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Wednesday, May 22, 2013 / 9:33 AM

Closing of Macy's Deals Blow to Downtown Retail

Closing of Macy's Deals Blow to Downtown Retail

For the June issue of St. Louis Magazine (on newsstands and in subscribers' mailboxes soon), I wrote a profile of developer Amos Harris, who's responsible for downtown's Mercantile Exchange district, which includes a dine-in movie theater, the future National Blues Museum, a hotel, apartments, a Pi Pizzeria, and a few other restaurants.

In the course of reporting that story, I talked to Harris, his associate Jay Swoboda, and several other civic boosters about the challenges facing downtown. They listed off a series of plans, goals, and dreams, all aimed at sustaining and growing downtown's budding revival. They want to make downtown more accommodating to pedestrians. To support what Swoboda calls a "24-hour city," with business activity thriving around the clock, he would like to significantly increase downtown's population, which already has seen remarkable growth over the past decade. To attract families, the public schools need to continue their improvement. And on and on.

Another factor often cited was retaining the downtown Macy's. Swoboda told me that once he and Harris finished developing the Washington Avenue side of the MX, they would turn their attention to the project's storefronts on Locust, in an effort to "keep Macy’s downtown active and supported."

But that battle already has been lost, with the announcement this week that the store will close this summer. It was only a couple of years ago that the store underwent renovations and downsized to three floors, a move that seemed to signal that the retailer was committed to making the downtown location viable. Or perhaps it was just a sign of last-gasp desperation. Indeed, rapidly shrinking sales likely made the move inevitable.

Now, when Macy's closes, downtown will be without a major department store. There has been one in the Railway Exchange Building, which Macy's is vacating, for nearly a century.

The closing will surely drum up nostalgia for Famous and Barr, with its legendary French onion soup. It will also cast doubt on the future of the Railway Exchange Building, one of the biggest office towers downtown. (When it opened it 1914, it was the tallest building in St. Louis.) Once Macy's clears out, it will be largely vacant. Revenue from the store was supposed to help finance a proposed $111.7 million renovation, which would seem to be in serious jeopardy, even with various tax credits and incentives.

And the closing is also a blow to Harris' grand vision for downtown. He sees his Mercantile Exchange as a key component of a loop downtown—from the convention center and the dome to the MX to the Arch to the ballpark to the Gateway Mall to Macy's—that he thinks can attract tourists. This week's announcement breaks a link in that chain.

As Kevin Farrell, who's in charge of development at the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, noted in the Post-Dispatch, this news doesn't doom downtown. "Ten years ago, this would have been a much bigger blow to downtown," he told the paper. "But we have had over $5 billion invested downtown in that time. Our population continues to grow."

Still, there's something symbolic about a major national retailer anchoring a city's urban core. After this summer, St. Louis won't have one, and it might not have one ever again. The future of retail in downtown St. Louis is murky—perhaps creative solutions like the MX's Collective will find a viable model. Regardless, the loss of Macy's marks the end of an era.

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