Call It Conventional: A Bold Vision for the Future of the Bottle District

Several concepts have been proposed under the Bottle District moniker over the years. Now that the 17-acre site just north of the Edward Jones Dome will be sold to Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration LLC (after last week’s swift and decisive approval of the deal by the Board of Aldermen) what will happen next?

McKee and his investors have hinted at a $190 million dollar project, consisting of an office- and residential component with construction starting tentatively summer 2012. No detailed plans have been disclosed yet.

{the elevated section of I-70 and Edward Jones Dome}

{not a pretty site, or sight}

{relics of the past}

As no concrete plans have been revealed so far, allow us to ponder freely about the possibilities. Residential construction doesn’t seem a good fit for the site. Let’s face it, this place is surrounded by mostly ugliness. A hulking dome to the north, an elevated highway to the east, fairly generic looking housing on the west side, and I-70 viaducts and a power substation to the south don’t make for a welcoming environment.

A perfect opportunity to propose something completely different: This site is the perfect location for an expansion of the convention center.

{rendering of possible convention center expansion by}

OK. You had a peek at the rendering above and your disbelief, or even anger, has subsided. Now you ask yourself: Why an expansion?

America’s Center currently offers 502,000 square foot of contiguous convention space spread out over six exhibit halls, the dome, and the Ferrara Theater. When you add up the many meeting rooms and smaller banquet rooms inside the complex, the total space available is 781,000 Sq. Ft. With this space St. Louis is on par with cities like Denver, Boston, Tampa and San Diego. Not a bad group to be associated with. But why not aim higher?

A new exhibition hall of about 300,000 Sq. Ft. could be built fittingly at the Bottle District site. This would not only give St. Louis more than 1,000,000 Sq. Ft. of convention space, which would propel it into the top 10 of U.S. cities with the most exhibition space. It would also give it a state-of-the-art convention hall with 300,000 Sq. Ft. of space available under one roof, something only a handful of cities can boast.

COGIC and NRA conventions are great for the city, but an addition like this would give the Conventions and Visitors Commission (CVC) a competitive edge in their quest to reel in more big fish. St. Louis is located smack right in the middle of the country (“Perfectly Centered, Remarkably Connected” in RCGA lingo) and with a brand new, cutting-edge facility it would be equipped with the tools to compete with large convention destinations like New Orleans, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas or Chicago. (Orlando and Las Vegas are more or less in a league of their own.) For instance, in cooperation with BJC and Washington University more large medical conventions could be pursued.

{an aerial view of the dome and new Convention Center}

Building a 300,000 square foot exhibition hall could easily require an investment of $300 million or more – a lot of money – especially in tough economic times. However, by building this new center attached to, even integrated with the Edward Jones Dome (with or without sliding roof), St. Louis could kill two birds with one stone: ensure that the requirement of elevating the dome to top tier NFL territory is met, and thereby securing the Rams’ future in St. Louis, and at the same time create a first class and more flexible convention center.

{parking under new exhibition hall}

A 2,000-car parking garage could be built under the new center on two levels. This new garage would serve the dome, the convention center, and as a park and ride center with shuttle service for visitors to Laclede’s Landing, the Arch grounds and other hot spots downtown. Possibly, (some) funding for this garage could be allocated through the CityArchRiver 2015 (Arch grounds renovation) effort.

Older, obsolete garages could be demolished and replaced my mixed-use retail/residential in more desirable areas such as Kiener Plaza.

It is to be expected that many St. Louisans would consider this proposal another “silver bullet” project. But as downtown residents and small business owners know very well, conventions are the lifeblood of downtown. When a large convention is in town, downtown thrives: the hotels are full and restaurants, shops, bars and even grocery stores are doing brisk business. Currently, many restaurants and stores don’t even open on Sundays or during the day on Saturdays without a convention.

{Kiener Plaza rendering (courtesy of MVVA)}

A major benefit of conventions is that they generate an inbound flow of money. This is not money revolving inside the metro area, this is money from elsewhere that’s pumped into the St. Louis economy. Further, conventions benefit Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It generates origin and destination traffic to and from St. Louis, which in turn makes more direct flights feasible. MetroLink is another beneficiary. More visitors from Lambert means more metro riders.

{a wall of shame}

Again, we realize this plan will be considered (at best) a long shot by most, but maybe, just maybe, if Rams owner Kroenke, McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration, and the city and its citizens would get behind it and work out funding for such an endeavor we could solve several problems in one fell swoop:

We keep the Rams, increase revenue at the dome and America’s Center, add a great asset to the city, and create a much needed parking solution. We could start demolishing some of our most offensive and crumbling parking structures.

Lastly, by hosting more and larger conventions, tens of millions of dollars would be pumped into the St. Louis economy, resulting in thousands of new jobs.

{retail and residences at Kiener Plaza}

Sure, a lot of money is required to realize this vision for The Bottle District, but let’s put this in perspective: If we are happily willing to spend $587 million on the renovation of a National Park, a.k.a. the Arch Grounds, $300 million doesn’t sound so excessive. We believe that this vision for the Bottle District would reap a much greater return on investment.