In the past five years, a nine-block area next to the river here has become the model for downtown development and renovation in this gateway city.
A neighborhood of littered vacant lots and warehouses as recently as two years ago, the area called Laclede's Landing has been converted into a bustling commercial community of restaurants, retailers and entertainment that draws customers from the city's hotels and its new convention center.
Offices, condominium apartments and additional retail space is scheduled to be completed within five years.
Five years ago the area, which borders the Mississippi River, was 90 percent vacant. Today only 5 percent of the Landing is vacant and most of it under development. All but a few warehouses have been preserved externally, with their interiors remodeled for stores and offices.
"This is adaptive reuse -- not historic preservation," said Peter Hoyt, one of the chief architects of the Landing.
The Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corp., a private corporation set up by utilities, developers and property owners, is largely responsible for the rapid change. The president is William E. Maritz, who owns a sales training organization. He and executive director. Thomas W. Purcell have helped attract more than $27 million in private investment to the area. The city has spent about $1.5 million on neighborhood improvements.
This and similar corporations have used a Missouri urban redevelopment law to gain almost total control in structuring a development plan for downtown areas.
Once approved by the city, the redevelopment corporation receives the power of eminent domain and abatment of taxes on the development for up to 25 years.
The law and its tax abatement clause were a big boost in getting companies and banks to invest in the downtown area, said Peter C. Malecek, assistant vice-president of Mercantile Trust Co. and Bank.
Mercantile has loaned $5 million to $6 million to developers and restaurateurs in the Landing, Malecek said, and is planning to invest more.
Hoyt said the intent of the umbrella corporation was to attract people and businesses back to the city. Attracting people back to the inner city had been a problem in recent years, partly because of the evolution in recent years of Gaslight Square, a popular entertainment district, into a drug -- and crime-- infested area.
There are 16 bars and restaurants open or about to be opened in the Landing, including the newly constructed Belle Angeline riverboat, a three-story restaurant.
"The Landing is different from entertainment areas because we are devleoping offices on upper levels to support the floows below," Hoyt said, comparing his neighborhood's mixed-use plan with Gaslight Square.
In the mid-1700s, when Pierre Laclede Ligueste designed St. Louis to be the Midwest's commercial center, business revolved around riverboat trade.
However, as Tom Purcell, the redevelopment corporation's director, points out, "product obsolesence and costs put the area out of business."
To bring the Landing back to life, the corporation has laid plans for restaurants on the ground floors of the warehouses and apartments, shops and offices above them. Shops and housing units will give the community permanence, Purcell maintains. The corporation hopes to see more than 500 condominium apartments and a Hyatt Regency Hotel built in the area.
Kimble A. Cohn, a member of the corporation and an architect who has an office in the Landing said the intent of the corporation's plan was to attract large corporations as well as younger designer and retailers by allowing for contemporary design in the warehouses rather than trying to preserve old-time St. Louis.
Toward that end, Cohn spent $3 million redesigning a tobacco warehouse. The bulding, now fully leased, includes the headquarters of the Anheuser-Bush, Inc., can-making subsidiary, three restaurants and other tenants.
The St. Louis government has cleaned tar off the brick street, planted trees, installed 1800-era electric lights and spruced up the riverfront.
Jeff Hance, part-owner of the $2 million riverboat Belle Angeline docked off the Landing, said he is disturbed with the present lack of variety in the community, however. "We need more retail -- then the Landing would go," he said. Only two shops have opening in the Landing, a flea market and a speciality shop.
Purcell says that retail and housing would come in time. "Retail space was not our first priority," he said.