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Renderings courtesy of The Cordish Companies
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When the new Busch Stadium opened in 2006, Ballpark Village was supposed to be close behind. But instead of a splashy entertainment district, the site languished as a muddy eyesore, the slow economy and reneging office tenants causing delay after delay. Now, the Cardinals and the team’s development partner, The Cordish Companies, say they have the project back on track. We asked team president Bill DeWitt III what to expect when Ballpark Village opens next year.
You must be thrilled that construction is finally under way. I think you can’t overstate it, on many levels. When we first built the ballpark, one of the key themes that we were trying to convey in the design was that the building relates to the city. When you demolish the old stadium and build the new one, we have an opportunity to develop in the urban core, because of the site of the old ballpark. That basic premise informed our entire design approach. That's why, in left field, for example, of the new ballpark, it's wide open and there's nothing out there. So from a fundamental point of view, it was a missing tooth for six years, seven years. I feel like the ballpark certainly is a great legacy from an urban planning point of view and a St. Louis point of view. But the village is even more so in a way, because it will make us unique in all of baseball, in terms of having master-planned not only the ballpark but also the village and the way it relates to the ballpark.
Why did it take so long? The economy was one of the delays. I wouldn't say it was the primary problem, but there was about a year there in the late '07, early '08 timeframe, where there just was no ability to invest in something because everyone was panicked on the financial crisis. I wouldn't attribute all of it to economics. The other point that was a delay is that previous versions of the project that we had mapped out included a big office component in the first phase. We had basically three office tenants come and get very far along in planning. In some cases, we even made announcements. Then those didn't happen. They ended up unable to commit to a project that had execution risk, meaning they weren't 100 percent sure it was going to happen. It got too complex. We had trouble figuring out who was going to pay for what. It turns out what really freed this project up to get going was that simplification of just saying we're going to start. We're going to do the infrastructure. We're going to get the live retail entertainment piece done, then let the rest of it come after that.
Downtown developments don't have the best track record. Is it a difficult place to pull off a project like this? I definitely don't want to attribute any of the delays to that. Of course, the public approval process is fraught with a lot of brain damage. I've certainly experienced my share of it.
What have you learned from the process? I could write a book I guess from what I've learned… My overlying emotion on this is gratitude that the persistence paid off, because it has been such a long, winding road. Keeping at it when things looked bleak is just a lesson. It's a lesson in persistence and tenacity that I think hopefully will keep with me for other things.
Is there an aspect of the development that you're most looking forward to? I would say there are two elements that are the most exciting. It's all fun. The first is the Cardinals Nation concept. We're going to be a tenant in our own district. It's going to be unique in all of baseball. There is no team that has a restaurant across the street with a seating deck and a museum… Then the other thing is what we're calling this Live Marketplace. It's a living room for downtown and for the city and the region. You can put over 2,000 people in there. You can do live music. You can do sporting events, so a Cardinals game on the road. There's St. Louis–style food selections. It can morph into a special events space.
I’ve heard some doubts about the bull-riding bar. It’s a country-and-western and chic atmosphere. Like a lot of these things, you can talk all you want and show pictures, but it’s really hard to get a feel until you’ve actually been to one. It’s just great, interactive. There’s this mechanical bull. It’s not just a nasty, sandy-floor, puke-in-the-corner type of place. I’ll leave it at that. You’ve got to wait until you see it before you pass judgment.
How do you envision people interacting with Ballpark Village? I think the secret of this project is that we are not only capturing and enhancing the game-day experience for people who want to come earlier and stay later, but we’re creating reasons for people to be down here on nongame days. That's the key: events, having a country-music series, having family days. So it really is a snowball effect that we believe will be great for downtown and will make this project thrive 365 as opposed to just 81 games a year.
Is the original $650 million dream still a possibility down the line? I think this is just step one. We’ve certainly got the ability to build out this district to the fullest vision that we had originally. In fact, Phase 1 makes it much more likely that these future phases will actually happen, because all the infrastructure is now in place. A huge chunk of this project is all of the stuff that's happening underground and around the site. We're putting in sewer lines. We're resignaling the streets. When we were discussing this project with office tenants in previous incarnations, it was always like there were so many unknowns. Now, all that's done. All they need to do is come down here and look at their parcel, and they can see it.
So is the reason you’re starting smaller… First of all, the first phase is huge. I think people have this sense that, “Oh, well, they scaled it down. Now it’s a couple bars and restaurants.” When they see this thing next spring, I think they’re going to be blown away if that was their attitude.
Well, not small, but just smaller than the original plans. Yes, after these large combinations of multiple uses weren't getting done, we just said, "Look, we got to get started. We got to do something. We got to fix the site. We got to get it cleaned out." But we would also have a big enough scale project that if nothing else gets done, it's still a great project.
And it will be ready by opening day 2014? That’s the game plan.
That didn’t sound like a promise. I’ve learned to always hedge a little bit, but we’re shooting for that. I think we’ll get there.
Smaller, but Not Small
Talk of an entertainment district next to the new ballpark started back in the ’90s. Over time, the grand vision originally proposed by The Cordish Companies has been scaled down significantly, though DeWitt still hopes to expand in the future.
Then: The plans initially called for a $650 million development spanning six city blocks with nine buildings: three glass office towers rising 25 to 30 stories, 360,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, and 1,200 housing units (luxury condos with stadium views).
Now: In the $100 million Phase 1, the office and residential towers are gone, replaced by 700 parking spaces. The three-level Cardinals Nation complex will include a restaurant, a store, the team’s long-homeless museum, and a new Cardinals Hall of Fame. The rooftop deck will have a clear view of the field, and fans will be able to buy tickets to watch the game from that catbird seat.
The Budweiser Brew House will feature more than 100 beers on tap, and PBR St. Louis: A Cowboy Bar will offer a taste of the Professional Bull Riders tour (complete with a mechanical bull).
The Ballpark Village Live! Marketplace will act as a living room for downtown, with a giant video board for national sports and other TV events, a retractable glass roof, and kiosks with various food vendors. Rounding out the project, a diamond-shaped green space will commemorate the infield of the old stadium.
Here’s what people are saying about Ballpark Village on Twitter:
@MikeHaupt22 I want to work in the Ballpark Village when it’s all built. The pictures of what it’s gonna look like are amazing! #dreamjob
@Kenny_Wallace The @Cardinals are FINALLY building Ballpark Village. Let’s party!
@nextSTL Big Ballpark Village announcement is installation of a 90-foot steel beam. And we have reached a new low for this downtown “game-changer.”