by Michael R. Allen
A few days ago while walking downtown in the afternoon, I had one of those moments that are somewhat unnerving. The weather conditions were already bleak, with a slight drizzle and a stone-gray sky overhead. I came upon the intersection of Sixth and Locust and stood at the corner, amazed at what I saw: no movement, amplified by somewhat-dismal surroundings. I looked north up Sixth Street and saw neither a person nor a vehicle. I looked behind me, west on locust, and saw no one. I looked ahead east on Locust, and the street and sidewalks were also empty. Finally, I looked south down Seventh and saw a person standing at the intersection of Seventh and Olive. Still, I had not had such a moment downtown around the middle of a weekday in a few years.
Then again, at this intersection, such an experience is not too strange. At the northwest corner is the dingy hulk of St. Louis Centre; at the southwest is the huge Railway Exchange Building with many of its lower level windows tinted and internally covered for the Famous-Barr store (I hear that Macy’s will reopen these windows); at the southeast corner is the group of buildings that once housed the Mercantile Library, built in the 1880s, clad in cast concrete in the 1950s and abandoned in the 2000s; and, at the northeast corner is the most lifeless structure at the intersection: a parking garage that once had a first-floor Woolworth’s but now as first-floor parking. The parking garage is made more ugly by the way in which its owners converted the store space to parking. They simply removed the plate glass windows of the store, leaving the metal encasements to frame open views of parked cars inside a dark, deep space.
At any rate, this intersection is one of the remaining spots where downtown’s renaissance looks doubtful even on a workday. However, all of the problems here are the buildings that compose the intersection and their conditions, and some of this will change soon: St. Louis Centre will close in June, with skybridge demolition in January and February next year before rehabilitation begins; Macy’s parent company Federated will be making some improvements to the lower floors of the Railway Exchange Building, even as they stamp out a store name that was the last bedrock of local retail (something that Federated is doing to Chicago, too); and the Pyramid Companies own the Mercantile Library buildings and have banners tacked on them advertising available office space. The one question is what will become of the parking garage, built for and joined to St. Louis Centre.
Why not tear it down? Like St. Louis Centre, it was built over the sidewalk, limiting the possibility for re-introducing retail on the first floor. Extending sidewalks and enclosing the ground-floor’s dark arcades is nearly impossible with Locust and Sixth very narrow here anyway. I suppose the garage could be cut back on its perimeter, but that seems too complicated to be economically viable. After St. Louis Centre is reworked, perhaps the garage site will be an attractive location for a new downtown high-rise.