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Rendering courtesy of The Cordish Company
You’re on the 17th floor of an office building at Eighth and Market, poring over a meticulously constructed model of what’s likely coming next door.
The model’s tiny, but the project’s a whopper. It could be the biggest and—with its price tag of about $650 million—the most expensive endeavor of its kind downtown, ever.
Nine buildings, all different, rise along landscaped streets and sidewalks. Some are brick-faced, built in warehouse style to blend visually with the new ballpark and nearby Cupples Station. Most are about five stories, the height of Busch Stadium, but three modern glass towers rise 25 to 30 stories. At their base, as many as three levels of shops, stores and restaurants face outward, sometimes in stepped-back terraces. Above those layers is office space, topped by floors of condos. There’s even a small park and a heated, glass-covered area for year-round outdoor dining.
The initial Ballpark Village plan, drawn up by HOK in 2000, before Baltimore’s Cordish Company entered the picture, was more squat, with only one high-rise, and had 410 housing units and 135,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. The cost was $380 million. Today you’re looking at about 1,200 housing units—roughly comparable to the three original Mansion House towers—and 360,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. (That’s about two-thirds of the Saint Louis Galleria after you lop off the three big department stores.)
Now cross over to the window and peer down at the desolate, uneven expanse of land where about half of old Busch once stood. It’s only eight acres (nine if the Bowling Hall of Fame gives up its current one-acre site and moves into one of the new buildings). Yet it’s the site for that enormous new Ballpark Village project you just saw in the model.
Years in the making, this project has raised as many questions as it has hopes—and with the groundbreaking just months away, many of these questions still linger.
First: Are they sure all of it will fit? Pretty much. The proposed Ballpark Village is bold, dense and urban, an aggressive jolt for downtown. It takes the same “mixed-use, critical-mass” approach that’s bringing people back to downtowns elsewhere, and it will be dropped into that lifeless spot just north of the year-old $365 million ballpark.
Are we ready for something this ambitious? There’s no question that our downtown has perked up—but the pace has been gradual, and we’ve been seeing renovated buildings, not new ones. Ballpark Village would be all-new construction, the first new nongovernment office space downtown in nearly 20 years. The last high-rise apartments built downtown were those at Mansion House, in the 1960s.
So it’s no wonder that even folks who want to see Ballpark Village happen have been asking wary questions since October. That’s when, amid jubilation over the Cardinals’ World Series win, the team owners, the city of St. Louis and the Cordish developers unveiled the latest plan.
The Cardinals’ Bill DeWitt III, senior vice president for business development, is overseeing Ballpark Village for the team owners. He says he’s been “somewhat baffled by all the skepticism, the negativity, people not knowing how cool this could be, people saying they don’t think it will work.” He says the doubt comes in two forms: “One is what I call the extreme conspiracy theory, from people who think the Cardinals wanted to promise the world to get their ballpark built, and now that it’s built, they don’t care about Ballpark Village anymore.” The other, he says, is the usual naysaying by St. Louisans who have seen many downtown plans come and go and don’t trust the recent resurgence.
Who are these Cordish people? Family-owned Cordish has been in business since 1910, building housing, office buildings and malls across the country. In the last 20 years or so, Cordish has developed a reputation for enlivening downtowns with mostly entertainment and retail centers. There’s Power Plant Live! in Baltimore, not far from that city’s baseball and football stadiums. Kansas City Live! will be part of the Power & Light District, an $850 million mixed-use development downtown. Now Cordish is focusing on sports and mixed-use; in addition to Ballpark Village, there’s a project under construction near a racetrack in Toronto and others planned between Heinz Field and PNC Park in Pittsburgh, near the Giants’ ballpark in San Francisco and near a new Nationals ballpark being built in Washington, D.C.
Blake Cordish, a senior vice president with the company, sees these trendy sports-related projects as a way to bring in fans early and keep them late: “What they are is recognition by cities, as well as owners, that stadiums and arenas are phenomenal anchors and should be drivers of mixed-use districts around them.”
What lessons has Cordish learned from past projects? In Cordish’s portfolio, one flop stands out: a near-empty outlet mall in Niagara Falls that Cordish plans to resurrect.
Some other projects have the usual problems: Delays. Concerns about the public money. Raised eyebrows in Baltimore with regard to a political contribution. Complaints in Kansas City about some local restaurants’ getting priced out of the project there. And then there are lawsuits. The owner of the historic Power & Light Building in Kansas City alleges that Cordish infringed on its trademark in naming its project the Power & Light District. Donald Trump cried foul after a business associate worked with Cordish to build the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino projects in Hollywood and Tampa, Fla. Now Cordish has filed suit, alleging unfair tactics after the Seminole Tribe bought the Hard Rock empire Cordish wanted to buy.
More often, though, you find success stories. Charleston Place is a hotel and upscale retail development in the historic core of that city. Fourth Street Live! in downtown Louisville, Ky., turned an enclosed mall into an open-air retail and entertainment district with office space.
Like some of those Cordish success stories, Ballpark Village is designed to be lively, with shops and restaurants facing streets and sidewalks, not inward. Also coming, Blake Cordish promises, is “world-class entertainment; unique architecture; real materials, not faux; and a terrific mix” of local and national tenants. He can’t say yet whether that will include ESPN Zone, Ralph Lauren Polo or perhaps a Hard Rock Café, the likes of which are found at other Cordish downtown projects. “We will definitely unveil concepts unique in the country,” he promises, “and some flagships.”
What will set BPV apart? “There’s been nothing like it attempted in the world,” Cordish says, referring to the way the Ballpark Village site and the ballpark were designed from the beginning to work with each other. The playing field is below grade, for example, and there’s that gap in the ballpark’s outfield wall along Clark, left to give folks good views of the playing field from Clark and the mixed-use area.
“Ballpark Village is really the first time an owner has thought about the potential and importance of a broader mixed-use district in designing a stadium,” Cordish says. “The other projects we are doing are occurring after the stadiums were designed.”
Another rarity, he adds, is having such an ideally located site adjacent to the ballpark, highways, public transportation and a downtown. Plus, the site has already been cleared, which allowed Cordish and its architects, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners of New York, to plan from the ground up. Cordish could set back buildings along Clark, for example, so it could be closed off to become a big outdoor plaza on game days. Another plus: Cordish has included housing in the initial plan here, something the company has done only in Richmond and Kansas City. (Cordish is now going back to add housing in Louisville, Houston, Atlantic City and Baltimore.)
Ballpark Village will also be one of the largest projects, in terms of dollars, that Cordish has taken on. Only Kansas City and Toronto are bigger.
So what’s next? Blake Cordish says Ballpark Village is downtown’s logical next step, gaining momentum from recent renovations: “We would not be willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in this if we didn’t believe that the battleship was pointed in the right direction.”
Now that the city has signed off (and the state is expected to follow) on a total of $115 million—all in taxes generated by the project and bonds to be bought by Cordish and the Cardinals—construction is expected to start in August or September. (The original plan was May or June, but it was deemed prudent to sell the bonds before that shovel broke dirt.)
First will come a 1,200-car underground parking garage, then the rest of the $387 million first phase—retail, restaurants and entertainment, about 100,000 square feet for offices, and 250 condos, most in the first glass tower. The plan is to fill later towers with more condos and another 200,000 square feet of office space, but that could change with the whims of the market—especially if companies line up for office space.
How will BPV connect with the rest of downtown? What if it becomes an isolated enclave or, even worse, sucks all the energy from the rest of downtown? To physically connect Ballpark Village with the rest of downtown, Cordish and its architects have planned new streets and sidewalks, replacing ones that disappeared more than 40 years ago beneath the old Busch. The new paving connects with surrounding streets and sidewalks, so folks can easily drive or walk to and through the area again. That, Cordish says, will help make Ballpark Village what it’s designed to be: “a neighborhood of downtown.”
Not an easy task.
“Cordish builds destination entertainment venues; it’s clearly geared to that type of market,” says John Hoal, who helped put together the Forest Park renovation and the Loft District plan and teaches urban design at Washington University. “You create an identity, and you try to retain everyone within your boundaries. They are quite successful at it—but here they will only be successful if they integrate back into downtown. And it’s a tough area; it’s clearly separate from the rest of downtown and seems deceptively far away. If people are living there, working there, and it’s part of a 24/7 cycle, not something that goes dark when the entertainment ends, it will work.”
What will happen on the 284 days when the fans aren’t at Busch? That’s where the retail, restaurants and entertainment come in. It’s being carefully planned, DeWitt says, with varied enclaves—and maybe reduced parking fees for customers who validate purchases.
What’s coming along Clark is mostly for fans and families. That’s where the Cardinals will put their restaurant and an expanded baseball museum. The multilevel buildings facing Clark and the ballpark will step back as they go up, leaving room for outdoor terraces and dining. And on game days, says architect Richard Metsky of Beyer Blinder Belle, there may be room for “bleachers, so folks can sit outside; they’d all get terrific views of the stadium.”
To the north, the plan is to lure tourists to “Boutique Row” and the adjoining “Restaur-ant Row,” an enclave of perhaps five celebrity-chef restaurants. DeWitt says Boutique Row will have probably 13 shops and stores: “maybe a jewelry store, an art gallery, an antique shop ... not typical mall stores.”
Stores and restaurants facing Walnut Street just south of Market will cater to downtown workers and residents. “Maybe a furniture store, a bookstore, an office supply store,” DeWitt says—plus fun restaurants that are easy to reach on lunch hour.
What if BPV turns into a cheesy chain-based amusement park of commercialism? DeWitt says talks with a variety of possible tenants are in progress. He’s not naming names yet—but he will say why he and Cordish believe that retail there won’t wind up like the failed St. Louis Centre shopping mall: “We’re using a different approach, with new concepts, things you can’t get anywhere else, and we’ll have office and residential going in right away to help support the retail.”
Cordish will own Ballpark Village and, after recouping its investment, share profits with the Cardinals, who are contributing the land. Blake Cordish says his company goes into these projects “for the long term” and likes to own, manage, promote and, in short, “control all aspects.”
A key word here is “promote.” Cordish has a division that plans year-round free public events to keep its urban projects buzzing. “We’ve proposed a minimum of 150 major free events a year at Ballpark Village,” Cordish says, “from festivals to live music to art shows and holiday events. This is what makes cities great. It’s giving energy that can’t happen in the suburbs.”
Are they sure about those condos? First the condos were a mainstay; now they’re optional. “I was disappointed to see that,” says Hoal. “This will only work if they can sustain the original intention and the original density they proposed.”
Sale prices aren’t set, but there’s been talk of prices starting at around $200,000 for 1,000 square feet and going up to $1 million or more for bigger condos. What’s new since Cordish and the architects sketched all those condos is the housing slump, particularly for condos. So far, it hasn’t changed things, DeWitt says, adding, “We’ll see as the year progresses.”
Who will live in the condos? The same folks who have been moving into downtowns here and across the country, DeWitt says—which means mainly baby boomers who are now empty-nesters, but also includes their former fledglings, young professionals tired of life in the suburbs.
David Freehan, the president of the International Downtown Association, backs that assertion up. He also says that despite the housing slump, he expects the trend to continue: “We are at the front end of the baby-boomer generation, so you’ve got a lot of boomers 45 to 60 who are going to be freeing themselves and looking for alternative lifestyles. I think the market for downtown housing is going to grow, although maybe not as much as in the last five years.”
If BPV is as nifty as Mayor Slay and other downtown boosters say it is, why does it need public financial “incentives”? Because the site needs expensive public improvements—streets, sidewalks, sewers—says DeWitt. Plus there’s the escalating cost of new construction. To cover those costs without a subsidy, rents and sale prices would have to be exorbitant. Take office space: “Without a subsidy, we would have to charge $38 to $40 a square foot to cover construction costs. In downtown today, the top spaces are going for more like $20 a square foot.”
So how will we know BPV is working? If it connects to the rest of downtown and becomes a living and working neighborhood with a 24/7 street life, Hoal will be happy. “I would have liked to have seen it more dense and more diverse,” he admits, “with a long-term plan to transform that entire area—but it’s certainly a major development that should move ahead. It’s very important for downtown.”