Monday, January 09, 2006

Is Union Market Cursed?

Is Union Market Cursed?

In the mid-1980s, four different indoor retail venues opened in downtown St. Louis: Saint Louis Centre, St Louis Union Station, the Old Post Office, and Union Market.

Of the four, Union Market had the shortest run - about 2 1/2 years.

The building formerly known as Union Market, located immediately south of the Edward Jones Dome on the block bounded by N. Broadway, Convention Plaza, N. 6th St., and Lucas Ave., is today best known as the Drury Inn - Convention Center. And indeed, since 1989 or '90, Druco has held a long-term lease on the entire building.

But the building is still owned by the City of St. Louis.

Historical timeline:

1866 - a public market is established on the site at the SW corner of Broadway and Morgan (later renamed Delmar, and still later renamed Convention Plaza);

1924-26 - With the proceeds from the $87 million 1923 bond issue, a massive new facility complete with rooftop parking is built, to become the city's flagship public market, Union Market.

1930s - During the Great Depression, with the market low on vendors, part of it is converted to an intercity bus terminal, mainly used by Greyhound. Trailways had a depot across the street, and the Union Depot housing several other lines was also nearby. This was the center of intercity bus transit in St. Louis.

Union Market struggled along for the next several decades in this form, as a city-owned public market / garage / bus depot.
(Postcard image of the building during this period)

1964 - Greyhound moves out of Union Market into a new depot across Delmar. This depot was demolished in 1992 to make way for the Dome.

1967 - The now more than half-empty market was renovated and leased to merchant tenants in an attempt to revive it.

1982 - After a rent dispute, the city evicts the remaining dozen-or-so merchant tenants.

1983 - Lipton Group enters a 50-year lease with the city, and starts a multimillion dollar renovation project. The investors in the project along with Donn Lipton include Anthony and Vince Bommarito (of nearby Tony's Restaurant fame), and Eugene Slay.

1984 - Designated a City Landmark and National Historic Register site; this probably was used to obtain Federal Historic Tax Credit funds that were available at that time.

December 1986 - The renovated Union Market opens to great fanfare. Almost immediately, the dozen or so tenants squabble with the management (headed by the Bommaritos) over various issues.

Soon after, years of legal fights between the city and Lipton Group begin, regarding whether rent has been paid as promised. Several times the Comptroller's Office threatens to cancel the lease, as late as 1994 (after Drury had bought out Lipton's lease).

March 1989 - After struggling with 12 tenants at first, later dwindling to 7, Union Market closes. Soon after, construction of the Drury Inn begins, adding two additional floors to the top of Union Market, and Druco exercises its option to buy the entire lease from Lipton.

1991-92 - The city approves a plan, proposed by Drury and casino investor John Connelly, to build a new convention headquarters hotel. Union Market would be used for the lobby, parking, and some of the hotel rooms; and a new structure would be built on the block just west, bounded by Convention Plaza, 6th, Lucas, and 7th. This was to be opened about the same time as the Dome.

1993 - The newly-elected Bosley administration eliminates the Drury/Connelly plan from consideration, in favor of building the convention headquarters hotel on the riverfront in conjunction with a major new casino development.

1994 - The continuing fight over the Union Market lease was something of a red herring, used as one of the reasons why the Comptroller's Office would not support Drury's proposal to buy or lease the former Children's Building at 14th and Clark, across from Kiel (Savvis) Center. Kiel Partners had in their contract a stipulation that the vacant Children's Building must be either demolished or actively under renovation by the time the Kiel opened to the public.

Ultimately, the demolition permit was approved and another beautiful historic building (originally built in the 1920s as the juvenile court and detention center, and vacated for that purpose in the 1970s when the current Enright Ave facility opened) became surface parking by the end of 1995. Still later, in 2000, the old City Jail next door was also knocked down, with almost no protests, to expand the City Hall parking lot even more.

1997-98 - Civic Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO), a mid-sized business counterpart to Civic Progress, considers and rejects using part of Union Market (along with part of 555 Washington - that building is a whole other story!) for a blockbuster arts exhibition space.

2006 - If you walk along the 6th Street facade, you can still see 1980s vintage decal signage on the doors indicating "Union Market - since 1866." Some interior fixtures still appear to be in place, although black plastic inside blocks most of the view. Drury Inn has added its own massive signage above these doorways, but these are not really hotel entrances.

The block just west of Union Market (City Block 124) is now a surface parking lot. The entire block is owned by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), one of the state-enabled commissions staffed by Saint Louis Development Corporation (SLDC).

This block used to include a Firestone Tire auto repair center, and a crumbling 1920s parking garage built originally for Stix, Baer & Fuller whose flagship store was located on the next block immediately south. The garage and the Firestone store were demolished by LCRA in 2001.

Stix built a replacement parking garage in 1964 on the block immediately west; that garage (for a time known as "St Louis Centre North" garage) is now owned by St Louis Parking Company, and is surrounded on three sides by the part of America's Center opened in 1993.

With the now ongoing redevelopment just to the north and east of the Dome, including the demolition of non-descript 1970s industrial buildings to make way for The Bottle District, and the gigantic hole in the ground for the Pinnacle Entertainment casino, and Gundaker proposing major investment in the old Stix building (once that thorny skybridge issue is resolved), Union Market and CB 124 seem ripe for redevelopment, too.

I suspect Druco still has 27 years left on that lease, so anything that happens with Union Market would have to go through them.

Nevertheless, both Union Market and CB 124 are owned by the City of St. Louis. It will be interesting to watch what happens with this area.

While doing something with Saint Louis Centre is arguably a more visible, higher priority project, the city has site control along Convention Plaza moreso than anywhere else in this section of downtown.

LCRA and the Comptroller's Office Asset Managment section can and should work with Drury, Gundaker, the CVC, and the Convention & Sports Complex Authority to make CB 124 and Union Market more of an asset than the current surface parking lot and vacant ground-floor retail space, both of which thousands of people with significant disposable income pass on their way into the Dome on game days.


Anonymous said...

I think Union Market and the adjacent City Block to its west would work well as Reading Terminal Market does in Philadelphia-- part hotel (upper floors), part meeting space/banquet rooms (mezzanine) and most importantly, part indoor farmer's market (ground floor).

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

While that sounds like kind of a neat idea, I wonder if a new farmer's market would do that well so close to Soulard Market (which is quite the institution). Maybe a mini-farmer's-market, to serve Downtown dwellers and workers, but I don't know how well a full-sized one would do. It's my (semi-informed) impression that lofties still cling to the idea of grocery shopping in one-stop big boxes.

I would be interested to see the Biddle Street Market redeveloped as a farmer's market, since the Near North Side is currently desperately hurting for good places to get food, particularly food that is actually healthy. I think it's far enough from Soulard, and in an area with enough pedestrians, that a farmers' market of its small size could be successful. Then again, the poor building would need a damn good cleaning, since right now the city is using it to store bug and rat poison (sigh).

Anonymous said...

So then, if the northside doesn't have a produce market, then downtown shouldn't either??

I think multiple markets would be good for the City. And Soulard works well as our City's major market, but smaller ones could also open up elsewhere across the City.

Currently, some are trying to start up a market in the Tower Grove area. I also think there was one in The Ville near that column/monument on MLK. So then, BOTH Bissell and Union would be great additions too.

Joe said...

At one point in time, the City of St. Louis owned and managed Union Market, Soulard Market, Biddle Market and South Market (in Carondelet).

As Claire notes, Biddle Market at 1415 N. 13th St. is still city-owned and now used as an office/garage/storage space for Air Pollution Control, Vector Control, and the Forestry Division. I think the Facilities Managment Division of BPS had used some of that space for a while as well.

South Public Market, 7701 S. Broadway at Schirmer, is now owned by the Sweesy family, who operates a regular grocery store in that c. 1890 structure.

I think private non-profit groups starting up their own Saturday farmers' markets is a great idea. Unfortunately, it's probably not a business the city itself will be re-entering, except for Soulard.

Soulard Market really is an amazing microcosm of our city's diversity every Saturday. It's less busy Weds-Fri, but still has decent traffic. I wish it could be open 6 days a week though.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what happened to any of the tenants of the old union market? I have been trying to find out if Pauls cheese shop or tele's meat market moved to new locations.

Anonymous said...

Pauls cheese shop changed hands two times before union market closed. G.M.Telle's did move to new location but eventually closed in 1987. any more information or questions about Union Market please contact Dan Telle at