Some Design Advice for IKEA

IKEA - St. Louis, MO
{Atlanta IKEA with ~1,500 apartments overlayed at IKEA CORTEX site (yellow) – blue = future mixed use} 

Nothing like telling IKEA they can't design. As much thought as goes into a five dollar table lamp, the company's 380K sf stores lack contextual design almost completely. A second thought tells us this isn’t surprising. You make money by producing a highly replicable standardized item at the lowest cost possible. It just so happens that when you do this with a big box store itself, it doesn’t always work for its surroundings. It’s like trying to use a SKOJIG lamp for reading while lounging in your EKTORP chair, if you know what I mean.

While the Swedish retailer proudly notes their stores stock 10,000 or more unique items, their US stores seem to have just two designs: the suburban model, and the only-if-you-make-us-squeeze-into-a-smaller-footprint model. For ease of reading, we’ll call them the WestChester and Atlanta, respectively. Unfortunately the City of St. Louis appears destined to suffer the first.

(Wait, IKEA's coming to St. Louis? The City of St. Louis?! Yeah, it is. Click here to get caught up.)

City of St. Louis - IKEA
{the site plan for the St. Louis IKEA at CORTEX}

CORTEX - St. Louis, MO
{an early vision of development at CORTEX}

It may seem as though the nearly 200 acres of land encompassing CORTEX will take decades to develop, and it may, but better design at each step will ensure the highest and best use. Officials will fill your ear about how complicated the deal was to put together. From an initial nine owners, environmental concerns, an adjacent Interstate, and MetroLink light rail line, there were a lot of moving pieces. And yet in the end, all the effort should have resulted in best use of the land. It didn't. At least it hasn’t yet.

IKEA was very up front that the recent announcement was in some ways just the beginning of the process. Permits need to be issued, parcels of land aggregated, land sales to happen. Perhaps there’s leverage for a better design. Before we get too optimistic, let’s remember that the complicated and long process has likely hardened resolve among all those involved. CORTEX, city officials, local politicians, all have worked hard and are proud of the development.

Here’s the problem: St. Louis needs the Atlanta, not the WestChester. A quick glance at the map makes this obvious. IKEA should respect the urban location of their announced store. They will, if our local representatives, both private and public do so first. The WestChester is fine for suburban, almost rural, locations, such as the one in West Chester, OH (Cincinnati). It features expansive surface parking on what was once farmland. The Atlanta design features structured parking and would leave room for more residential and other development at the St. Louis CORTEX site.

IKEA West Chester, OH
{IKEA West Chester (Cincinnati)}

IKEA - Atlanta, GA
{IKEA Atlanta}

IKEA - St. Louis, MO
{IKEA St. Louis}

Perhaps the St. Louis design is something of a hybrid, with nearly 500 parking spaces at ground level, beneath the building's second floor and 750 on a surface lot in front. St. Louis should demand more than just a modified WestChester. While the CORTEX site is bordered by a multi-level Interstate and has been an historically industrial corridor, it's very much a part of the city's fabric. St. Louis deserves more structured parking at the store to make room for mixed use development along Forest Park Avenue.

IKEA appears certain that they have found the right site in the St. Louis area, after a decade of searching. What they haven’t found is the right design. Initial visions for CORTEX may have been just that, but they raised design expectations to a reasonable level. If each component of the massive plan is dumbed down and misses the mark as badly as the current IKEA design, St. Louis, CORTEX, and its partners will have missed a unique opportunity to remake part of the central city. All the pride and warm fuzzy feelings of getting something done, even something big and unlikely, won’t be worth much if we fail to maximize our urban land to build a better city.

IKEA - Atlanta, GA
{St. Louis should get something more like this streetview in Atlanta}

IKEA West Chester, OH
{the view of the West Chester IKEA}