O’Connell’s Adjusts to Island Life Post-Kingshighway Bridge Construction

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As Fred Parker remembers the conversation, it was “about seven-and-a-half years ago” that he first heard of a plan to modernize the Kingshighway Bridge. The longtime general manager of O’Connell’s knew that the bridge project would impact his business, though it’d take several years before demolition would begin, with plans coming-and-going. Even today, months after the fully-rebuilt bridge’s official opening, work continues on the project, just a few dozen yards from the front door of the restaurant’s home.

The bar famously moved from Gaslight Square in August of 1972 and, in many folks’ minds, it was a clear signal, if not an outright omen, that the entertainment district had truly come to an end. During those early days in midtown, O’Connell’s was surrounded by sympathetic efforts, one of many bars and restaurants in a zone of complementary businesses. These days, O’Connell’s is a fascinating case study of a business that exists very much unto itself, the definition of a classic destination restaurant.

Mirroring the phrase used by many who’ve seen the nearly-completed project, Parker says that “we’re an island,” O’Connell’s placed in the center of Kingshighway and Shaw, with roadways and a pair of parking lots surrounding the venue in every direction. Though the Gaslight restaurant/bar/recording studio is a complementary business within 100-yards of O’Connell’s, even it’s across a very-modified Kingshighway;  the east/west thoroughfare of Shaw now cuts between O’Connell’s and its neighbor, McGrath & Associates, Inc., a general contractor just to the south; a second spur of Shaw cuts through on the opposite side of the building, feeding northbound Kingshighway and I-44 onramp.

Just as menu changes at O’Connell’s have come in, let’s call them, “measured” paces, this construction project’s had moments of quickness, followed by complete tear-outs and rebuilds. Through it all, Parker’s been known to pop into the temporary onsite offices of contractor, Kozeny Wagner, for updates. (We did the same and though the door was open and lights were on, there was no one home.) Of Kozeny-Wagner, he adds, “They’ve done a good job of working with us and with the City, the Botanical Gardens, McGrath.”

Parker says that for those customers only “coming every few months, there was a different way to get here every time.” With those changes, of course, came talk and Parker jokes that he’d hear the same questions about construction “25 times in the first half-hour you’d be open. With all the changes happening out there every day, you’d get sick of talking about it.” And while he’s okay with that process now, even when manning the grill, as he was doing our interview, there’s a definite sense that he sees a conversation that’ll soon die down.

But… not quite.

Initially, work was to have been completed in late-October, but even last week, workers were busily completing sidewalks along Kingshighway, as well as a protective wall near O’Connell’s front lot. Quite a few finishing touches – like actual trees and bushes going into a big batch of planting spaces, plus the addition of the patio – look likely to spill into springtime completion.

Parker says that the project was what it was: an imposition on his business in the short term, no doubt, but one that looks like a net gain, now that completion’s in-sight, with the added bonus of southbound Kingshighway traffic now being able to turn left at Shaw.

Now “it’s the best-possible scenario,” says Parker. “I think we’ve finally achieved that. It looks really good out there and once the plants are in, it’ll look beautiful.”

And never, he says, did anyone talk of taking the building down to ease up the complicated dynamics of O’Connell’s redrawn boundaries.

“Nope,” he says. “That was not on the table. Never talked about. You can’t get rid of a landmark.”

And speaking of landmarks, proprietor Jack Parker’s frequently-commented-on purple martin houses? They moved, but are still on the property, in back of the restaurant. Maybe the best news of all.

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  • Rusty

    I remember I once had hope that st louis would start caring about pedestrians, then I tried to walk the half mile from MoBot to the Hill.

    • Nick

      There’s an obvious reason for it. Less dense neighborhoods/cities are less walkable.

      • Rusty

        The Hill is plenty dense, as is the neighborhood around MoBot, the City just doesn’t build adequate pedestrian infrastructure between them (there is some decent infrastructure within each of them).

        • Nick

          First of all, the Hill is one of the least dense neighborhoods in South City. Second, it’s not just the density of the surrounding neighborhoods that’s relevant. Kingshighway became a stroad because as the population of the surrounding areas declined, people found it easier to just drive everywhere. And as long as it’s easy to drive, people will prefer this form of transportation over everything else…and as long as population levels remain where they are currently, it will continue to be easy to drive.

          • Rusty

            Yeah, best to just give up

          • Nick

            or maybe everyone doesn’t share your goals

          • Adam

            OMG, stop. you don’t always have to argue just for the sake of arguing. who the hell doesn’t want a more walkable city? and there are less dense places with better ped infrastructure, so it doesn’t follow that less dense —> less walkable. there are also places with more cars on the road and more peds/better ped infrastructure, so it doesn’t follow that more cars —> less walkable. it’s simply a matter of money, organization, and having a city government that prioritizes pedestrians, which ours doesn’t.

          • Nick

            OMG, you stop. I wasn’t even in a conversation with you, and I’m the one who argues for the sake of arguing? You don’t address any of my points, nor do you provide any examples to support yours…so I’m not going to respond other than to say that there are many counter-examples in not just St. Louis but cities across the country that point to your arguments being wrong. Have a nice Thanksgiving.

          • Rusty

            If West St Louis wasn’t so full of old car slaves maybe there would be ped improvements and you could sell your shitty bungalow to some yuppies, til then you are no different than the County, but you can’t use the schools. St Louis West of kingshighway is doomed.

          • Nick

            Thanks Rusty/Whiffle/Riggle

          • Adam

            Sir, all Rusty (who I now believe to be Riggle/Wipple based on “car slaves”) said was that the Hill is dense enough to be walkable (which it is), and that the city doesn’t take pedestrian infrastructure seriously (which it doesn’t). Then you went on a tirade about why Kingshighway became a stroad and how that’s just the way it is so deal with it (paraphrasing). It’s as if you just can’t stand to have people disagreeing with you.

            Anyway, here are a couple of examples:

            Boulder, CO: less dense and significantly more walkable than St. Louis

            NYC: 100s of times more auto traffic than St. Louis and significantly more walkable.

            It’s not the number of cars on the road that keeps people from walking in St. Louis. It’s that all our infrastructure gives preference to car movement and/or ignores safe passage of pedestrians. This city can’t even do crosswalks right. They’re either non-existent or so faded as to be useless. Pedestrian signals are either non-existent, broken, or force peds to sprint across the street so cars can get moving again. Sidewalks are either narrowed or omitted to squeeze in more traffic lanes in many places (case in point the brand new Kingshighway viaduct). Speed limits are too high, considering that drivers will routinely go 10 to 15 mph over the posted limit. And it’s not as if drivers are regularly lobbying city officials to maintain things the way they are. It’s just a runaway train that’s been going for decades and the city doesn’t have the wherewithal to fix all the infrastructure issues.

          • Nick

            You obviously can’t stand to have someone disagree with you either…I mean, I wasn’t even arguing with you in the first place and then you went on a tirade against me.

            Look, I like pedestrianism just as much as the next guy. But I’m also a realist, and I’m just tired of arguing this kind of thing with folks like you. You’re constantly whining about things that will never change. Streets like Kingshighway, which is full of suburban-style retail and has virtually zero demand for pedestrians outside of a few blocks along Forest Park, will never be pedestrian friendly. Ever. Get over it already and move on to something constructive for God’s sake.

          • jhoff1257

            If you’re tired of arguing it, then stop arguing it. Just ignore it.

          • Nick

            I guess I’m going to have to. My true conviction is that people spend too much time focusing on negative things that will likely never change, such as the focus of this thread…vs. all the many great positive things happening in St. Louis these days. But negativity always rules the day unfortunately.

          • jhoff1257

            I actually don’t agree with you on that particular subject either. But I’m not going to argue that. Myself and most other readers are getting sick of every thread getting hijacked by the same damn argument between the same people. An no it’s not just you, I hope the others are reading this too.

          • Nick

            I think you’re echoing my sentiments exactly, but from the other side (which is admittedly the majority here). I guess at the end of the day no one wants to listen to anyone else unless they’re in agreement.

          • Rusty

            Who doesn’t want a more walkable city? That guy, because there will be less room for his car

          • Rusty

            Look how great the City is doing, your goals have really worked out, Nick for Mayor, a driveway in every front yard, a curb cut for every house and a gas station at every intersection, what a future!

    • studs

      What twaddle is this, fellow? ‘Tis an easy walk if ever one there was in this burg: Condescend merely to stroll down lovely and leafy Alfred Avenue from Shaw Boulevard to Magnolia Avenue and proceed thence in a westerly direction, being sure to note frolicking citizenry in adjoining Tower Grove Park. Cross S. Kingshighway, proceed up nearby Columbia/Southwest Avenues west and shortly, you’re on the Hill and in close proximity to spaghetti Bolognese to go with your whine. What, pray, is hard about that, friend? People have been making that glorious promenade lo these many years hereabout, inspired by the invigorating visual banquet of Shaw’s Garden and verily sore athirst for Peroni and O! Frozen fish bowls! They will continue to do so, despite ongoing efforts by certain parties of lamentable sourball extraction to frame this idyllic sojourn as a harrowing enterprise.

  • John

    I hope the landscaping is dense and lush to make the island more inviting. It would be nice to see painted pedestrian crossings marked for those who have to park outside of the small designated parking lot. It needs to be pedestrian friendly, and the City of St. Louis street dept. is responsible to make that happen. Glad to see O’Connell’s…a St. Louis staple…is still thriving.

  • Jakeb

    Speaking of the new Kingshighway bridge, does anyone know why it’s taking as long to complete the two outside lanes as it has taken to build the entire structure itself?

    Nearly a year after opening to traffic and they are still working on these last two lanes?

    • smeal1

      been wondering the same thing, only in st louis can a project run over its time deadline yet continue to not be penalized. been by there many times and rarely see any work being done. who wants to bet it’ll be summer before its finished

  • Nick

    I’m happy to see O’Connell’s survived the bridge rebuild. Actually…I’m impressed how most of the businesses on South Kingshighway managed to stay afloat (Three Flags Tavern is the only place I can think of that didn’t make it).

  • Presbyterian

    I was surprised they didn’t remove the northern leg of Shaw as part of the rebuild.

    • johnny1421

      The only benefit is going north bound on Kingshighway you can loop around O’Connell’s to head west on Shaw. Is it worth it? Not at all as there are plenty of ways to get onto the Hill from northbound Kingshighway

    • Jakeb

      Access to the business on the north side of the north leg of Shaw?

    • Tysalpha

      IIRC, Metro required it for buses to be able to turn to/from Shaw and NB Kingshighway. The right turns would have been too tight at the new intersection.

      • Rusty

        For a bus that comes once an hour? Sounds worth it

        • STLEnginerd

          Not an expert but the 2017 system map doesn’t even show a bus that turns on Shaw from Kingshighway going North. The 95 appear to go N/S on Kingshighway and the 14 seems to go West on Shaw loop through the Hill and then North East on Vandeventer. So why the requirement. Is there a bus they aren’t showing…?

          Seems like any North bound bus on Kingshighway could have easily taken Vandeventer for a few blocks to connect with Shaw if that routing was necessary.