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Grand Center plans for a new way to do business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2011 - Community leaders, residents and supporters of Grand Center have spoken and St. Louis' major arts and entertainment district is in for a "serious paradigm shift." On June 23, more than 50 community members met at Powell Hall for the first public forum to discuss plans for a communal vision for the future development of Grand Center.

The goal is to help better organize a district that already hosts millions of visitors into a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where people will want to linger beyond seeing a show.

"This is the next chapter of a long history. We have the dots, now we just need to connect them," architect Donald Stastny said. "We think it is important to start thinking about this as a community, and this is going to be a serious paradigm shift."

Stastny, who was approached about leading the creation of a district master plan for Grand Center after overseeing the design competition for the Gateway Arch grounds, proposed several physical improvements during the meeting. These include improved pedestrian walkways, additional lighting and pathways, increased accessibility of parking and public transit and better utilization of the current real estate.

Grand Center Inc., which has worked to bring institutions to the area, is now focusing its attention on getting those institutions to work together to improve the visitor experience. Stastny began gathering feedback in April, as he interviewed 40 area stakeholders from institutions including The Fabulous Fox Theatre, the St. Louis Symphony, the Nine Network and Saint Louis University about their visions for the district.

The Planning Committee, made up of institutional, business and community leaders, will devote July and August to breaking up into smaller task forces to look further into parking, zoning, facilities and design guidelines for Grand Center. The area of focus of the plan is bounded by Spring on the west, Olive on the south, Theresa on the east and Delmar on the north.

A public review of a more developed proposal will be unveiled in late September with a second public forum.

Fred Bronstein, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony and host of the public form, believes that this discussion is important to building a better visitor experience.

"It is very much a work in progress. You have a very dynamic area in terms of institutions and you have 1.5 million people coming in every year and that is a pretty good starting point to create more vibrancy in the area," Bronstein said. "We want to increase the whole experience from when the visitors get off the highway to when they park and what they do before or after the show they are coming in to see. To me, you create that vibrancy with new restaurants, coffee shops and maybe a bookstore. These need to be places where people want to hang out; and the question is can we build around the venues that we offer here."

The discussion on how to increase the visitor experience revolved largely around parking and transportation in the area. When Stastny and his partners surveyed the area, they discovered more than 15 different parking lots entrapped in only a few city blocks. Stastny proposed that if these parking areas could be combined into a larger parking garage, more real estate could open up for development. This idea faces resistance from institutions that earn revenue from their individual lots.

"Parking is a zoo. Parking revenue is so embedded into the budget of each institution and this makes enhancing the parking experience a very complex proposal," Stastny said.

Rachel Crowley, director of sales for Hotel Ignacio and former area resident, said a possible parking solution could be provided by public streetcar. Citizens for Public Transit have expressed interest for years in a street car that could go from Broadway and Olive through Grand Center along Olive toward Forest Park to Skinker.

"Public transit has been a passion of mine and it would be amazing to be able to shuttle people from downtown from the central west end back and forth," Crowley said. "This would eliminate the need for all the parking lots that this area has."

Transportation is just one way Stastny proposed to enhance the visitor experience as he also suggested an expansion of the sidewalks along Grand. The current sidewalks are 15 feet wide, but, as Stastny emphasized, light posts, trash cans and newsstands take away that space and congest these walkways. To fix this problem, Stastney proposed increasing the sidewalks to 18 feet by cutting the five lanes on Grand Boulevard -- or the spine as Stastny refers to it -- to three lanes, two moving lanes and one turn lane. This proposal drew concerns during the question-and-answer session, as community members talked about current traffic congestion problems with five lanes.

Stastny responded by saying that better-organized parking and making the area more walkable would eliminate some congestion issues and make three lanes possible.

Improving public areas will need a major push from the city to attract further development.

"We have to set the stage for development. Every dollar spent in the public realm fixing the infrastructure will return $5 to $7 in private development. So we really need to get buy-in from the city," Stastny said. "We cannot force the market, but if we improve the address and make it a nicer, friendlier place to come we can attract those businesses in the area."

Members of the planning committee have already met with city officials; and additional meetings will take place during the coming months to find public funding to improve facilities in the area.

Alderwoman Marlene Davis, who represents the Grand Center area, told the forum she is staying positive about the area. The Grand Center area was only one of four wards in the city of St. Louis that gained population in the recent census, and Davis said development is continuing. Housing is coming into the area as Davis cited a 225 unit development coming to South Grand and another development with 120 units in its first phase beginning construction later in the year.

"We have to be better marketers of what we have and we have to tell the story of this area," Davis said. "We have the lowest crime rate in the city and that is a fact; and we have to start telling the truth about this area."

Margerie Ivey, a volunteer for the St. Louis Symphony since 2001, emphasized during the public forum that getting people to the area who will spend money is key to any development plans.

"This is something that has been needed for years and I am glad that we are developing an overall vision for the area," Ivey said. "There is not a lot going on during the day and that isn't going to be helped without major changes."

Green handouts were passed out to the audience for suggestions during the forum and Stastny also encouraged community members to e-mail gcplan2011@gmail.com with any suggestions or questions about the plan. The planning committee will review all the feedback that was gathered to discuss possibilities for a communal vision for the area.

"This is the beginning of a very exciting process and we would like to know what your vision is. We would like to continue to work with you to develop it," Stastny said.

Proposals for Development

- Improved pedestrian walkways by expanding 15 foot sidewalks to 18 feet by cutting Grand Boulevard to three lanes

- Additional lighting and pathways

- Increased accessibility of parking and public transit

- More coordination with parking lots in the area and potentially a communal parking garage

- Better utilization of current real estate in the area

Contact the planning committee and give your feedback: gcplan2011@gmail.com

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a Beacon intern.

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