Bottle It Up or Shake It Up

[Update on 12-16-11: A news story on KMOV Channel 4 provided a few pictures of early Bottle District plans from Clayco and McEagle Properties. Those screencaps are included below with my brief thoughts.]

In light of today’s approval by the Board of Alderman to allow the purchase of the Bottle District by Paul McKee, current “planner” for a northside redevelopment plan which includes, well, basically everything north of Cole, I wanted to discuss the potential of the site and the best/worst case scenarios in planning it.

I will say upfront that Paul McKee terrifies the hell out of me. After the sale is finalized, he (alone, for all intents) will control the future of much of our city’s northern build environment. His early clandestine land grabs were ominously documented by the Riverfront Times almost five years ago (“Phantom of the Hood”, Randall Roberts, 01-10-07) as he and several “separate” companies — McEagle, Blairmont, as examples — purchased and subsequently abandoned various parcels near Cole Street and as far north as St. Louis Avenue. What followed was severe dilapidation, fly-by-night demolition and more and more purchases made easier by the continued deterioration of neighboring parcels.

Following up on the original story (“Phantom of the Hood, Part 2”, Kathleen McLaughlin, 06-20-07), the Riverfront Times and local preservationist Michael Allen posited that several hundred properties had been purchased by McKee or one of many dummy companies. This, all while McKee successfully lobbied for the crafting of a new Distressed Land Assemblage Tax Credit which awards funds to developers in possession of 100 distressed acres.

Despite all this, he had gained enough city support to go forward with his still hazy plans, collect tax credits through blighting (though 22nd Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker ruled against McKee, the City, and the Board of Aldermen in 2010), and now he will soon have, in conjunction with Clayco and Larry Chapman, rights to the 17-acre Bottle District site. This, similarly, isn’t without its intrigue as the deal was surreptitiously passed without an Alderman currently representing the 5th Ward.

With all of that said — it’s time to looks at options.

McKee’s existing vision for the Northside Redevelopment Plan does not really scream “urban-classic,” but it is certainly refreshing in light of the current state of the project area (keep in mind though that much of that can be attributed to McKee himself and his “distressed” land assemblage efforts). I am a proponent of shiny new mid/high-rises, office buildings and full-brick flats/apartment expanding the definition of downtown further north…if done in an urban-friendly context. Talk of vinyl-sided townhouses with attached garages, exposed parking (both in lots and garages) and full-block warehouses turn me way off though. I also fear the street-level efforts of individuals and organizations will be pushed aside, to the detriment of their goals.

The Bottle District is a bit of a different beast though. It’s right at the edge of downtown and positioned to cradle new additions to the city’s skyline. It’s a big enough space to allow for multiple layers and multiple types of development. And it’s close enough to (okay, damn near right on top of…) one of our favorite rallying points — the I-70 elevated lanes — that each project’s fate is probably (and hopefully) inextricably tied.

First up — highrises. Clayco has some fairly uninspired buildings in their portfolio, but they’ve also showed they can go above and beyond when given the freedom. I’m not saying they need to sculpt a 60-story, blue-glass, concave-curved piece of art, but any residential highrises (I would prefer two or three — from Cole Street to O’Fallon) should be a bold statement for the future of downtown living and its northern expansion. At the very least, it should be a far shout better than what we have in the Mansion House.

Street Infrastructure…you’re up. There are several no-brainers regarding street layout and infrastructure here on the Bottle District. Which makes me both cautious and fearful because I’ve seen too many no-brainers ignored or done improperly. Obviously, I-70 needs to go. Broadway and 4th feed into and out-of a new Memorial Drive Boulevard which heads north, serving as the eastern edge of the development. Sixth should bisect the district and connect from Cole up to O’Fallon and (New) Memorial. O’Fallon and Carr and (probably) Biddle should be connected through Memorial to 7th and beyond.

The existing warehouse needs to be preserved and rehabiliated. It’s a strong sturdy structure that could be a glowing example of our building stock for people coming into the city via the new southbound Broadway/Memorial Drive Blvd. or new Mississippi River Bridge. In fact, depending on expected output, I could see it becoming the new home of the William K. Busch Brewing Company. So I don’t want to see any suspicious fires start up there in advance of development now, guys. Seriously, I can’t believe how many “derelict” buildings have been lit up in the past decade by electrical shorts, blow torch accidents and acts of god. Juusst enough to designate it as unsafe/unsturdy and clear it for demo. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

On the new 6th Street, is where things get interesting. 6th Street should serve as one of two pedestrian access points to those shiny, new 40-story high-rises to the east (the other being New Memorial Drive on the other side). Cars enter here through one or two lanes into buried garages, which means no/limited curb cuts on (New) Memorial. Lobbies extend fully front to back giving building tenants options to either side where, you know, amenities and restaurants and such coexist successfully. Hopping across to the west side of 6th Street, the skyline dips dramatically to close-sitting office/apartment buildings of between 5 to 10 stories. Brick buildings, just to be clear. And the requisite street-level activity in the form of cafes, bars and shops.

From there we go further west to the eastern edge of 7th Street and the edge of the Bottle District. I’d like to see a series of closely-built flats and apartment buildings not to exceed five floors. Again, full brick…none of this brick-face, siding-sides stuff. By moving 7th Street slightly further west, you could even bring the existing western edge apartment buildings to the sidewalk and (mostly) complete the street. From there, it’s only a matter of bringing the surrounding apartments up to market rate and supporting this newly-built area of town with your presence as it gains its legs.

Lofty goals, yes. But a vision I feel should be completed. And in full. This is downtown St. Louis we’re talking about. The land has been cleared (albeit, questionably) and the path is, for the most part, clear as well. It’s our downtown and should aspire to much more than suburban townhouses, duplexes and island lots. The first step is removal of I-70. Without that much-needed (and much requested) change in place, then the rest of a Bottle District project — in whatever form it takes — cannot succeed. We’ve got the empty land here on the Bottle District and frankly, I hope it stays that way until the correct decisions are made to make it worth filling.

Additional Content on 12-16-11: Included below are screen caps of new Bottle District site plans from Clayco and McEagle Properties. These images were taken from a 12-15-11 KMOV segment which can be viewed here.

(Street-level view of new Bottle District from Cole Street
at the Edward Jones Dome. Looking north.)
(Elevated view of new Bottle District. Looking south.)

In many ways, these early project plans closely mimic those suggestions I made here. There are a couple of east/west-facing high-rises, a renewed 6th Street, a couple of mid-rises and a re-utilized warehouse district on the site’s north end. We can’t tell from these sketches, however, which of the buildings caters to residential and which to commercial.

Different from my thoughts though, it looks like Clayco moved the highrises further west instead of fronting the development at the future Broadway-Memorial Boulevard. It also seems that there is a lot of poorly utilized space as three of the four main building parcels are anchored by wide, low-set platforms. Again, who knows whether this is planned space for lobbies, restaurants, etc. or if this is their vision for parking at the complexes.

With these plans, I feel comfortable that Clayco is moving in the right direction…though they aren’t there yet. What can be said is that McKee will garner much more support for his northside projects if he continues to roll out site plans such as this one. While everyone will find something to dislike about a plan, by making them immediately available , McKee will be able to better adapt to the needs and wants of the community, and likewise the community can begin thinking of these developments as realities and recognize the potential of the project and the entire near north side.

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One comment

  1. I like your ideas…hopefully the developers read this!

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