by Michael R. Allen
Both sides of South Grand Avenue between Winnebago and Chippewa Avenues are much improved due to the diligence of concerned citizens taking effective action. Above is a photograph of the Grand South Senior Apartments at the southeast corner of Grand and Winnebago in Gravois Park, completed last year. The building introduces contemporary architecture, adds density and created several storefronts on the site of a mid-century Sears store demolished in 1994. This sort of infill is desirable and practical, and the design is not breathtaking. Why does it warrant an entire essay?
Well, this outcome was far from certain back in 2005. At that time, the site was owned by the Pyramid Companies, which had purchased the Sears site and adjacent city-owned land as part of the Keystone Place project. Although the redevelopment and blighting ordinances for the Keystone Place project outlined mixed-use moderate-density infill on the Sears site and forbade any drive-through commercial, Pyramid suddenly announced a bizarre request for a zoning variance to allow the relocation of the McDonald’s franchise across the street. (The sordid details can be read at Urban Review.)
Pyramid proposed moving McDonald’s to a new drive-through restaurant on the Sears site and acquiring the McDonald’s site for construction of a Grand South Senior Apartments. Keystone Place residents had bought expensive new homes from Pyramid with the assurance of the redevelopment ordinance protected them from fast food across the alley. Gravois Park residents and Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th) also were riled by the attempt to breach a redevelopment law sought by Pyramid itself just ten years prior.
What ensued was wonderful: neighborhood residents organized against the change to the existing ordinance, and were joined by supporters of sound urban planning from across the city, including young members of the Urban St. Louis Forum. Even though the boundary of his ward was the alley east of the Sears site, Alderman Schmid stood up for his constiuents’ quality of life by opposing the proposed variance. Schmid attended a zoning adjustment hearing and spoke against the changes, eloquently explaining why development just ten feet outside of his ward affected his constituents’ quality of life as much as anything ten feet inside. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th), whose ward included the Sears site, chastised Schmid, but his remarks provided cover for her ultimate decision to not support the variance sought by Pyramid.
The rest became history: the citizens of Gravois Park won. But so did Pyramid, and the residents of Tower Grove South to the west. Pyramid built Grand South Senior Apartments following its original redevelopment ordinance (although by the time the first resident moved in, Pyramid was bankrupt), and the pesky McDonald’s went out of business. At the end of 2009, the Mama Pho Vietnamese restauarant — which does not serve food by drive through ordering — opened in the old McDonald’s. This block of South Grand now has a new building and a re-purposed existing building, and no annoying drive-though on either side.