Commuters brace for the worst as Ikea opens in resurgent St. Louis neighborhood
Ikea's newest blue and yellow box store that opens Wednesday on Vandeventer Avenue in St. Louis is the biggest sign yet of a building boom that’s transforming what was once a relatively sparse neighborhood into a bustling part of town.
As the national trend of urban revival coincides in the 17th Ward with an expanding university hub and the Cortex innovation district, the area’s revival could serve as a success model for other once-thriving neighborhoods in the city. But, the area's resurgence also comes with increasing concerns over traffic congestion as more drivers converge in the area.
The 380,000 square-foot facility sits on 21 acres just north of I-64. The store has about 13,000 on-site parking spots intended to serve an estimated 100,000 customers in the region and the next few weeks are expected to be some of the store's busiest ever.
To make way for more visitors, Ikea has added extra turn lanes, signaled intersections and re-surfaced streets around the site. A big reason the company chose the site in the first place was because of major road upgrades over the past decade, which included new exchanges and overpasses on Interstate 64/40, said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth.
“The city had already built a lot of this infrastructure to support the Cortex center here. We insisted on some additional infrastructure and are paying for it and have already begun the planning process for managing transportation for our grand opening,” he said.
To ensure everything goes smoothly over the first few weeks, said Roth, the company is coordinating with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Ikea’s impact on commuter traffic will also be minimized, said Roth, because the store opens at 9 a.m. – after morning rush hour – and its busiest days are Saturday and Sunday.
St. Louis Traffic Commissioner Deanna Venker has also expressed confidence that surging traffic during the store’s grand opening is manageable, but said she does expect a measure of chaos in the beginning.
“They’ve told us, warned us, that the first week and then the first few weekends of their business – they are a little chaotic. And they are warning us up front that it’s the only shop for hundreds of miles,” she said.
But as the store becomes a year-round destination for thousands of out-of-town drivers, many locals worry that congestion and gridlock will be the new norm in the neighborhood.
"Traffic Armageddon? Yeah, you’re going to have all those people converging on that one area and you know it’s going to be a bad situation,” said Tyrone Gary, who has driven taxis for Harris Cab in St. Louis for 10 years.
Gary said any combination of factors such as road construction, an accident on the interstate, crowds leaving a show at Grand Center, or graduation ceremonies could easily cause widespread gridlock.
Philip Horn, who works at nearby Washington University Medical School, also questioned the placement of the store considering all of the other development in the area.
“It seems foolish from a long-term planning perspective to build an Ikea next to a major research and teaching hospital that already congests the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods,” he said.
The largest components of the areas’ building boom include:
- ongoing construction at the Cortex Innovation District.
- hundreds of new residential units from a half dozen housing projects
- a major detour around a demolished viaduct on Kingshighway that’s diverting roughly 40,000 drivers each day onto Vandeventer Avenue and other nearby streets.
Although some of the traffic issues will diminish as these projects are completed, residents and drivers in the long run should be prepared for busier roads. A traffic study provided by the city estimates that volume at some intersections on Vandeventer and highway exchanges of I-64/40 and I-44 will double by 2024.
Drivers trying to adjust to new traffic volumes may further slow things down, but new traffic patterns will eventually emerge, said Saint Louis University Urban Planning Professor Sarah Coffin.
“You do one of three things when you’re stuck in traffic,” she said. “You find an alternative route; you find an alternative mode; or you find an alternative time to travel and that’s what’s going to happen.”
According to 17th Ward Alderman Joe Roddy, alternative modes of transportation are a key part of making the neighborhood work in the long term.
“As concerned as we are about the traffic, what we’re really interested in doing is preserving the environment where people can still walk or ride a bike to get around,” he said.
Roddy said alternative modes of transportation are a fundamental part of the plan to turn the area into St. Louis’ premiere "car-optional” neighborhood. The new MetroLink station planned at Boyle Avenue, he said, will provide the neighborhood’s biggest boost for alternative transportation and help restore residential density.
“Other large cities have that and St. Louis used to have that and we lost it and now we’re trying to go ahead and bring that back. When we get large developments with lots of people in them it helps us reach that critical mass,” said Roddy.
According to Professor Coffin, increasing residential density is the key to sustaining a thriving neighborhood.
“We’re recognizing that as we get more density you get other things that make it work. It makes public transportation work more efficiently; you get more development, more retail, you get other kinds of things. You get an Ikea as an example.”
Roddy said the phenomenal growth in his ward could possibly serve as a blueprint for restoring many other blighted and abandoned areas of the city still reeling from the legacy of declining populations that began in the middle of the last century. But finding other neighborhoods with the institutional assets that have attracted developments like Ikea may be more difficult than dealing with the traffic it brings.