Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Downtown Retail Shuffle

Downtown Retail Shuffle

This is an interesting time to stroll around in Downtown St. Louis.

While I have been skeptical for a long time about downtown's (re)development, it is nevertheless very exciting to see the number of new retailers moving in.

Granted, most are well out of my price range, but it's still interesting.


The (in)famous Jack Carl's 2-Cents Plain on the "forgotten" 1100 block of Olive is closing up, and with it goes an enigmatic piece of history, one of the last reminders of old Gaslight Square (along with O'Connell's Pub out on Kingshighway and Shaw). With Brady-Drake Printing having moved out from 1113 Olive across the street to 7649 Delmar in University City, and the United Way having moved out of 1111 Olive into an (incredibly ugly suburban-style) building of their own at 910 N. 11th, across from the St. Louis Public Schools in a similarly ugly building. Apparently, the Convention Plaza West office park is no longer suitable for the banking back-office operations once located there - after all, a lot of that work is done overseas now. So, those ugly early 1980s glass-and-steel boxes are available for non-profits and government entities to buy up, I guess.

Blustein's Bride's House, located at 1010 Locust for many, many years (and in business since 1918) has moved out to the Mid Rivers Mall area of St. Peters. The building is now owned by the same group of investors that owns the Alverne Chapel building next door - competely empty, save for a controversial nightclub with a 3 AM license (and serving sushi) called Ten14.

Most recently, the tiny 1015 Cafe, owned by an African immigrant couple I believe, in the lobby of The Locust Building at 1015 Locust, closed up shop. They'd only been there a few years; before that, the cafe there was under a different owner with a different name.

The adjacent watch repair/jewelry shop space also inside the 1015 Locust lobby has been empty for a while now - Johnstone Jewelers had moved into there from Oakville, was there maybe 18 months, then moved out to Crestwood. Meanwhile, the former Cass Bank space in the very front part of the lobby has been sitting empty for probably three years now.


Despite the loss of some fairly old-timers, the number of new retailers downtown is quite impressive! Two, whose home bases are in Webster Groves, are particularly interesting:

Salt of the Earth, 1121 Locust in the Alexander Lofts, sells interesting home furnishings, mostly hand-crafted stuff from Mexico, Italy, and other places. I think the space they occupy used to be both Papa John's Pizza and the Hollywood Rubber Stamp Company. Papa John's is supposedly going to re-open in the space at Tucker and Locust that used to be the AmerenUE walk-in payments center (closed probably in 1999); for now, all downtown deliveries are made by the location on South Grand near Gravois. Hollywood Rubber Stamp, an African-American family-owned business, moved a few blocks to a storefront at 700 North Tucker Blvd., in the old Globe-Democrat building.

Kenary Park Florist and Gifts, 1315 Washington Ave., has a great array of real and silk flowers, as well as clever little gift items. Their original location is on West Lockwood in Webster Groves.

Then there's Case Semplice, a new high-quality kitchen accessories place, which opened in July in the upper-loft level of the Ambiente Collection space at the corner of 10th and Locust. The proprietor is Chuck Cantrell, a fellow who lives downtown and used to work for a software firm called Blue Martini.


Heuer Locksmith and Hardware is moving - again - from the corner of 11th and Locust in the Louderman Lofts. The Louderman was once-upon-a-time called the Landmark Louderman Building because of its owner, Landmark Bank, and a former home for city agencies such as LCRA and SLATE. Landmark Bank, meanwhile, was bought out in about 1991 or '92 by Magna Bank, which was bought by Union Planters in '98, which was bought in 2004 by Regions Bank. Regions Bank does have a branch downtown, but it's in the Gateway One building at 7th and Market.

Heuer used to be the Alverne Chapel building across 11th from their current location. But the new location for Heuer is 919 Locust, in the ground floor of the St. Louis Design Center, now owned by the Roberts companies - which, incidentally, is also one of the major landlords near their other (original?) location, at 1250 N. Kingshighway just south of Page. Heuer owns its own small commercial building there.

There's also the aforementioned deal with Papa John's at Tucker and Locust.

So, the section of downtown south of the Washington Avenue Loft District, and west of "Old Post Office Square", is really starting to shape up. Once called the "armpit of downtown" by some, now there is some activity starting to happen.

I am concerned that it'll be difficult to sustain all these high-end home furnishings shops in such a concentration. Besides those I mentioned, UMA, Ambiente, Lee J, MacroSun, and Niche have all opened or moved to downtown in recent months; and the Mossa Center has been on Washington for at least 15 years now. While they all have interesting stuff - that, again, I simply can't afford! - I wonder whether they'll all make it long-term. Once the loft-buyers have bought their $20,000 worth of furniture, will they go back to those places again? Are folks who live outside downtown coming to these places? Time will tell.

I wish all the businesses good luck in this endeavor, but I wonder how many of them will survive.


Anonymous said...

Besides needing services for its own residents and workers, maybe a few blocks of Downtown will see clustering of similar retail like the emerging number of stores selling high-end home decor items.

The dramatic increase in new housing units downtown certainly feeds the start-up growth of these new businesses. But if a specialty district or more clustering results, others from outside of downtown will increasingly travel there as a special purpose destination.

Michael Allen said...

Clustering of similar types of retail would hurt downtown by eroding the randomness of use inherent in any urban area. The Slay administration is touting the possibility of a home furnishings district, in a desparate attempt to court suburban shoppers at the expense of the downtown dwellers who support businesses. (Hint: most businesses thrive on repeat business from people who lie and work nearby.) Joe notes the fragility of the upscale shops, which would truly threaten the vitality of whole blocks of downtown if these stores were concentrated. Spread out, downtown can retain health even if those stores close up (which some will, sooner than anyone would want them to) and others emerge (bookstores, record stores, diners and other hallmarks of a dense walkable area should be on the way in).

Clustering stores of similar kinds is based on the logic of the shopping mall, which is harmful to urban areas. One need only compare Cherokee Street east of Jefferson ("Antique Row" - where's a place to by a paper or a samdwich?) and west of jefferson (pure urban excitement). Density needs diversity to thrive.