Some Design Advice for IKEA

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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}

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  • Corpse Bride

    I agree! I can’t wait to get me some curtains there.

  • Mike


  • Hasan

    Another great post. I just hope the powers that be are listening.

  • The West Chester IKEA is lousy. The IKEA at Atlantic Station in Atlanta is obviously far superior, but is very awkward at street-level even though it has a small footprint.

  • Presbyterian

    I’m not disagreeing here, and I hope there is room to at least maintain an easement of some sort for the right to add residential along Forest Park in the future in exchange for structured replacement parking.

    But I suspect the price tag is the main factor here. Going with all structured parking would add a minimum of $9 million to the construction cost… much, much more if you wanted some of that underground. Or pretty. Some of that cost could be regained through lower land assemblage costs.

    But if Ikea hit their limit for what they were willing to spend for this location, then CORTEX would have to cash in a lot more TIF funding. I think CORTEX feels those millions could better be spent on Metro and streetscape improvements. Personally, I think I might prefer some sort of shared structured parking, even at the expense of some streetscape improvements.

  • Urban Reason

    “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.”

    That’s it right there! Great post and thanks for addressing this Alex. As this will quickly become a permanent, high-traffic destination, I think it’s critical that it’s done right the first time, and I’m confident this can be achieved in a simple polite manner.

    This language about what we deserve and what we should demand of our developers is really important. For way too long there has been an over-abundance of this “any (big) business is good business” mentality preached by Slay, by various aldermen/women, by neighborhood councils, and what seems like little to no effort to just ASK developers to improve their designs. It’s an attitude that screams of desperation and inferiority, and not that of a city with confidence and pride. Some of this obviously needs to be addressed in updated zoning codes, but in the meantime citizens with a lot of pride in this city’s urban beauty need to hold developers to higher standards.

    In almost every case where this kind of suburban design has been implemented in the city it has resulted in a nasty hole in the urban fabric and a scar on the landscape. Whether that’s a place that has been abandoned (the supermarket near Lafayette Square off of Jefferson), a place that is still in operation (The supermarket and strip-mall in the CWE on LIndel), or something in-between (The strip mall with the old K-Mart on Manchester near Dogtown), it has always been to the detriment of everything that makes the city a desirable place to be (beautiful places, walkability, density, proximity, variety, culture, etc).

    Again, great post. Keep it coming.

    • wump

      Again, design fools know nothing about what is actualy occuring the the city. The god awful strip mall at jefferson and lefayette is not abandoned, it was just rebuilt actually. The one on manchester is the adandoned one.

      • Urban Reason

        Man, there’s no need to descend to insults and personal attacks.

        For the record, my family has lived and been invested in the city of St. Louis for as long as they’ve been citizens of this country. They ate pizza downtown before we’d invented provel, they bought tripe and brain sandwiches from local butchers, they danced on weekends at ToonTown and Casaloma and Club Plantation, they’ve owned city blocks in St. Louis neighborhoods, they’ve been active in local politics and have even been named honorary mayor by their neighborhood council’s for their civic engagement, which has all informed my behavior and the way I’ve interacted with the city for the decades I lived there.

        While my career has taken me abroad for the last few years, I’ve stayed as in touch and up to date as possible with everything going on in a city in which my past is deeply rooted, and spend much of my trips back there exploring its changes and participating in its culture. I was just in Lafayette Square last weekend, and I’m sorry I missed that a gaping hole with an empty Foodland was converted into a gaping hole with an occupied Save-A-Lot. But the level of activity was beside the point of my post, it’s the disruption of and blatant disregard for the things that make a city a great place to be. Local Harvest on Morganford or Viviano’s in the hill are a far superior example of a city grocery than a strip-mall on Jefferson could ever dream of being.

        I comment on this kind of stuff not because I’m a “design nazi” (per the unedited post), but because I care deeply about this city, about its past, about its present, and about its future. Good urban planning, good urban design, and a respect for the fabric of this city are a critical component of that present and future.

        • wump

          The difference is that one pruduces tax dollars. That is how one runs a city, with MONEY. Sometimes you gotta let in a little garbage, like this ikea, to pay some bills.

          • Urban Reason

            I’ve spent much of the last 15 years examining how cities run, though I don’t place nearly as much weight on the value of “a little garbage” as you. If you’ve got stats that show that a Save-A-Lot sitting in a strip mall behind a city block of surface parking produces more tax dollars and benefits a neighborhood more than valued local grocers like Local Harvest and Viviano’s in walkable urban spaces, I’d love to see them.

            What you’re suggesting is to just pipe down and let developers build whatever they want, how they want, without even suggesting they make pretty reasonable changes that not only improve the appearance of their real-estate but also the quality of the neighborhood around it; as though asking them to make these types of changes will result in a total loss of that business.

            No one is asking IKEA to back out of town, we’re simply suggesting that this is not the best use of that space, and certainly not the type of land-use we’d like to see more of in the city.

            Can we just continue to discuss this for the love of St. Louis and not be berated for giving a damn?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Yes we can. Some above comments have been edited. Continued comments that include name-calling and vulgar language will not be allowed. Thanks for being a part of the conversation!

      • Alex Ihnen

        Actually, the one on Manchester is near fully occupied, just not with retail outlets.

  • Benjamin Aronov

    Why not keep the current layout, highway visibility has been cited as a major concern for ikea, but replace the surface parking with a 4-6 story garage/retail/residential component. Have the side of the building painted blue and yellow to retain the famous ikea look. Call it ‘lofts at ikea’, sign a contract to furnish exclusive ikea furniture, could be very attractive to grad students at slu looking for furnished apartments.