark Bernstein says it is all temporary.

The possible move, he said, "is not off the table permanently, but it is off for now because of the economy and difficulty raising money. There is an awful lot going on there and as projects come off the drawing boards, that will make the district a desirable place to be."

Meanwhile, developer Richard Baron at McCormack Baron Salazar Inc. has two more projects in the works. He already worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri to renovate the Woolworth, and his firm built 560 units of rental housing north and east of Grand Center that he says are filled, with waiting lists.

Baron is eyeing two sites for mixed use, including possibly housing. One is Saint Louis University's property at Grand and Lindell Boulevard; the other is undeveloped land owned by the Veterans Health Administration, just north of Powell, where a parking garage for Grand Center might be built as well.


Some major renovation and other projects around Grand Center with opening dates:

1968 - Powell Symphony Hall
1982 - Fox Theatre
1984 - Sheldon Concert Hall
1985 - University Club
1989 - Portfolio Gallery & Education Center
1992 - Grandel Theatre
1994 - Flashing neon lights for parking lots
1994 - Earthways Center
1995 - Bistro at Grand Center
1998 - KETC/Channel 9 building.
1998 - Sheldon annex with art galleries
2001 - Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
2002 - Continental Building
2003 - Contemporary Art Museum
2003 - Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School
2004 - Clyde C. Miller Career Academy
2005 - New office for St. Louis public school retirement services and others
2006 - Medinah Temple (Centene Center for Arts & Education)
2008 - Chaifetz Arena
2008 - Woolworth building

Getting housing off the ground now would be tough, says Baron, given the depressed market and economy. But if Grand Center is to thrive, he says, "it really needs to become a place, which in my world means much, much more housing, spread all over."

Another possibility for housing on the drawing boards is a stretch of shabby buildings and shells just west of Olive and Spring Avenue. Developer Stephen Trampe, perhaps best known for renovating the Continental and Medinah, says improving that area "is critical as far as people's perceptions go." As it is, he says, it's a scary barrier that blocks Olive from being "an important connector all the way out to the Central West End."

Schoemehl says housing there "is difficult to do now. But it's the subject of continuing discussions."

Plans continue to evolve for pedestrian-related and streetscape improvements. The more elaborate include walking paths between buildings, lined with shops and restaurants, and improvements along Lindell. To start things off, Grand Center has received about $2 million in federal stimulus money. Christian says most will be spent to redo worn sidewalks.

That performance green/park, Schoemehl says, is "just a concept" now. But what's envisioned is an open-air performance area, perhaps with a stage, perhaps for use by Circus Flora, and perhaps linked to two acres Grand Center recently acquired near Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School.  

There no doubt that the bad economy has, as Christian put it, "really socked us in the stomach."

"But what we have to do," he said, "is just keep at it, and keep making progress." 

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on development. 

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