Recently, the Post-Dispatch reported on what the city plans to do with the Near North Riverfront, the proposed site of an open-air football stadium, should the current plan fall through. Apparently, local leaders have been presenting ideas to developers and businesses for months. Some ideas include:
. . . residential towers, hotels, shops, a high-tech business incubator, plus wetlands, green space and parks stretching more than a mile, from the Gateway Arch grounds to the new river bridge. The plan even proposes floating-barge beer gardens and playgrounds.
In essence, this plan would be an extension of the Archgrounds revitalization, with the ultimate goal of turning the Mississippi riverfront into a first-class destination for residents and visitors. Subsidies for this development are pretty much a forgone conclusion.
The first thing to point out is that the very existence of a plan B for the riverfront contradicts some bombastic statements from new stadium supporters. For example, Gov. Nixon said at a press conference supporting the stadium plan, “If we do nothing, 10 years from now that will look exactly as it looks now. . . . This is our chance.” It turns out that not building a stadium is not necessarily the same as doing nothing.
But turning to plan B itself, it is disappointing to see that complete lack of originality of the strategy. A high-tech business incubator? Cortex (the existing subsidized innovation hub) is far from bursting at the seams. Residential towers? Saint Louis has some of the lowest rent in the nation, and the city has to subsidize nearly every new development; this does not indicate a lack of supply. Beer gardens and playgrounds? We’ve already seen how a new subsidized playground (Ballpark Village) has cannibalized the business of not only local bars but other subsidized bar districts (Washington Avenue). At this point, publicly backed residential-cum-entertainment districts are second only to building new stadiums as the city’s favored (if failed) strategy for reinventing downtown. Let’s not even get started on hotels.
Policymakers need to come to the realization that we are not one brilliant central plan (stadium or otherwise) from propelling sustained growth in Saint Louis. A turnaround is only likely when the city creates the underlying conditions that allow for bottom-up development and make the city a competitive place to do business. If Saint Louis can do that, private companies will build the floating beer gardens all on their own.