Aventura at Forest Park Misses Design Mark, Represents Big Step Forward for The Grove

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Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MOThe permits had been issued and the dirt started to turn, but there was no public information regarding what was being built on the 4400 block of Chouteau Avenue in Forest Park Southeast (The Grove). Paperwork showing a residential project named "Aventura at Forest Park" didn't do much to inspire confidence. Now we can report that the $12M project consists of two three-story residential apartment buildings totaling 101 units. The project leaves the remaining Station G building in place as the developer was unable to acquire the property.

The two buildings surround Station G and occupy nearly two-thirds of the street front on Chouteau. The site has been vacant since the demolition of the gasometer and more than one development proposal has come and gone. A previous 202-unit project would have stood to the west of Station G and included retail space. Per city records, the corner of Chouteau and Taylor Avenues is now owned by Washington University. There has been no indication as to what future plans for the site may be. The Aventura projects consists of, 23 1BR/1BA:720sf: $1,000/mo. units, 69 2BR/1BA: 995sf: $1,100/mo units and 9 2BR/2BA: 1100sf: $1,300/mo. units.

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO
{south elevation of Aventura at Forest Park, showing Station G}

This is an exceptionally important development for Forest Park Southeast, a neighborhood that despite millions of dollars in investment saw nearly 800 residents leave from 2000-2010, more than 20% of its population. The number may not be surprising given the number of residential conversions and demolition, but dipping below 3,000 residents is a decades long low. The importance of adding approximately 150 residents can hardly be overstated. Aventura is the first large scale project that begins to fulfill the potential many have seen in the neighborhood for more than a decade.  While streetscapes have been improved, new businesses have opened and homes have been rehabbed, larger investments had failed to materialized. Get this project out of the ground is a major achievement.

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO

For the development, the massing is right, the height is right, the parking is hidden, but "Aventura at Forest Park" comes from the same developer as "Aventura at Indian Lake Village", "Trails of Dickson", "Turnberry Place" and "Canyon Ridge", and it looks like it. Closer to home, the developer has built Hanley Station and Kirkwood Station Plaza. For all it gets right, the design falls well short of what should be and what could easily be built at this location. New construction projects in St. Louis such as the Gotham Building on Delmar, Six North at Sarah and Laclede and even the new Salvation Army Midtown project present far better form for a neighborhood like The Grove. If successful, the project could be followed by additional phases, presumably on adjacent lots. Unfortunately, this likely means a monolithic repetition of the subpar design.

Kirkwood Station Plaza
{the developer has completed projects such as Hanely Station}

{Kirkwood Station, by the same developer}

Any of the following designs, each one of them within two miles of the Aventura site, would be vastly preferrable for the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood}

{Salvation Army project – Midtown}

{the Gotham on Delmar}

Fullscreen capture 672012 104515 AM.bmp
{3929 Lindell Boulevard}

{Metro Lofts on Forest Park Avenue at Euclid}

Six North apartments - St. Louis, MO{Six North apartments at Laclede and Sarah}

The developer is seeking a 10-year tax abatement, seeking to hold city property tax to pre-development levels, or near zero. In recent years, 5-year abatement has become more popular than 10-year as the neighborhood has witnessed successful redevelopment and prices for renovated homes reaching $200K, or about $100 per square foot. At $1K for a 1BR, 720sf unit, these apartments are relatively high-end for the neighborhood. That's a good thing, but it also shows that tax abatement likely is no longer a necessary tool for all developments. In addition, the City of St. Louis is very explicit in its requirements for a tax abatement, stating flatly on the application webpage, "Application must be made before construction begins." In fact, single-family residential rehab projects have in the past been denied tax abatement because the project was wholly, or partially finished at the time of application. Construction on Aventura started last month and an application for tax abatement has not been submitted. Despite this, the Park Central Development Corporation (a community development corporation serving the neighborhoods of the 17th Ward) wholly endorses 10-year abatement.

Park Central uses several well-developed and necessary criteria to determine if a project should receive tax abatement. Among those: Does the project conform to an “urban” development pattern? Is the development’s parking behind the building? Is the use appropriate for the neighborhood and the particular block? Is this an appropriate location for increasing population density? These are great questions. However, the one missing is the "but for". "But for" tax abatement, would this development happen? This is why the city requires an application prior to the start of construction. In this regard, tax abatement shares some commonality with Tax Increment Financing projects. If they would be built without giving local tax revenue to large corporations and developers, why give away our money? This development is happening with or without tax abatement. Therefore, the awarding of tens of thousands of dollars amounts to nothing more than a "thank you" card to the developer stuffed with cash.

Ultimately, the Aventura development should be cheered. With the number of vacant lots and developable sites remaining in Forest Park Southeast, it’s unsurprising that the first big project won’t add to the neighborhood’s distinct architectural feel. Yet, it should stand as a warning and recent development momentum should give Forest Park Southeast residents, Park Central Development and the Washington University Medical Central Redevelopment Corporation more confidence and more leverage to demand a better project next time.

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO{construction photo shows remaining Station G – looking southwest}

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO{looking northwest from Chouteau Avenue illustrates proximity to medical campus}

{previous proposal anchored the corner of Taylor and Chouteau, now possible site of an Aventura phase II}

Update 10/04/12:

The aesthetics of the Aventura project continue to get worse. The construction image below shows a cheap cinder landscape block wall running the length of Newstead Avenue. A similar wall faces south onto Chouteau. Not only with the monolithic suburban-aethetic development not offer a modern urban design, it will be placed on a cinder block pedestal, further removed from its surroundings (think Hanley Station placed behind a block wall). The wall wasn't apparent in previous architectural drawings and represents a severe decline in the design of the Aventura. Prior to construction the lot was level with surrounding streets and it appears that instead of excavating for utilities, they have simply been layed on top and the apartment buildings elevated. Sadly, this is a design decision and project that the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood and city will be forced to live with for decades.

Aventura at Forest Park - St. Louis, MO
{east elevation of Aventura}

{east elevation of Aventura under construction}

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  • Subsidized STL

    Everybody has the next “Great Idea” until they see the construction budget and financial projections . . . economic reality looks a lot like Hanley Station.

    • Alex Ihnen

      So you believe that projects such as Six North and the Salvation Army homeless veteran housing projects all had higher budgets and/or lower revenue projections than Aventura and its 750 sq ft, 1br, $1,150/mo units? No. Budgets and the market are part of every decision, but the problem here is material choice and design, and an utter lack of vision provided by decision makers in this community.

      • John R

        Just way-out-of-the-box thinking here, but maybe if the developer put in a few more units and took away a few parking spaces that would have allowed for more revenue. But I’m sure I’m way off on that.

        • Alex Ihnen

          EXACTLY. (sorry for shouting) Developers believe/think that what sells is parking. Yes, it’s a factor, but for their bottom line, imagine turning 20 parking spaces and about $300K in non-revenue generation expense into three 750 sq ft $1,150/mo apartments. It works, but we need to shift the way we think.

      • Subsidized STL

        Well, without getting into development subsidies, cheaper land costs, not-for-profit vs for-profit sponsors, and whether or not brick is cheaper than siding . . . here’s what I really want to know: Exactly who were the decision-makers on this one? Wash U advised on this project, right? No design suggestions other than asking for a huge parking lot (which may or may not be a placeholder for future development)? Doesn’t Wash U. have billions of dollars and unmatched influence in FPSE or any area around Barnes? Are you telling me that the site was acquired, planned, and developed without your knowledge?

        Aventura is ugly, but that’s what happens when a suburban merchant developer gets a hold of a project in the City and makes a deal with its biggest neighbor to grease the wheels. Thanks Wash U. Way to have our backs.

  • people-first

    You are so right when you mention the confidence boost WUMCRC and Park Central Development will celebrate. Their ability to power leverage and be more demanding will increase. They have been large and in charge for quite a while now. However, when the residents of FPSE are mentioned as co-beneficiarys, I say,” slow down”! Remember that 800 people ( and still counting) have already been “pushed out”. Does that soumd friendly to you? And, it’s not likely that any of the current citizens will work on, or live in this project. They darn sure won’t be collecting any of that rent money! It’s Zero ownership for them. They, the” chosen one’s” left, will expereince more people, that’s it. Oh, and higher property taxes. And probably more crime. Most likely these renters won’t have lot’s of free time to devote to community building activities, cause they gotta work to pay that high rent. The essence of the problem in FPSE and the city overall is on display here. The lost of 20% of the population in an area smack in the middle of town. We even lost you Alex. Why? Despite also having a top ranked school of social work (George Warren-Brown) at Washington University, and a ward with the most development dollars spent city-wide, those” hard thinkers” at WUMCRC won’t implement programs that solve social-economic proplems. That would be in conflict with their real estate business intrests. Instead they use devide and conquer tacticts, Rachel refers to her own neighbors as “scum”. They could help her with that. Our elected oficials sell us out, then “prefered developers” sell the land off to the higest bidder. The project is declared a success! The people, they get the Saint Louis Treatment, we’re scum anyway right?

    • Justin

      Excellent point.

  • rbeedee

    Agree with the general sentiment, an ugly building but the site plan is fine and I think it will be good overall for the neighborhood. Just about anything that adds residents would be nice at the moment. It looks like they have access to the parking lot from both Chouteau and Newstead; I wish they’d pick just one to limit the curb cuts.

  • Hasan

    This is aesthetically weak. And I do believe the pricing is slightly high; not by much. I imagine this will take at least one year to get finished and by then, these prices might be “market rate”.

  • Dave

    Definately not the best looking project, but agreed that even so we should applaud it. Honestly, massing and setback are SO much more important to an urban environment than materials. These hug the street, are an appropriate height, and move the parking behind the buildings. These contribute to a walkable neighborhood instead of taking it away.
    Would better materials and architecture make the project better? Of course, but would that come at the cost of higher rents as well, pricing out more potential renters? Likely.

  • Frustrated

    Incentives are not a given, insist on a more forward thinking design. This is just so lazy and disappointing.

    I thought architects were one of the most depressed professionals because they go into school dreaming of wild wonderful designs, but end up having to design bland strip malls and crap like this. He is your chance, show us something worthwhile for once… please! As someone on twitter said WUSTL has a world class architecture and design school and this is it? And they are proud of it? St. Louis is so stuck in the past that when we finally have the chance to do something new we don’t know what the hell to do, so just pull the next best thing out of Chesterfield.
    I don’t know why this is burning me so bad, but I have never been more disappointed in my city than right now. Arrgghh! I give up!

    • Andrew J Faulkner

      The Sam Fox Graduate School of Architecture is ranked in the top 5 nationwide. On average 90% of Washington University architecture graduates leave the region within a decade. Most leave immediately. I stuck it out for 6 years to try to make a difference, but of around 100+ grad students I knew, only 4-5 are still in the St. Louis region. From extensive but anecdotal experience, the numerical majority of architects in practice in St. Louis are Drury or are University of Kansas grads. As one exurban architect told an extremely capable friend of mine who was interviewing: “I don’t hire WashU grads, they think too much”

  • Rachel

    Great article. I fully agree with each of your comments, particularly that despite the sub-par urban design, this will be a game-changer for The Grove. However, $1,000/mo. for a 720 sq. ft. 1 bedroom?! Just steps across the street, a brand new, never-lived-in 1 bedroom with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, hardwood floors, a fenced backyard, alarm system, and basement is only renting for $775/mo. Its upstairs neighbor of equal caliber, a 2br/1ba unit of over 1,000 sq., only rents for $875/mo. I just don’t see that many units being leased at that price, unless there are a slew of added amenities. As a resident of The Grove, the last thing I’d want to see is half of these units sitting vacant, or for the project to flop. I’m hoping that the proximity to BJC and other major employers will draw more of a high-income clientele that can afford those rents (and push some of the remaining scum out of The Grove by sparking more development), but with that many units up for grabs, those are some big shoes to fill.

    • GuestMcGuesterson

      I had the same thought, the prices are supposedly “market” but that is pretty outrageous. I understand that development is expensive, but pricing out the people who have been holding down the neighborhoods is not a great step. Anyone with student loan debts isn’t going to be able to afford that, either, especially in a region not known for producing lots of high-paying jobs. I know BJC and Wash U are going to be steering employees into the Grove and Shaw neighborhoods, so perhaps that justifies the pricing; but I’d still like to see more affordable units being built in what is still – despite a lot of positive developments – a marginal neighborhood.

      • Rachel

        Agreed. Well, in any event, I think this will be a positive change for The Grove. Like some of the others said, though, the design is so generic and bland. How about a LEED-certified project, at least? Research has shown that LEED projects are more appealing to tenants and help draw attention to the area. They cost no more than regular construction, nowadays. How about something we can take pride in?

        • Luftmentsch

          Butt ugly. But this is going to steer people into the Grove (Wash U/ Cortex people) who would never otherwise consider it. To do that, they’ll have to pump the “security” issue extra hard. Expect all sorts of bells and whistles and unnecessary touches,with a price tag to match.