Despite Concerns, It’s Time to Build Opus Project on Lindell

Since we first published plans for The Opus Group’s return to the corner of Lindell Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in the city’s Central West End, the developer has been pushed to revise and revise again. Now on its third version, yesterday Opus again presented its plan to neighborhood residents. I’m not certain, but I’m going to assume, for sake of argument, that the concerns of residents and the Central West End Association Planning and Development Committee (CWEA P&D) has produced a better project. But now it’s time for the project to move forward.

The process, as it is, is now bogged down in aesthetics and aspirations, and let’s be honest, not those of the community, or even the larger neighborhood, but of an older, select group of individuals. Don’t get me wrong, their work is important-think of them as the enforcers of standards that have kept the Central West End beautiful. Engaged residents are the foundation of civic engagement. They’re the opposite of apathetic, and if you want to see what apathy gets you, travel roughly a half mile south and stare at Aventura.

So what’s changed since the first reintroduction of a project on this site? One can only infer so much from low-res renderings (Opus has not responded to multiple requests for images), but a few things are clear. In July 2013, images of an eight-story, 177-unit project were first published by nextSTL. That rendering showed a two-story stone, or stone-like material, base with small awnings over retail windows. There’s some variation at street level between the towers and balconies extending from the facade on both the Lindell and Euclid elevations. One can’t really tell, but upper stories appear to be brick, but possibly a composite material.

{Opus rendering from July 2013}

Then in December Opus presented a new design at a community meeting. The most significant change to the project was the addition of four stories and 40 units, but there were other changes as well. Gone were the Lindell balconies. The building had a more flat look (or was it just the rendering?). The retail fronts showed less variation, and the building above retail appeared to be a more blonde brick, a color typical of CWE high-rises. The design overall appeared more contemporary, for lack of a more nuanced description.

This is the project that was presented to the city’s Preservation Review Board in December. The Cultural Resources Office suggested the board grant preliminary approval for demo of the vacant Heart Association Building, but consider the Opus project at a future meeting after revisions. Opus #3 will be reviewed this month. So what did people not like about #2? You can catch up by reading Greg Johnson’s satirical take. He’s having fun with the issue, but is also making a point: opposition to the project isn’t strictly based on established regulation or code, but rather more on preferences and interpretations.

{Opus #2 added four stories and 40 units to the proposed project}

The third revision, presented this week, removed retail canopies and altered the balcony configuration. Balconies are back on the Lindell elevation, and some appear recessed to varying degrees. A more prominent cornice is back, the building appears less flat. The plaza design was tweaked as well, but it will likely see more changes. Opus reported that the new design has more glass and more brick. In fact the new two-tone brick, red and blonde, was met with dislike from some at the public meeting. I’d have to agree, the second version looks better in this regard. But this is the problem, we’re mostly arguing aesthetics. Within six comments on our nextSTL Facebook post of the renderings, each design had at least one fan.

{Opus #3 introduced two shades of brick, more glass, and Lindell balconies}

Yet this is the result when one attempts to regulate style. If you want new construction to mimic the historic, you can, but the materials will be different, and the design will likely fall short and fool no one. Taking cues, or colors from the historic context can work well without being fake. Better yet, in my opinion, is highlighting our historic legacy with contrast. What the Central West End (and the city) lacks is something bold, something interesting. Perhaps it’s easy to agree with concerned CWE residents that the project isn’t exciting (though I imagine the same project in Portland would be praised in St. Louis), but their solution (more brick! more stone! no canopies! more parking!) is even more uninspiring. An iteration of this same concerned group authored the CWE historic district code and the neighborhood’s newly adopted form based code. Each leave room for interpretation, or at least exceptions. It’s OK to push for concessions, for better materials, for a better project, so what’s so wrong with the CWEA P&D Committee? 

Nicki Dwyer has published the CWEA P&D concerns on her Central West End Guide blog. We’ll take a glance, but head over to her site to read the full comments. The committee gets right to the point, “(the committee) is unanimous in its concern that the proposed design, even with recent improvements, reflects an overriding focus on cost rather than quality”. You don’t say? This is true of every project, and there’s no regulation in place to force a developer to care more for quality than cost. The first item to illustrate this issue is the proposed ductless heating and cooling system. Is it cheaper than traditional HVAC? Probably, but it may also be better. While a particular generation of Americans may think of these things as belonging behind the drapes of a motel, others know them from overseas travel, or as an efficient system that doesn’t waste space and energy pumping air through hundreds of feet of duct work. Regardless, the question is (should be) whether the system is efficient, and of high quality, not whether you were once awoken by one at a Holiday Inn in Topeka.

The committee also cites “selection of building materials”, “adequacy of parking ratios”, and “inadequate provisions for moving vans”. They suggest the proposed use of cast stone “should be expanded to include the entire south and west elevations” of the building. The Park Royale, three buildings to the east is cited as “inspiration”. Louvers for heating and cooling “are not characteristic of the existing structures in the blockface”, but you know what are, apparently? All the window air conditioners one finds on the Park Royale and other buildings on the block. Most other items are simply asked to be submitted for further review and approval before construction.

Then you get to parking. A sensible concern is parking for retail employees. This is a concern throughout the Central West End. A smart parking system, one that adapts parking cost to demand, is the solution (see here), but the trusty old solution seems to be to just demand the developer spend more money to build more parking. What a disappointment. Form based code here requires exactly zero parking spaces for a retail establishment. This works. What if Coffee Cartel or Sub Zero Vodka Bar were required to provide “adequate” parking? Silly stuff. The committee is asking for “an overall parking and transportation strategy”.

Lastly, the committee seems to approve of the developer’s requested variance from allowed retail uses at this location (no video stores, for example, and yes, they list video stores). The form based code doesn’t not allow for commercial use along “Boulevard Type 1”, basically Lindell from Taylor to Sarah. “Care must be taken to ensure that occupancy of retail spaces is limited to uses that will contribute positively to the vitality of the neighborhood and are consistent with the image and character of that location and the established character of the blockface from Taylor to Euclid avenues,” the commi*ttee states.

In the end, the process serves a purpose, but that process should now move forward. The original Opus proposal for this site in 2005, a glass and gray 30-story tower, was defeated in large part by resident opposition. We don’t think that will happen here, and it shouldn’t. It’s perhaps easy to see the Central West End as a luxury, high-end locale, one where only “inspirational” development is welcome. That view misses reality. The neighborhood has luxury destinations, but many other more austere commercial and residential offerings. On the block south of Lindell are significant undeveloped surface lots. Let’s not confuse hopes and preferences for requirements and demands. It’s time to build.

*If you have an opinion on the project one way or another, contact the city’s Cultural Resources Office (CRO) Director Betsy Bradley at [email protected] or call 314.657.3700 x3850. You can also testify in person at the Preservation Board meeting Monday, January 27, 2014 at 4:00 p.m., 1520 Market Street, Suite 2000.