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

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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.

CIMG4294-640x480
{the elevated section of I-70 and Edward Jones Dome}

ScreenShotBDsmall
{not a pretty site, or sight}

CIMG4293-640x480
{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.

downtownconventioncenter4
{rendering of possible convention center expansion by Countondowntown.com}

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.

Convention-Center41
{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.

Basement-parking
{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-Plaza1
{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.

Kiener-Parking-Garages1
{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.

Kiener-makeover
{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.

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  • john w.

    In your description of the existing site, I think you have your cardinal directions reversed with respect to north and south.  I don’t readily buy the argument that ‘build it, and they will come’, because we’ve already seen those promises dry up like rain drops in a desert. While I have not much objection to the form (I think Daron’s not fully conceiving the opportunities for openness and transparency at the building’s base) but mostly with the unacceptable inconsideration of the street edges of these two large city blocks, I wouldn’t describe Neighborhood Gardens as “generic”, nor dismiss the value of the residential density (both in physical housing form and occupancy rate) to the immediate west of this site. I simply don’t believe that more convention space will do much of anything for the city, when we have a serious dearth of resident life and commercial activity downtown.

  • Teddyb14

    I have enjoyed reading the many comments on this article.  The back and forth has been enlightening.  I would have to say that I’m not exactly sure that 300k more space really helps us all that much, but if I were going to build it, I would look to emulate a city like San Francisco.  They did not do their convention space in one big block.  The separate buildings on the top are connected underground even going under some streets if memory serves correctly.

    San Francisco would also be a better template because it is a city with a long and rich history like St. Louis.  Much of the convention space also doubled as cultural space hosting art exhibits, concerts, etc.  O thought that this made for a much more interesting convention experience.

  • Bpe235

    Seems like people are forgetting that our convention center is in the middle of a $50 renovation.  It looks pretty darn good.

  • Blake

    I’m with Kevin B. I’d like to know what an additional 300k sq ft of
    convention space gets us. From the looks of this plan it seems like a
    whole lot of money JUST to put a sliding roof on the dome, and the dome
    needs a lot more than just that. While I like the  underground parking,
    is it necessarily needed in order to remove the garages from kiener
    plaza?

    • Held Over

      I think underground parking is a MUST if you’re going to convince the public to knock down the garages.  That said, I’d almost be okay with leaving one of the parking structures…PROVIDED the side can be turned into a giant mural.  See the KC Public Library parking garage.

      • Blake

        wouldn’t a campaign to remove the garages be a lot cheaper than 300 million dollars?

    • Hasan

      What do you mean “what does an additional 300k sq ft of convention space gets us?” Its not just a a sliding roof. There’s an ADDITIONAL 300k sq ft of convention space. It will put us in the top 10 of US cities with the most exhibition space.

      “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.”

      • Blake

        1,000,000 sq ft of exhibition space is great, IF it means we’ll manage to steal conventions away from the big boys (LA, CHI, NYC). I don’t think its a foregone conclusion that we would.

        What if there’s no net gain in visitors or revenue? What conventions can’t be hosted with 700,000 sq ft of convention space?

        We’ve got more  sq ft than LACC and we haven’t stolen e3 or comic con from them yet, what makes it certain we would with 300,000 more square feet?

        • Hasan

          Expanding the convention space is not the complete solution. Its just one step. With the expanded space, I imagine we would also need more hotel rooms. 

          We would never get conventions like e3 or comic con though. We’re not the city for that. 

          Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if our ranking as one of the most dangerous cities makes it extremely difficult to get new convention business.

  • Held Over

    Not a fan of the residential apartments along Chestnut and Kiener Plaza.  I’d rather see more businesses than anything.

    Love the underground parking structure idea.

    Regarding the vacant space…obviously in a perfect world part of that land would be a Metro hub for–wait for it–a streetcar line, but could  much of the space be used for commercial space and then maybe wider residential as it gets further north?

  • Dave Metzger

    This sounds eerily familiar to a $1 Billion runway that was built in this city.  Now we are running around trying to find a way to use it and set ourselves apart from our competitor cities and for the most part have been unsuccessful. 

  • Frank DeGraaf

    1. There is already plenty of residential CBD: Paul Brown, Syndicate, Louderman, etc. We need MORE people to reside downtown and there is a lack of new residential. More residential at Kiener Plaza would have the pleasant side-effect of actually seeing people using the park. A mix of office and residential would work at Kiener Plaza as well.

    2. It’s not just about the square footage. America’s Center is 20 years old, some sections are older. With a new, state-of-the-art exhibition hall (and crucial for this plan: integrated with a top tier dome) we’d be better able to compete. Other cities are not sitting back either.

    To clarify: Cole Street would still run under the connected buildings. The loading docks would be on the highway side. With the new bridge and I-70 traffic being funneled onto Cass Ave, N. Broadway would used for truck traffic.
    I believe this plan would connect Columbus Square more to downtown, not less. Besides, it will be mainly Tucker Blvd connecting downtown to Columbus Square. A connection to the riverfront is not really lost, because there is no connection. I don’t see how you could ever connect that site to the riverfront. Even if you’d make it to the river, you’d be behind the flood wall at that latitude. The connection should be made farther south, between Cole and Washington, to Laclede’s Landing. (Removal elevated highway.) and on the north east side, to North Broadway.

    I believe this plan would spur additional and much needed economic development for this area. 

    (Please don’t take the renderings as an absolute. They’re just a rough sketch, meant as a conversation starter. My rendering techniques are limited.)

    • Daron

      I’m not bothered by the skill of the rendering.  If you can do that much, you’re way ahead of me.  It’s the idea of projecting a 3-block wall north out of the building.  All my criticism will dry up if there are inviting entrances with open hallways through the structure that allow for walking from one side to the other. 

      I’m opposed to the form, not the purpose. 

    • Regarding residential on our main thoroughfare — no, I don’t think it’s a wise idea. As you said there are currently a lot of residential options downtown (and more, hopefully, on the way  in stalled projects). And while they are in the CBD, they aren’t right on the central spine. By all means, build and renovate off that path — in the CBD even — but I’d like to see an effort to spread the definition of downtown and start pulling new residents to its edges.

      We can definitely agree that SOMETHING should be done with those Kiener garages — its just my preference is office buildings. Frankly, I think the built elevation, especially on the south side of market is too low and should be lined with much taller structures.

      • Mark

        I like the idea of residential along the Gateway Mall if for no other reason than parks such as this are notorious for not supporting retail.

    • john w.

      If it must be a megastructure, why not make it something more like the outstanding proposal for “New Suburbanism” by Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (http://arttattler.com/architecturesection.html)? This is where multi-layered opportunities would be offered to all in the vicinity by the co-mingling of functions like residential if appropriate, ground floor commercial, underground parking, and yes, if convincing to most, convention space. In my offered example, substitute the forbidding wall that would be the typical retail exterior shell, with transparency… even if and especially if it’s big box retail.

  • Alex Ihnen

    Quite the unwelcome response for a vacant lot that’s more likely to see a Walmart in the near future than a new corporate headquarters or housing. Yes, a convention center is inherently un-urban. It will not connect a neighborhood to another, or be pretty on all sides. Occasionally there are other arguments to make and conversations to be had.

    • Held Over

      I think the convention center convo SHOULD be had.  And you made good points for it.  I’m all for anything BUT a big box store.

      • john w.

        I’d hope you mean anything BUT a big box store typical of what is seen in sprawl-form suburban areas. By incorporating big box retail into mixed-use schemes that bury the required parking deep within or beneath, and holding the built edges of the blocks with immediate pedestrian and street-scale gestures and commodities (i.e. transit stops, continuous lengths of transparent storefronts, recesses for small courtyards or green pocket retreats), big box can work in a manner both respectful and amenable to a city’s core. With the density of residential life immediately to the west, and this residential life of very modest annual income status, AND the immediate access to this site from both the highway and thoroughfares, I’d argue that big box retail stores could work very well here. See the link to a graphic example of big box mixed-use here: http://arttattler.com/architecturesection.html

  • Douglas Duckworth

    The convention center is big enough and expanding it would create an even bigger barrier.

    St. Louis does not need another stadium or convention space.  It needs more residents downtown.  

  • Daron

    It’s a bigger superblock than the one that is already there.  Columbus Square gets no access to downtown or the riverfront.  Veto.  Come back when you have a design that respects neighborhoods and circulation.  Is the first floor open?  Can I walk through the building?  Can I push my bike through the building from one side to the other?

  • A few things: 

    1.) I don’t want low-rise residential on downtown Chestnut/Market. It’s our Central Business District and should be planned as such.

    2.) What conventions would St. Louis be in a position to host that exceed 500,000 square feet? Most of the conventions of that size are the types that are publicly attended and, let’s face it, St. Louis doesn’t have the built-in population to support them as much as, say, a Chicago or Los Angeles. Even massive events like a Comic Con or E3 rely heavily on local attendees.

    3.) Love the idea of a sliding roof, if only because I’ve been saying for years that the Rams need to take a can opener to that ugly dome.

    I really don’t think a convention center expansion does a single thing to help the city spread northward. If anything it creates another long building wall (and you know that the western facing side would never be as pretty as that rendering makes it look). It would, out of necessity, be just like the current center at 9th Street and Cole — a bland, unwelcoming concrete face of ramps, garage doors and loading trucks.

    I’d rather see a blurring of the downtown border as business expands further north into new residential units. The Bottle District site sits right at the edge and the direction that is taken with it will tell us the direction the city and its developers have in mind. Will they turn their back on the north side by building more unwelcoming walls or will they embrace both the downtown and the near north and try to integrate each into the other’s future?

    • Frank DeGraaf

      Thanks Kevin. My response above. Hit the wrong button.