Loop Area Retail Plan Promotes Ambitious Vision of Urban Development

Delmar Loop retail studyThe recently released ambitious Loop Area Retail Study will find a lot of fans in the urbanist community. It affirms the affection and oft-promoted potential of a dense mixed-use walkable area. In short, it’s the prototypical model of modern urban development: removal of surface lots, removal of a gas station, removal of stand-alone fast food, a corner grocery store right up the sidewalk, revitalization of old buildings, modern mixed-use new buildings, building urban walls, densification, attractive and active public spaces, an enhanced sense of place, extension of the street grid, improved sidewalks and streetscapes, transit oriented-development (TOD), and pedestrian-priority intersections. The drool-worthy vision and renderings are an early Valentine’s Day gift for Loop lovers.

The study was commissioned about a year ago by WU in order to determine the current market conditions of the area to help promote its properties and offer a vision to realize the area’s potential and expand upon it. Prepared for Washington University by HR&A Advisors of New York with local H3 Studio sub-contracting, it was originally to cover Delmar from the lion gates to the MetroLink station. With input from other stake-holders the scope expanded to include the East Loop and the Loop Trolley route all the way to Forest Park.

The centerpiece and most transformational development vision would be at the intersection of Delmar and Skinker. Currently, three corners are car-oriented, empty, or private. Guests are greeted with a gas station, a suburban style fast-food establishment, a private parking lot, and the one remaining urban-scale historic building, is largely occupied, but has yet to land retail tenants. Owned by Washington University, the building has undergone an extensive rehab and would serve as the model for future development. In this way, the one remaining building provides the needed context, as it should. The car-oriented intersection and adjacent businesses disrupt the urban experience, keeping the Loop divided.

Delmar Loop retail study
{looking northwest at Skinker/Delmar as it appears today}

Delmar Loop retail study
{vision for a future Skinker/Delmar intersection}

Many patrons walking along Delmar turn around here. The Loop Trolley will provide a physical connection across this void, pulling the east and west Loop together. Immediately at the intersection, the plan envisions replacing the AT&T parking lot with a public space with sculptures, replacing the Church’s Chicken with a mixed-use development, recruiting retailers for the NE corner building, and locating the holy grail of a self-sufficient walkable neighborhood, a grocery store (with structured parking) in place of the Shell station. A grocery was the primary desire of survey respondents. The Vision for Parkview Gardens plan (produced by H3) also envisions a grocer at this site.

Delmar Loop retail study
{vacant parcels dot the landscape of the near east Loop}

Delmar Loop retail study
{a new  public plaza and infill is envisioned just east of Skinker on Delmar}

Renderings are one thing, but how will this vision be accomplished? The Shell station will surely be expensive to buy putting additional burden on the bottom line of the grocery store, and an alternative location will likely need to be provided. Bonds paid by the parking structure? Free parking is often cited by developers and potential customers alike as a necessity. Perhaps TIF? Can you blight the gas station? Perhaps with financial incentives from Washington University? The study says the area could support a 32,000 sq ft grocery. For reference the Schnuck’s Culinaria in downtown St. Louis is 27,000 sq ft. The Shell station lot is smaller and so either a smaller store, a multi-story store, or acquiring the adjacent lot to the north on Skinker (an unremarkable 1-story building) are possibilities. Or the grocery needs could be spread out over more specialized stores, think a produce market and wine and cheese shop. Also on the hit-list for redevelopment are all the surface lots along Delmar, the Church’s Chicken, Yellow-Cab, Crescent, and Dobbs sites.

Another significant opportunity exists on the Washington University’s North Campus. WU intends in the long-term to integrate the campus with the surrounding neighborhood, a welcome vision compared to the often easier to manage superblock. The desire is to bring development on the site up to the surrounding streets. This could include running Cabanne and Clemens through the campus, meeting a new street running from Olive to Delmar (Pageant Drive?). In the map Enright is gone whereas in the Parkview Gardens vision Enright is connected through instead of Clemens and meant to be a primary East-West connection for neighborhood residents. That plan shows some demolition of existing buildings fronting Eastgate. This on top of demo for creating two new parks (not highlighted in this plan but shown, very much highlighted in the Parkview Gardens plan) seems a bit much and is the least desirable, and most unnecessary aspect of the plan.

Delmar Loop retail study
{an overview of public realm improvements}

Other transportation-related recommendations include opening Des Peres to Delmar, using the Wabash Station as the entrance to MetroLink (a long envisioned and attractive idea), moving bus routes to Forest Park Station instead of Delmar Station, and adding a cultural anchor to the trolley barn in the form of a trolley museum/showroom. The Wabash Station would give MetroLink a landmark entrance on Delmar rather than one tucked back on Des Peres. Changing the station to a central-platform with an elevator on the south side of Delmar would help too. Unfortunately, the now shorter length of the Delmar Bridge may preclude this. Here there is some conflict with the Parkview Gardens Vision where Enright is a primary pathway to the Delmar Station. It envisions a bike/pedestrian path providing riders access to the north end of the Delmar Station.

Moving the bus routes to Forest Park Station sounds fine since they would then meet both MetroLink lines, but examining the four routes currently going to the Delmar Station, it only makes sense to move one of them. The #2 Red and #16 City Limits already cross both MetroLink lines and would be quite a bit out of the way for them to go to the Forest Park Station. The #97 Delmar would go down and up DeBaliviere to reach the Forest Park Station. Only the #91 Olive would be enhanced by such a re-route.

Delmar Loop retail study
{looking east down Delmar in the East Loop as it appears today}

Delmar Loop retail study
{a vision for the future of the East Loop}

Recognizing that development east of the MetroLink station is currently more challenging, the focus is on streetscape improvements and using the trolley barn as a cultural anchor to catalyze development. The plan shows an expanded Lucier Park up to Delmar. The park is already pretty big. Placing a new building at the SW corner of Delmar and Hamilton and improve Hamilton to invite people into the park would likely have a greater impact. A long-term ambition would be to repurpose or replace the Metro garage to better fit with new neighborhood development. At nearly two blocks long, the Metro garage is an even bigger discontinuity of the area than the AT&T building. The amount of space there also presents an opportunity for a new public space, or significant development.

Delmar Loop retail study
{looking north on DeBaliviere from the Forest Park MetroLink station as it appears today}

Delmar Loop retail study
{a vision for future TOD at the Forest Park station}

TOD is proposed for both the Park ‘n Ride lot and the bus turn-around across the street from the Forest Park Station. Streetscape improvements, traffic-calming, cleanliness, and safety are stressed. There is no mention of replacing the strip mall or suburban-style restaurant building nearby, though one would hope that significant TOD would make these sites more attractive for development.

But again, how does all this get done? The study suggests creating high-quality marketing material, hiring a retail recruiter to promote the area, and governance reforms. The reform includes turning the current special business districts into CIDs that fund and guide a non-profit corporation to execute the plan’s strategy. It would aim to keep the area clean and safe, develop market and run events, recruit retailers, undertake capital improvements, and manage development. Funding would come from CID property tax assessments and Washington University. The approach is similar to other focused development efforts in St. Louis and elsewhere.

Delmar Loop retail study

There’s a lot here. Read the plan. Combined with the vision for Parkview Gardens, the area is the most likely of any in the St. Louis region to become a true dense urban community. Nationwide, demographic shifts and generational preference for a more urban lifestyle will continue to favor dense development. With this plan, broad institutional, political and community support, The Loop has a leg up on other locations to be the first manifestation of this trend here. What is remarkable about The Loop is that it continually leads the market. These plans reflect and reinforce that tradition.

The Loop Area Retail Plan and Development Strategy – Action Plan by nextSTL.com on Scribd

Following the release of the retail study, Washington University made public significant revisions to its infill project anchoring the corner of Eastgate and Delmar: Washington University Updates Plans for Loop Infill.

{the model above was made available to view on campus in September 2012}