Extracting the Silver Bullet from St. Louis

The silver bullet analogy in development and urban planning is tired and overused. So I'll extend it: what would happen if we extracted the silver bullet from downtown St. Louis? Some things are more difficult to do than others, but more than one opportunity exists to try and do just that.

What's a "silver bullet" project? Too often, developers claim that their project, no matter how small, is going to be transformative, usher in some new era of prosperity, bring something entirely new to a location, and on and on. Often there are rosy revenue projections presented with pomp on color spreadsheets. Of course the resulting reality is rarely so rosy.

The list in St. Louis is debatable, but not short: the Gateway Mall, Arch grounds, Edward Jones Dome, Union Station retail, St. Louis Centre, Pruitt-Igoe, Mill Creek Valley demolition and renewal, Busch Stadium I and urban Interstates certainly fit the bill. What else? Perhaps the $578M Arch grounds renovation counts. To qualify it should be a large project that many, not just the developer and those giving tax breaks, view as transformational.

Today, for many in the urban development field, the "silver bullet" project is largely seen as delivering much less than promised, and possibly even a net negative development that canabalizes public funds and retail, preventing smaller and more organic development. Silver bullets don't exist for cities.

Downtown St. Louis has its share of mega-projects. Stadiums, parks, monuments, sculpture, highways; we have it all. And yet downtown continues to struggle with high office vacancy rates and lack of new office demand. If any of these projects, or all together even, were so transformational, where are the new corporate headquarters? Where is the retail? Where is the vibrant city center?

The aforementioned downtown projects shouldn't meet the wrecking ball today, but we should reconsider before doubling down. When the dome reaches the end of its useful life, other locations should be considered and a minimum of public money offered. When the trench and elevated I-70 need substantial investment, we should fully and thoughtfully consider alternatives. Our city will not grow around a silver bullet, but be woven together by dozens of small, thoughtful and deliberate planning actions.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying and appreciating the largest downtown projects, but next time you're there, take a moment and ask what they've added to their surroundings, to the commercial health of downtown and to the life of our city.