Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Post Office Plaza's new destination

The silence surrounding Roberts Tower downtown has been rather deafening until today. We still don't have details about the condominiums, but news of the new tenant just surfaced.

I'm pretty excited, because as a NFL coach, Don Shula was renowned, as a restauranteur, he's been equally successful.  At some point, news of a nationwide company choosing to begin its regional presence downtown won't be a big deal.  Today its a sign to other entities that our downtown meets the criteria in which a business can thrive, despite an economic downturn.

What is really nice, is that soon, like the Terrace View for City Garden, Shula's 347 can serve as a logical destination for residents and tourists enjoying Post Office Plaza. 

As a huge fan of independent restaurants, news of a chain might seem less important, but having a mix is even better. 

Bon Apetit!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Happy Birthday Eero Saarinen!

Finally made it to the arch. My hope was to glean from the speakers at this evenings panel discussion which one of the 5 prospective plans for the arch grounds are most consistent with those of Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley.

The speakers tonight includued an archivist, a historian, an architect involved as a student in assiting the jury in the 1947 competition, a project manager working for Eero Saarinens office and lastly, Susan Saarinen, the daughter of Eero Saarinen who is a landscape architect herself. Informative and insightful as it was, the presentation didn't include any information about the current contest.

What I did get which was totally unexpected, was a rush of excitement for what we have the opportunity to witness and enjoy: a long deserved makeover of the archgrounds and respective property across the river. I say 'deserved,' because the arch grounds are a National Park, and based on every other National Park I've been to, it just doesn't stack up. Interestingly, looking at many of the designs from the 1947 contest including the winning design, their plans were much more than what we were left with.

All along I've called for people to participate in this. That's important. While the judges for this year's contest are undoubtedly qualified to process the challenge before them, and it is a challenge, they aren't motivated by what's BEST FOR ST LOUIS like we are. Public input is allowed ONLY THROUGH MONDAY!!! Seeing bicycle and pedestrian trails linking the Missouri portion of the park with the new attractions planned for the east side was exciting for me. Seeing the new venues for the archgrounds like concert space, fountains and all kinds of other improvements was fantastic. After my trip last month to San Antonio and seeing how well they tied their downtown to the Riverwalk, its clear that we can do so much with the Arch grounds that exponentially improves our viability as a tourist destination and a place for us to build community.

After the presentations, I took my time to try to take in everything about the new plans . My initial front runner is the plan from Weiss / Manfredi Team Concept. They have a St Louis connection in SWT Design out of Webster Groves, and seemed to have a good realistic plan. Some of the plans were hard to understand and will take more time to read.

My goal from here is to spend another hour or so reading and listening to the entries on the web and then submit my input to the National Park Service The form they have at the Arch has specific questions that the webform does not have, like "What do you value about the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial?, and How do each of these designs respect what you value about the Memorial? I'm not sure how important these questions are to the judges, but I'll probably try to answer their questions.

After the evening, I meandered my way through downtown, trying to connect the many perspectives shared in the design competition with the current layout of the Gateway Mall, visiting several attractions like CityGarden, and Serra's Twain before catching the train home. Just like an election day, we only have a finite period to share our ideas about the contest. Its important to get informed now.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cherry on Top!

As a life long St Louisan, I've spent more time in a given week driving on Kingshighway Boulevard than I've spent at the Arch in my lifetime. Despite the seeming disparity, the relevance that the Gateway Arch has on our collective lives is important to consider. Especially important now.

Starting on Tuesday, the top 5 design teams in the international competition to re-create the Gateway Arch grounds will be unveiled at the Gateway Arch. This display will be open through September 30th, with a traveling display to be available through September 26th. A winner should be selected on September 24th.

My hope is that most St Louisans will consider it part of their civic duty to participate in the competition by stopping by the displays and getting informed about what we could be left with. Obviously the architects, and dignitaries will be there. What ultimately becomes of the Arch Grounds will have more of an impact on our City and its ability to attract tourists, conventions, and even new jobs and residents; its important for ALL St Louisans to be there and be in the know about our options.

Had that been the case when Eero Saarinen's design won the 1947 Design Competition, it's feasible that more of his design would have been implemented; a design that included much than the current Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

I'm trying to decide now what I'm going to do. The unveiling will be Tuesday at 9am. It will undoubtedly be a feel good event with the Mayor and all the City Folk in attendance, but on Friday at 7pm, there is a 100th Birthday for Eero Saarinen with presentations from historians, architects involved with the last contest, Saarinen's daughter and others. Being there to hear the inspirational statements from the Mayor would be nice, but the possible commentary on the new designs by persons involved with the earlier design could really be powerful.

Who knows, I might show up twice.  Either way, the amount of effort I'm seeing from the NPS and others shows me that its important for us to weigh in and talk to others about what could potentially be a major impact on our towns future.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Other Shoe Dropped

When Pyramid Construction, the St Louis Loft Developer, went under back in April 2008, word on the street was that there was some inappropriate shuffling of funds between all the projects that were in the works. Today the Post Dispatch reported that John Steffen, the President of Pyramid Construction was going to be indicted of bank fraud for cashing out on tax credits that were supposed to be held as collateral for a loan. Given the extent of the Steffen empire downtown, I'd expected a more elaborate scheme to be uncovered. Looking at Casenet, there have been several suits filed by banks, maybe this is just the beginning, or maybe after all the dust has settled, this is the only case that can be made. I'm hoping for the latter.

While the overall business of John Steffen was evidently not sustainable once the market slowed down, he really had a vision for this town. He was a leader. People believed in him. He described his vision for a 'Paris on the Mississippi' with panache, and like Quarterback turned Dancer Kurt Warner, he had the perfect story of starting his career as a carpenter and building a huge business from scratch. When I had my first experience with Pyramid, they had a construction company, an architectural firm and was about to purchase a real estate brokerage.

When Pyramid purchased a Blue Ribbon Realtor brokerage and re-branded it under the Pyramid umbrella, it didn't really make sense to me. That was when I started to question the direction of the company. It was a Central West End broker with limited downtown experience. Most importantly, buying a brokerage is really buying human capital; there's really no way to ensure that the agents perform or even stay with the company after its sold. [Warren Buffett, if you're reading this, Premier Realty Exclusive is one notable exception]. As a relatively new businessman, I figured they knew what they were doing.

During the fallout from Pyramids demise, many who were directly involved with John Steffen felt that he would land on his feet. I wasn't so sure, but based on the loyalty he engendered and the extent of his political connections it was plausible. That's my hope today. In dealing with Pyramid, I wasn't a huge fan, but John Steffen is a guy that we need in the world making a difference. If it is true and the collateral was sold by Steffen, I view it as an act of desperation trying to keep a flailing company alive. Steffens lost his home, all his assets...loosing his freedom would punctuate an already dreary descent from his position of prominence in the St Louis Downtown renaissance.