How Centene’s $770M Clayton Corporate Campus Project and NIMBY Opposition Fall Short

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Centene feature 8-16-16

The massive Centene Clayton corporate campus project received its latest hearing Monday night at the Clayton High School auditorium to accommodate the crowd. Residents opposed to the project were present, sharing fears of rush hour and construction traffic, big buildings, and strain on municipal services. City officials weighed in as well, indicating some changes may be in store.

To premise the following critique, it needs to be conceded that the plan to develop vacant lots, and low-rise buildings into office towers in downtown Clayton is a good one. It’s better than good, it’s great. It has been an absurd sight as large swaths of vacant land have sat idle for a decade next to the region’s high-end business center, two MetroLink stations, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The $770M plan to add nearly 3,000 employees, residents, and retail to the city’s central business district is something to applaud.

That said, the project has its cheerleaders. It also has its detractors. Both have an agenda, a point to make, and both at times miss what would make the plan greater than the sum of its substantial parts. As is, the plan risks becoming the result of the worst in our planning process. The city and company prioritize jobs, (some) residents prioritize the view from their window, or green space, or parking, and the result seeks to mollify both while dulling the project’s impact and achieving nothing greater.

Here, we look at the latest images and renderings of the Centene proposal, more than 50 in all, and consider the good, bad, and ugly, from the pedestrian realm, to the retail plan, public art, green space, parking, and architecture. Here’s your comprehensive look at the Centene Clayton corporate campus plan:

The Pedestrian Realm and Retail Development
It would perhaps be difficult to design a $771.8M project that delivers less to the street, less to the city, than this. The most succinct way to understand this failing is to listen to Brent Toderian of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS and former Chief Planner of Vancouver BC. “A building’s street-wall determines most whether a building can be considered urban,” Toderian recently Tweeted. It’s an incredibly insightful description of what Clayton should hope to achieve with this project

This is what that looks like along Hanley Road where the pedestrian (in white) is presented with a literal blank wall, out of human scale glass paneling, what appears to be building system vents, and a skywalk, keeping Centene employees off the sidewalk:

Centene ClaytonCentene Clayton

Getting this right isn’t easy, of course. But it is valuable. The design above completely abandons Hanley as a place for pedestrians. No matter the width of the sidewalk or number of workers in the tower above, a blank wall replaces what was once multiple small storefronts. The same challenge exists with other large scale development in Clayton at 212 S. Meramec, the Montgomery Tower proposal, and the Opus project on North Central Avenue.

This could be the best (worst) example of pedestrian realm neglect, but the issue repeats itself elsewhere. The current Centene building is another example: dead on Hanley, a dead corner, and a wall of glass. Even the retail storefronts are flat and squat under the weight of the garage, though there are a variety of retail footprints.

North elevation of the Forsyth parking garages (Subdistrict 2):

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The planned garage along Forsyth Boulevard will present the same problem. The expanse of glass curtain wall offers little variation and retail is pushed to the corners in just two spaces, one at 20K sf and the second at 8Ksf. This results in just two retail entrances along what is essentially two city blocks. One only needs to look across the street at the former Famous Barr building (and that building offers more retail spaces) to understand how this type of form will feel. And while an effort is made to soften the facade with a replica residential skin, this will certainly present as quite fake.

The south side of the Forsyth building fronting Carondelet offers no retail at all, where it could build off retail present in the Crescent building. Perhaps a third retail space could be introduced in the building at the Wellbridge Athletic Club site recently added to the project. While the square-feet can be added up, the quality, basic value and accessibility, of the retail planned is lacking.

Currently, Centene considers the Forsyth side of its existing building to be street front retail, and plans show the new tower at Hanley and Forsyth as wrapped in retail space. This won’t be the pedestrian experience. Smartly, the city has challenged Centene on its retail math and plans, including the addition in some places of the Wellbridge Athletic Club as 40,000sf of retail space. Additional, preferably small, functional, retail space should be added to Carondelet and Forsyth.

Centene retail

Beyond the aesthetics and the experience of the shopper or passerby, the campus master plan for employee circulation works hard to keep everyone inside, from garage to office and across the campus. This isn’t surprising, but Centene may be well served by promoting walking, fresh air and some outside time for its employees rather than building a hamster cage of walkways and tunnels. Oh, and getting employees outside would be better for retail as well.

Centene Clayton_4

The circulation plan for tenants and visitors puts more people on the sidewalks, primarily along Forsyth, where again, they are met primarily by a mostly inaccessible wall blocks long. Fancying up the garage facade, as has been done on the existing garage on Forsyth west of Hanley, will struggle greatly to have a positive impact when repeated in iterations half a dozen times as is currently planned. There are only so many ways artistically disguise a massive parking garage. The fifth time you do it, it just looks bad.

Centene Clayton_3

Residential Plan
Among arguments we haven’t heard, but should, is that the number of residential units should be drastically increased. Again, an effective way to mollify an increase in traffic is to provide housing, and therefor residents who will support local businesses without drive to and from every destination. In an August 12 addendum to the project traffic study, it states that the planned number of residential units has been decreased from 135 to 119.

More residential units should be added to the project. From the Centene presentation: each new resident supports 4-7sf retail, each new worker 2-5sf retail, and each visitor 0.5-1.5sf retail. A better, more vibrant, more economically valuable project needs more residential. Of course Clayton residents have fought the addition of residents across various projects, failing to understand that new residents support the most retail while adding the fewest additional cars to the street.

Residential should rise higher at the planned Forsyth/Carondelet site. The building should be built to a zero lot line along Carondelet, absorbing the planned plaza (we’ll get to those things in a bit). Residential units should front Forsyth. Additional residential should be considered to the east as part of Subdistrict 3, where the Trianon condos were once planned.

Looking west along Carondelet Avenue at proposed residential building:

Centene Clayton

Parking, Traffic, and Transit
For some reason, time and time again, those stating their fear of increased traffic, suggest addressing the concern with more and more parking. The thing is, more parking, free, easy, abundant parking, may be the best way to increase the number of cars on the street. One note, be wary of anything labeled by a developer as an “improvement”.

The project is proposing a 1,141 parking space surplus (before adding the garage at the Wellbridge site). That is, more than 1,000 structured parking spaces beyond the minimum required by Clayton. (5,302 total spaces in three phases). For those concerned about the amount of traffic the development will add (they shouldn’t be), it would be wise to challenge the amount of parking.

The rendered cafe nearest the Forsyth MetroLink station could be a true transit-oriented amenity, but its label as a “boutique cafe” may mean it primarily serves the corporate auditorium. Nothing in the physical design of the project explicitly speaks to transit oriented design, though this project, combined with the eventual redevelopment of the Famous Barr/Washington University site may present a more transit friendly site plan.

Centene Clayton

90% of those working in downtown Clayton arrive to work alone in their car, according to the traffic and parking study completed for the Centene project. And so the proposed parking plan caters to the existing commuter. This makes sense, but isn’t necessarily smart. Clayton should cap parking, setting a maximum number of spaces, and require Centene and other tenants to offer free Metro transit passes. A full price month pass is currently $78. For each structured parking space forgone, Centene could give away nearly 400 annual passes.

Providing transit passes is one way the project could add more to Clayton than raw numbers. Increased transit use would lessen the burden on city streets, make commuters healthier, make use of the region’s existing investment, and better support retail as well. Also, this would save Centene money, or lessen the need for subsidies. Other small, cheap, and smart efforts could help as well. Why not paint step counts on the sidewalk from the MetroLink station to the office buildings?

Centene Clayton_2Centene Clayton_1

Plazas, Open Space, Urban Plazas, and Public Art
And now those plazas. Clayton’s moniker might as well be “City of Corporate Plazas”. It’s tempting to look at these plans and think, “the materials are nice, they’re spending a lot of money here, it’s well designed…”, but Clayton needs another plaza like north St. Louis needs another vacant lot.

No matter that some NIMBYs are calling for even more open space as they’ve become accustomed to the vacant lots of downtown Clayton, these plazas across the downtown are devoid of human activity and are economic dead zones. Some of the new plazas proposed by Centene, or parts of them, serve a practical purpose, and the proposed solution is an answer to the challenge of what to do with leftover space. Still, all are detrimental to the urban realm.

Centene Clayton

Primarily, the proposed plazas appear to attempt to preserve existing views, a favorite target of NIMBYs. Some of those views are for Centene itself. The partially retained green space on the northwest corner of Hanley and Carondelet allows for southern views from the existing building and eastern views from the proposed Subdistrict 4.

The plaza on the northeast corner of Hanley and Carondelet serves to preserve western views from The Crescent. In fact, the first few stories 0f the proposed tower (Subdistrict 1) has been shift north more than once to expose residential balconies. Though the plaza primarily serves as a driveway and drop off zone for the Centene tower. The small parcel was purchased for $4M from the city.

Centene ClaytonCentene Clayton

East along Carondelet, the “retail plaza” featuring no retail serves to preserve eastern views from The Crescent. A better urban design would place the building facade along the Carondelet street wall. Further east, the plaza and lawn on the southwest corner of Carondelet and Forsyth allows for a squared off building to the west. Here, too, infill should be aligned with the street wall.

Why is this? Why does good urbanism require a varied, human scale, continuous street wall? Research has shown us that people don’t generally gravitate to open spaces, but rather seek out edges. The places we choose to walk most often are interesting, provide cover, and present a defensible space. The concept is explored fully in the book Cognitive Architecture by Ann Sussman.

The lawn and water feature at the corporate theatre simply occupies space left over from the driveway, and the function of the plaza tucked under the building on the southeast corner of Hanley and Forsyth is just a mystery. Interestingly, though perhaps not indicating meaningful change, the plaza/green space/water feature in the middle of the Carondelet traffic circle is now shown as part of Subdistrict 3.

Plazas, lawns, water features, and public art can, in theory, provide a necessary public good. And again, some of the space here is necessary to, or at least present in order to, address other concerns. Still, if space is needed, it should be limited in order to concentrate activity and create a vibrant place. If needed, sidewalk dining and parklets offer a superior experience and better amenity than a plaza. One only need to look at the many lifeless corporate plazas in Clayton to understand the issue.

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This is a corporate campus and it looks like one. The tall towers aren’t bad. Their clean lines and glass facades introduce a true modern aesthetic to a skyline with a couple standouts, but more that are confused brick and concrete towers.

The corporate auditorium is a standout aesthetically. If built nearly to what is drawn, its presence along Forsyth would be a beacon of contemporary architecture, a landmark among an otherwise disappointing urban landscape. The only remaining question is whether it will be accessible to the public, and how often, if it will be active with corporate use on a daily basis, and if it will provide transit passes in addition to validated parking.

Centene Clayton

Organized opposition to the project came initially from residents of The Crescent condominiums on Carondelet at the initial June presentation. At the Monday meeting, many residents expressed varied degrees of opposition, and a group calling itself the Clayton Community Coalition has sent mailers to some Clayton and University City residents. If there’s something to be sympathetic to here it is that this massive project appears to be coming no matter what opponents say. Whether it’s a “MegaDevelopment”, or “on a fast track” is a matter of opinion.

The other concerns expressed on the flyer are misplaced at best. Do we want “20,000 new cars on our roads?” We should ask if we want four and five lane roads empty a good part of the day. We should ask if we want patrons to frequent local businesses. No one likes years of construction traffic, but what’s the alternative? Another decade of vacant lots generating virtually no real tax revenue?

The concern of “a strained police and fire department” is misplaced. It’s unclear exactly what additional strain the development would put on such services, though it’s not unfair to pose the question. However, dense development such as this represents the most efficient use of civic services and infrastructure. The $101M Clayton is offering in tax abatement is a legitimate target as well, though the proposed “HUGE buildings and parking structures” aren’t exactly across from single family homes.

I don’t know anyone who has spoke in opposition to the project personally. And this critique isn’t personal, but it should be noted that the NIMBYs in this case can be characterized as older condo and single family homeowners. They seem to want “their” Clayton to remain unchanged, even if that’s a vacant lot. Nevermind that the proposed development would surely result in increased home values nearby. A project of this size has attracted a diverse group of opponents and we hope to fully highlight some of their concerns in a subsequent article

It’s tempting to just proclaim that NIMBYs shouldn’t stand in the way of quality development, that this isn’t how cities work, but it is how Clayton has been trending. NIMBYs recently killed a small townhome project on Brentwood, and another larger project at the Maryland School site. Lawsuits against the 212 S. Meramec project reached a truly absurd conclusion. Opposition to residential development is especially misplaced as new residents produce the least amount of new traffic, and the most support for local retail.

These NIMBY voices are at the same time overrepresented and likely overwhelmed by the development process. Perhaps in the end, that’s fair. What’s unfortunate though, is that other criticism of the project, from the pedestrian realm, to good urbanism and retail development, can be lumped with the NIMBYs, and then ignored.

It’s worth restating: To premise the above critique, it needs to be conceded that the plan to develop vacant lots, and low-rise buildings into office towers in downtown Clayton is a good one. It’s better than good, it’s great. It has been an absurd sight as large swaths of vacant land have sat idle for a decade next to the region’s high-end business center, two MetroLink stations, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The $770M plan to add nearly 3,000 employees, residents, and retail to the city’s central business district is something to applaud. Also, St. Louis needs and deserves a full-time urban development and architecture critic. It’s to our regret that we can only partially, and then inadequately, fill this needed role.

Project overview

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Details of some design tweaks with addition of Wellbridge property:

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Subdistrict 1

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Subdistrict 2

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Centene Clayton

Subdistrict 3

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Subdistrict 4

Centene Clayton

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  • Tom of the Missouri

    Totally agree with headline. There is a way Clayton can lower Centennes cost of development that should be used with every developement that comes down the pike, which will serve to make a Clayton a better place for development for all future time.

    Claytons should calculate how much net postive revenue they will receive from Centene’s new development in taxes and other fees for the next twenty years and then share a percentage of that benefit with all businesses in Clayton, including the new developer. This will help Centene and all current and future businesses in Clayton and create an every increasing benefit of buying property and doing business in Clayton and and every increasing friendly business environment in Clayton. All future potential business resident decision makers will know that their cost of business will for a long time always go downward and will be fair and benificial to all sides including: Clayton residents who wll benefit from a financially sound town, city officials who will have and ever increasing increased revenue stream from ever increasing development (or be penalized for making rules that run businesses out of town) , the existing business who will not be unfairly punished from developers that get an unfair advantage from new development and even to new developers like Centene, who will know that their new development will even grant them some relief.

    This will also for all time prevent city officials from the corruption that sooner or later results when government bodies and officials are allowed to grant special favors and financial rewards on single individuals or businesses. It also will prevent the financial harm that occurs to existing businesses that occurs when they have to compete with a cost structure that is higher from their new competitor across the street.

  • jhoff1257

    I think it’s funny that Centene and their developers think they’ve accounted for potential MetroLink usage by slapping Metro’s logo on some drawings and renderings…

    Having said that though, I think we should be somewhat hopeful that this could get better. Like Alex said, the overall concept is outstanding. Adding jobs and density on vacant lots in a (mostly) urban area is fantastic. I also think its promising that Centene does seem to be listening a bit. Each successive update shows some changes that seem to suggest that they are hearing what some of us are saying. When this plan first came out even the words MetroLink were not to be found anywhere, now they at least seem to know its there. They seem to be open to adding more retail and even though I’d prefer to see the parking structures on Forsyth wrapped in actual apartments instead of just fake windows, even that is an improvement over the original plan. Really if they just cut down on the parking, provided Metro passes to those employees that want them and added some more residential I think we’d have something pretty special for the St. Louis region. And maybe cut down on all the plazas.

  • W. Anderson

    With all the development going on in downtown Clayton, are there any residents interested in creating some sort of pro-smart-development group in order to create a distinct voice at these planning meetings that not everyone has time to attend? I’m mostly in agreement with commenters here and even on NextDoor, but it sounds as if the average person who makes it to the planning meeting has a very different agenda. The idea that NIMBY opposition gets lumped together with legitimate development concerns bothers me as well.

  • bedney

    This is an incredible analysis and reminds me of when journalism used to be more than just the print equivalent of sound bites and puff pieces.

    Great work Alex!

    – Bill

    • Alex Ihnen

      What a compliment. Thank you!

  • John

    I agree with most of the analysis, although I wouldn’t say the plazas in Clayton are “lifeless.” I think any green, open space is a good thing. I do concur that more retail and street-level aesthetics need to be considered. I hope the decision makers read this site and scrutinize every inch of the development to get it right. Once it’s built; it is built.

  • JMedwick

    Some great analysis. No wonder the neighbors are up in arms about overwhelming traffic
    descending onto streets like Hanley, Carondelet, and Forsyth; the proposal’s parking counts play right into those
    fears. I bet that many of the new workers could finding parking in the many other underutilized garages in downtown Clayton, including the former Famous Barr building across Forsyth or the current Ritz garage.

    The proposal lends itself to a pretty standard city-developer trade-off for developments with concerns about parking and traffic: banked parking. Only require Centene to build out a fraction of their required parking, thereby keeping a couple lots vacant (ideally those along Forsyth). If it is clear after a couple of years that the parking is not needed, Centene can either use those parcels to build more offices or can partner with a residential developer. Banked parking in combination with your Metro pass idea would create a compelling response to those concerned about overwhelming traffic and allow for the eventual creation of far more office and retail density, not warehousing far cars.

  • opendorz

    Excellent analysis, though I think you were too soft on the architectural critique. As I’ve previously posted, this city’s modern structures seem beholden to the right angle,modest heights, and flat roof lines. Now Centenne had the chance to erect a signature building for all of St. Louis; one above the current skyline, with a sweeping curve and perhaps an iconic roof style (i.e.: Chrysler Building in NYC). Instead Clayton get one more rectangle that appears to be chopped off at the waist, and would fit nicely in downtown Whichita.

    • Unfortunately, inspired corporate architecture isn’t something that even happens in NYC very much any more. The reason buildings like the Chrysler were built was to show off the wealth of their owners. Walter Chrysler purchase an ailing car manufacturer in 1925 and built it into an industry giant in just a couple of years. He commissioned the eponymous tower as a monument to himself, to show off to New York society. This is the story of pretty much every fancy building: it was built so that some person (usually, a white man) could show off to his neighbors. They were the ultrarich equivalent of a Porsche and a trophy wife.

      This doesn’t happen very much anymore, because most companies aren’t controlled by a megalomaniacal founder. Centene is publicly traded; a good portion of their board of directors isn’t from here, St. Louis elites don’t compete with corporate architecture, and wasting money on fancy buildings could open them up to a minority shareholder lawsuit. You still see this sort of behavior from time to time (Trump Tower, for instance) but it’s increasingly rare in the US. In other countries, interesting architecture in development is often dictated by the state, but that’s unlikely to pass muster here (since it could constitute a regulatory taking).

      • bedney

        A very astute, if somewhat depressing, analysis.

      • opendorz

        Jason, this is just flat out false. Have you never traveled to Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, hell, even Oklahoma City has a soaring skyscraper that dwarfs anything in STL. It doesn’t take an egomaniac owner to create an inspiring structure, but it does require one who puts form on an equal level as function. Let’s face it, the last great structure to truly achieve this here is the Arch, which is fitting since this one has no real function at all.

    • jhoff1257

      For the most part I agree with your points but as someone who spends nearly 8 days a month in Wichita (for the last 3 years) I can tell you there is not a single building even remotely this nice or modern in Downtown Wichita. Not even close.

  • “Also, St. Louis needs and deserves a full-time urban development and architecture critic. It’s to our regret that we can only partially, and then inadequately, fill this needed role.”

    Had always thought of — and appreciated — NextSTL as STL’s own version of Curbed. The PD’s two Tims — Bryant and Logan — have/had been a godsend as well for the enhanced discussion on local development.

    I wonder, how does one become a Curbed city? It looks like they cover twelve or so right now. Is it just a matter of having some local professionals/afficionados “franchise” it from Vox?

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’d happily run a Curbed St. Louis site if that were an option.

  • David Hoffman

    If Clayton doesn’t want them, there is always the CWE or DOWNTOWN.

    • PD

      They have to much invested in their current building. I dont see them going anywhere but right where they are.

  • Jim Arsenault

    As a Clayton resident and someone who has attended all the meetings, it is refreshing to read a very sober, thoughtful analysis of the project, and one that I think is spot on. As discouraged as I can be by the NIMBY opposition at times, listening to the staff comments and the tweaks they are asking for reminds me that there are adults in the room that understand what a benefit this will ultimately be to Clayton, who are committed to getting a great project out of this. As you also mentioned, a lot of the opposition for this project are older residents. As a younger resident that will eventually have children in the Clayton school district, it is worth pointing out that the Centene expansion footprint generated $947,295.95 in property taxes last year, while the current Centene tower and garage combined for $1,570,768.17 (and that is the abated amount). Based off those numbers, Clayton would get a 3-4 million bump in tax revenue even if this project is abated.

    • JMedwick

      Any of the current homeowners should have the point about taxes made to them. No better way to reduce the possibility for future residential property tax increases than to allow such dense developments to occur. They are a net fiscal positive for the community.

      • TimJim

        You could say that about pretty much any development. The house next to mine in Clayton was torn down and a million-dollar mini mansion took its place. Should the developer get tax abatement for that, since they’ll be paying more taxes anyway? Tax abatement is a slippery slope and a bad idea in places like Clayton. Centene doesn’t need the money, and Clayton isn’t desperate for development. Tax policy should be based on factors beyond “how can we get the most money now.” I’m for the development, but against the corporate welfare.

        • JMedwick

          I think you misread what I wrote. I am not advocating for a tax abatement for this project. I am saying that supporting Centene developing in downtown Clayton is in the financial best interest of any Clayton property tax payer.

          • Alex Ihnen

            As in STL City, and elsewhere, incentives should only to utilized to produce a desired outcome that wouldn’t otherwise happen. IF Clayton wants a big corporate campus, then PERHAPS incentives for Centene make sense. But yes, clearly development can and will happen in Clayton without incentives of any kind.

        • PD

          Over the course of 30 years and growing up in old town. I watched my families property tax go up steadily by these tear-down-minis-up. Then I watched in 2008 when the housing crash undid all the property value gain. It was gain when they sold but a nice 300k was lost over the course of 4 years and the taxes never went down.

  • Luftmentsch

    Did Clayton ever produce a master plan? Did this upscale little suburb ever actually decide that it was going to become THE regional office center? If Centene was doing this downtown (e.g. Ballpark Village), there’d be nothing but cheering.

  • RJ

    Well done Alex. All of these issues you have addressed are the details to a development that can take it the next step up from great to outstanding. In your observations you have noted the need for making the pedestrian experience better because of the long wall effect from the garage and the lack of more retail venues to generate more street activity. This is especially true along Forsyth. Somehow you get the feeling that design is deliberate to protect the employees from that mean unsafe outside world. The more eyes you have on the streets the safer. There is never enough residential in these developments. I have been hollering from the mountain tops for more residential in Grand Center and this project is no different. You create a neighborhood with the more people you have living in a development. Since I am a member of CMT the transit issue is a must. Better allocation of the Forsyth Station in this development and the investment by Centene in metro passes for employees should be required by the City of Clayton. Other ideas for the street wall could include more aesthetics/architecture making each section unique, Of course that would require more money and since Michael Neidorff is into the Arts he should demand this improvement. I have no issues with the towers since all of St. Louis is vertically challenged. All three towers could be over 400 feet tall and IMO all should have a unique crown that would distinguish the skyline especially at night. Hopefully some modifications will be made to take this very important project to the next level