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Economy & Business

Betting on 14th Street's rebirth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 27, 2008 - The stark white walls and gaping sockets of her new storefront shop on 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue don't bother Ebony Wilson, who already sees the racks of glamorous women's clothes, shoes and handbags she plans to sell there starting in April.

But whether other merchants, residents and prospective customers will share her vision is uncertain. Wilson, new master's degree in fashion design in hand, has become the first tenant to sign a lease for space in the $35 million Crown Square mixed-use redevelopment project at the former 14th Street pedestrian mall in Old North St. Louis, just south of Crown Candy. She'll be paying $8 a square foot annually for her 760-square-foot space.

The ambitious redevelopment is the latest attempt to return the 14th Street mall, a historic, two-block shopping district on the near north side, back to its glory days as the hub of a vibrant neighborhood.

The last time someone tried to revive the strip - two blocks of 14th Street between St. Louis Avenue and Warren Street (with Montgomery Street in the middle) - it was the late 1970s and open-air pedestrian malls were all the rage. The originally outdoor Northwest Plaza was packing people in out in St. Ann with its outdoor shops and breezy common areas.

So, two blocks of St. Louis Avenue were closed in March 1977 in an attempt to revive the declining neighborhood. An ad in the Post-Dispatch invited everyone to the "Grand Opening" of the "14th Street Open Air Mall," on March 26, heralded as the "first mall in the City of St. Louis." The ad promised an appearance by St. Louis Mayor John Poelker and Boy Scout Troop 238 at the dedication ceremony that Saturday.

Yet, it wasn't long before businesses closed, and storefronts that once formed a bustling shopping hub for German and Irish immigrants declined into a crumbling patch of abandoned buildings, which it remained for the next 30 years.

Today, the same two blocks form a fenced-off, hard-hat zone where the old buildings are getting rehabbed and rebuilt. Developers plan to turn them into more than 33,000 square feet of storefront commercial units, interspersed with 80 residential apartments in and around the central strip, affecting 27 buildings total. A centerpiece of the plan is re-opening 14th Street to traffic.

With the financing in place, the first tenant signed and plans taking shape to start rebuilding the street for traffic next month, developers say this time, success is within reach.

But not everyone in the area is convinced that the Crown Square project is the best way to revive the old mall.

"I don't have much hope in it," said Andy Marx, 51, as he sat by the pot-bellied stove in the office of his family's hardware store on St. Louis Avenue. Marx, the fifth generation to stand behind the counter of Marx Hardware, one block south of the Square, has watched the neighborhood nearly every day since he started working in the shop as a boy in the 1970s.

"I've seen a lot of people come and go with a lot of bright ideas," Marx said. "I wish them success, but it's hard, it's not an easy thing to do."

For a vibrant business district to grow, "the fabric of the community has to change," Marx said. "Otherwise you're just putting up edifices and getting subsidized rent."

Change is happening in the area. "This neighborhood has had a wave of development going on - as opposed to 30 years ago, when it opened as a pedestrian mall after years of decline," said Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, a nonprofit that partnered with the Regional Housing and Community Development Association to serve as co-developers of the project. "We've learned from the success of other parts of the St. Louis area - Soulard, South Grand, The Loop - and we've seen that you can have an urban neighborhood bottom out and return."

The $35 million deal involved 24 financial institutions and development groups and took dozens of people two years to complete. The financing includes $22 million of federal and state tax incentives tied to supplying affordable rental housing, restoring historic buildings and stimulating new markets, among other things.

With the funds in place before the current credit crunch, leasing agent Paul Sauer of Duffe Nuernberger said he's in talks with several serious prospective tenants about signing leases as well, although what was once a steady stream of calls about the Square has dwindled to a trickle. But the fundamentals of the project are strong, he insists, with commercial space priced at $8 to $9 a square foot (compared to more than twice that amount typical in the Central West End, for example).

Rent for 38 of the apartments will average about $750 for two-bedroom units, with the remaining 42 of the 80 planned slated to be offered to low-income tenants for $100 to $125 less, said J. David Dodson, deputy director of the RHCDA and a key architect of the financing package. Twenty of the 80 are completed and occupied, with waiting lists established for the rest, Thomas said.

Susan Skiles Luke is a freelance writer.

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