Downtown Green Space land use

Dead Zone

by Michael R. Allen

The empty land in downtown St. Louis fronting Locust Street between 8th and 9th streets covers over one-half of a city block. This land is surrounded by numerous historic buildings: the Board of Education Building, the Orpheum (later American) Theater, the Mayfair Hotel, the Mercantile Bank Building and the rear end of the Old Post Office. The site is prominent, but the space is dead.

Currently, this entire space is covered by three parking lots. One of these lots is crudely paved with gravel ringed by the top of a remaining foundation walls of a now-gone building. The sidewalk along Locust is in horrible disrepair. This area is a visual and functional dead zone in a downtown rapidly gaining pedestrian movement.

Civic bigwigs want to keep it that way, except they would replace the asphalt and gravel covering the lot with grass. They have released proposed renderings of a sterile and ill-designed “plaza” that is too large to be a good urban space and too devoid of uses to remedy the blight of the location.

The one use the planners have allowed to intrude upon the site is an ugly glass-walled addition to the Mayfair Hotel, proposed by the Roberts Companies. This addition would sit in from the sidewalk lines, and not even come close to fronting Locust or Eighth streets. Yet it would be large enough to make building a building at the corner feasible. The design is based upon the site’s always being dead space.

Could we please bring this site back to life? The last thing downtown needs is more open space. One block to the east of this site is the more modestly-sized “plaza” built by Mercantile Bank on the site of the Ambassador Building, wrecked in 1996 and 1997. This open space consists of a big driveway and some landscaping, so it’s pretty unattractive. But its size is not wholly inappropriate to a big city and, if a building were built across Locust on a parking lot, the site would be framed tightly. If Mercantile would turn the site over to civic use (there is not even a place to sit on the site at present), this could be a fairly urban downtown plaza.

Let’s be sensible.