From Theatre, to Parking Lot, to Pocket Park: An Evolution on South Grand

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Ritz Park - South Grand

A small project underway in the South Grand commercial district of St. Louis tells a big story. Fourteen parking spaces on the former site of the Ritz Theatre are making way for a pocket park. The transformation from theatre to parking lot to a pocket park showing movies and hosting events mirrors the evolution of the vibrant neighborhood.

Ritz park, under construction at 3147 South Grand is designed to host movie nights, concerts, open-air markets, and more. The space, in the middle of the bustling South Grand business district aims to create a better pedestrian experience, and a community living room. The park itself, designed by Robert Wagstaff of Wagstaff Urban Werks and being constructed by EM Harris, will feature native plants, a green wall, two water features, seating, and bike racks.

Ritz Park - South Grand

South Grand has been packed with restaurants featuring cuisine from around the world, pawn shops, dry cleaners, international markets, bars, and more for decades. Here, development and infrastructure projects have followed commercial activity. Although steps from 289-acre Tower Grove Park, South Grand lacks a public gathering space like those found in the Delmar Loop or downtown.

More than five years ago residents and business owners began envisioning lane reductions for South Grand where four traffic lanes sped traffic through the district, discouraging pedestrian activity and generally making the area less inviting. Funding was identified, and the City Streets Department got on board.

South Grand carries significant traffic, approximately 30,000 cars a day, yet removing two lanes on this city arterial hasn’t led to gridlock. South Grand businesses are happy, people stroll and feel safe. The area feels more like a neighborhood commercial district and less like a thoroughfare. Crossing the street is no longer a game of Frogger.

The pocket park is a continuation of this Great Streets planning process. Fourteen parking space will be lost, two street parking spaces will be added with the curb restored. The South Grand Community Improvement District (SGCID), the coordinating organization for the lane reduction and pocket park, owns the 90-space lot behind the Commerce Bank building, and a number of 15-min “to-go” spaces on area streets have allowed for easier pickups at local businesses.

People complain about parking everywhere, including South Grand, but the SGCID seems to wisely be following an observation of Fred Kent, founder of the non-profit Project for Public Spaces: “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” The transformation has led to more investment, with a second Rooster location designed by SPACE Architects opening soon in a long vacant building (below).

Baileys S grand before_after

The residential areas surrounding South Grand are the most densely populated in the city. Under consideration for a Bus Rapid Transit line, the 70 Grand line recently added a fleet of articulated buses to accommodate demand on what is the city’s most popular bus line (~3M riders annually).

The original theatre building on the park site was designed by architect William Lucas, and was built in 1910 as the Juniata Theatre. Originally part of a small independent chain of theatres owned by O.T. Crawford, the theatre was renamed the Ritz Theatre in 1924 when it was purchased by the Ansell Brothers.

Mid-America owned and operated the theatre from 1962 to 1979. In 1981, the theatre was cut into two smaller movie houses and was most recently operated by Harman Moseley until it’s closing in March of 1986.

Ritz Theatre - South Grand

The existing SGCID movie nights held in the parking lot next to Commerce Bank will move to Ritz Park, and other activities are planned to activate the site. SGCID is working to partner with the Riverfront Times, Feast Magazine, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Contemporary Art Museum, KDHX, Shakespeare Festival and Gateway Greening for events in the pocket park.

Construction is scheduled to be completed in early fall. Current plans call for the last movie night of the season, September 19th, to be in Ritz Park, followed by the first annual South Grand Fall Festival. Keep up with progress, and learn more here: southgrand.org.

Fullscreen capture 10162012 115127 AM.bmp{South Grand with lane reduction underway, c. 2012}

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  • The Ghost of H L Mencken

    Still too many pedestrian deserts on S. Grand. Does that International grocer need all that parking? Two lots? No.

    • Adam

      I was grumbling about that recently as well. And that pocket park sucks, IMO. It’s basically a skate park.

      • Justin

        I agree the pocket park sucks and is only marginally better than parking lot. Why was there no effort to build something on this parking lot instead? (e.g., 1 floor retail with a couple floors of residential above)

        • Adam

          Clearly the neighborhood needed a concrete park since Tower Grove is like three blocks away and mostly devoid of concrete. Just a bunch of stupid greenery.

  • Michael Draga

    This has to be one of THE dumbest ideas EVER! Why is the city limiting the number of MUCH needed parking spaces on the South Grand area? This is almost as dumb as narrowing Grand from 4 lanes to 2 lanes. The same narrowing Chippewa west of Grand, Manchester, west of Kingshighway. These urban planning debacles are JUST PLAIN DUMB!

    • Nathan Bookhout

      I think you’ll find most people here will disagree with that statement. It may be inconvient to have to slow down or look for parking but the improved pedestrian experience more than makes up for it. Fifty plus years of unrestrained parking expansion didn’t help the city, but when you make it a place that PEOPLE (pedestrians) want to be, they’ll come despite the inconveince.

    • John R

      How dare we resemble a vibrant neighborhood rather than a speedy highway!

    • Chaifetz10

      Much needed parking???! Have you ever been to any other city in the world?! There’s a plethora of parking!

      When will people realize that you don’t have to park three feet from your destination to be able to get there…

    • Alex Ihnen

      I understand the range of reactions to changes like this. We should care about the results for local businesses – after all, they’re the one’s who have pushed for this and are paying for it. If it works for them and the neighborhood, that’s what matters.

    • mc

      Completely disagree with this. Get rid of cars, get rid of parking. Mass transit all the way.

      If you need parking, put it underground.

    • JuanHamez

      This is the thinking that has gotten cities around the US into trouble since the 1950s. Widening roads and adding free parking does NOTHING but hurt the area that its done to. All it does is encourage people to live somewhere else and drive in and then leave. First, people who don’t live there complain that traffic and parking is bad and implement some kind of “urban renewal plan” to build a highway or widen roads or demolish a building for a parking lot. The extra roads and parking and cars make the place unpleasant to live and walk in but breaking up neighborhoods so people start living and moving elsewhere. Then, another newer place somewhere else in the city will be built that offers better retail and the location collapses utterly because there is now no residential to prop it up. Then crime and blight sets in and eventually there are calls to demolish the whole mess. This has been repeated countless times in countless cities and towns across America. It happened to North and downtown St. Louis. Now its starting to happen in St. Louis county. Its only when we recognize this and stop ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past that we can break this cycle and reverse the damage that has been done by cars and car culture to our city.

    • A Minor Draga Photoed Nude

      No one has ever convinced anyone they have intelligent input using hyperbole, caps lock, and exclamation points.

    • The Ghost of H L Mencken

      Draga has to be the dumbest asshat ever. Go back to Indianapolis you pervert.

  • Jeanne Tucker

    But, I think the pocket park is a great idea! 🙂

  • Jeanne Tucker

    I disagree completely that it hasn’t led to gridlock. Gustine is feeling the pain of people trying to avoid the Arsenal to Utah stretch and then they pushed it to Gravois by closing off Utah. Then reducing Arsenal to 25mph like 30 wasn’t slow enough. Cities have to have major arteries or the residential side streets become the defacto go through. It’s locking up just like Lindberg through Kirkwood.

    • Steve Kluth

      Lindbergh doesn’t go through Kirkwood. It’s Kirkwood Road and most of Kirkwood likes it that way. Frankly, I think Watson between Lindbergh and Grant’s Farm could probably be reduced to two lanes each way given the current level of traffic. It might help give Crestwood the start of a real downtown.

      • Ted Yemm

        Totally agree with the Watson comment. As a resident and business owner in Crestwood, I would love to see that happen.

    • Then residential side streets have more traffic. So be it. If it’s not a gated community, you can’t decide which drivers have access and which don’t.

      Traffic “arteries” have lead to nothing but twelve-lane highways and eight-lane local bypasses.

    • Eric Cooney

      I disagree with your disagreement. I live just north of the parking and do my shopping at the south city Schnucks. I prefer driving south from my street than north. I may have to drive slower, but cars keep moving unlike cars backing up so badly right near the water tower heading north.

    • WhatWouldLouTheszDo?

      Utah was not closed off. It was redesigned.

    • Brian

      I have lived on Arsenal for 30 years, and the current arrangement between Grand and Gustine is much preferable to the set up in 1984, when there were four traffic lanes, two parking lanes, and no turn lanes. Crossing into the park was insanely dangerous in those days. Ditto Grand. Where does it say that Gustine should have no traffic except local traffic? If you want to move some traffic off Gustine, get Jennifer Florida to get rid of some of the stop signs on Spring.

  • BudSTL

    Now if we can just have the public transportation to make this grow…OK, I’m starting to “get it”.

  • cameron strickland

    great!