The Empire (Cafe) strikes back and other dreams of developer Jason Deem
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When a fire seven years ago ravaged the Empire Sandwich Shop at 2624 Cherokee St., Jason Deem took note of what happened in the aftermath and learned some lessons.
The greasy spoon where residents could enjoy a grilled cod with fries at a well-worn counter could have been restored. Instead, “they elected to do demolition there,” Deem said. “It would’ve been much better to have saved it. There’s been a shift in emphasis on Cherokee Street. Ten years ago, people were concerned about crime and trash, while things like historic preservation weren’t as important. It’s not that people didn’t care. It was just happening differently.”
Deem entered the development game along Cherokee Street at roughly the same time that a small handful of other developers came to the block. Instead of working the remaining buildings on the eastern side of Jefferson where a well-established antique strip had long blossomed, their attention turned to the western side. There storefronts were plentiful and buildings ranged in square footage from just a few hundred feet to tens of thousands.
One of the first buildings that Deem tackled was 2615 Cherokee. The broad, attractive building houses the jewelry store Scarlet Garnet on the first floor. An attached structure — only six feet wide — now houses the new Tikal coffeeshop. Deem is the upstairs neighbor to Scarlet Garnet, which ensures that his development eye isn’t far from the block.
In fact, he’s been looking out of his front window onto the corner of Texas and Cherokee for a few years now. He was always contemplating what could take the place of the current grassy lot.
The old becomes the new
Recent architectural renderings show a new, exciting vision of the plot. Deem imagines six semi-sized connected shipping containers on the back of the land, which would be turned into the new Empire Cafe, a cheap, street-food option for the block. As the deep parcel moves north to Cherokee, a series of wooden overhangs would top collapsible wooden benches. These could be moved for needs like the Cherokee farmers market that’s taken root there over the past year or two. Other events, like live music, could also be held on the proposed patio.
It’s a project that Deem initially kept in pocket as he worked out financing and met with the city and neighbhood agencies. He has roughly five months left to build according to rules of the Land Reutilization Authority, which holds the deed to the lot. He hopes that he can break ground in half that time.
But he also wants to continue pushing the block’s variety. Running through a set of things that he’d like to see on Cherokee, he starts with dining.
“The street could use more dining options,” he says. “We have a ton of Mexican restaurants, all of them phenomenal. But when you live on the street, that’s all you have to eat, except for the Mud House. We need places to get cheap food. There’s room on Cherokee for a little shack, where you can walk up and grab food quickly.”
As we walk down to the Empire site, he points out a few things along the way. Like the neon sign outside Tikal. He says that it’s the first for the neighborhood in a long time.
When we arrive at the Empire’s lot, Deem is asked about the huge planters on the site. He says that a neighborhood person had contacts at the Cheshire Inn, which was getting rid of them. “They just wound up down here,” he shrugs. “All of kinds of (stuff) just ends up down here" on Cherokee.
He can imagine a day in which a storefront is rebuilt, with a huge concrete counter, the lights hanging from a thin cable stretching back to the alley. If he “got a ton of money,” that open-air design is next up. In the meantime, the plaza-and-container idea is his next baby.
“It’s like you see in Europe, where new, modern structures butt against and then highlight the old, historic structures,” he says. “And I’d want to call it the Empire Cafe. A lot of the businesses here have kept the old names; the Fortune Teller used to be called that. So, it’s about remembering the history while moving forward.”
View from (above) the street
Just as Deem’s apartment looks out onto Cherokee, his office, in the corner of the Nebula Coworking complex, sits atop the southeast corner of Cherokee and Jefferson. Looking out his window he can see why the area has had a difficult time moving forward.
“The ward boundary of two aldermen runs right down the middle of Cherokee Street,” he says. “At this very corner, four neighborhoods come together: Benton Park, Benton Park West, Marine Villa and Gravois Park. One block east is a different business district than this one. There are all kinds of different rules to play by.”
To do business in such an environment, he says that he has “learned to build relationships with all the powers-that-be.”
“I enjoy talking about the projects that are going on here. And to some degree, I am the person driving some of these things. But I like being in the background and solving problems. I enjoy the physical components of laying out floor plans, seeing a building go from one that’s borderline-savable — one that might be demolished — and then seeing what that building can be. What tips the scales in all of this is the use of the state’s historic tax credits. There are so many derelict properties. Historic tax credits allow you to take on projects that would otherwise be lost.”
The building that houses his office and Nebula Coworking wasn’t in immediate danger. But it’s been transformed in scope and practice. Deem says that the second-floor co-working facility now houses 70 workers and 30 different business concerns. It’s a space that’s twice been expanded, with Nebula now at-capacity.
Deem has other projects he would like to tackle. A long-sought hostel across the street from Nebula has been put on hold, as a doctor’s office takes over that space on a short-term lease. That rent will allow Deem to fix the roof on another property, so it’s a good trade-off.
Developers on the south side come in all shapes and sizes, with ambitions that vary from single buildings to entire blocks. The Beacon shines a light on two entrepreneurs who use development as a tool of urban revitalization.
“We’ve had a lot of success being selective,” he says. “I’d much rather wait it out for a business that’s active and forward-thinking, rather than bringing in another check-cashing place or a tax center that doesn’t contribute and is predatory toward the community. We want a strong commercial base, one that’s going to bring back the residential area, as well.
"Cherokee has welcomed a lot of niche businesses. For example, we have all these print businesses, whether they’re using screenprinting or letterpress. We’ve got five different bakeries on Cherokee right now and they’re all different. Who would think that they could all co-exist? That alone say a lot about where the street’s heading.”
Still, Deem sees an ongoing need for some services. “This is a street that used to have two banks and it seems to me that in a commercial district, that kind of service would be useful,” he says, adding that he’d like company in making such projects happen.
“There’s a lot of very affordable property that’s still available down here. We need more of everything. I would invite everybody to come down and invest in Cherokee. There’s way too much work to be done down here and we’re fighting against time to keep some of these buildings standing.”