St. Louis' Booming Central Corridor

Photo by Bill Zabran. Courtesy of CORTEX.

WUSTL takes a "win-win" approach to development

Posted by Diane Toroian Keaggy March 10, 2014

Good coffee, promising jobs.

Cities need both, and St. Louis is starting to deliver, said Hank Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Cities must create an attractive environment where people want to live and an environment where people have good economic opportunities," said Webber, an expert in urban planning. "It's like good pitching and good hitting in baseball—they are both essential ingredients."

St. Louis' central corridor, the 8-mile stretch from the Gateway Arch to Clayton, is growing fast.

There's new construction on the riverfront and at the Gateway Arch, new nightlife downtown, new attractions in Grand Center, and new housing near Saint Louis University and in the Central West End.

And don't forget Ikea. The Swedish retailer, which typically locates its megastores in the suburbs, plans to build in the CORTEX innovation district on Forest Park Avenue.

"You also have Forest Park, one of the great urban parks in the world, and a strong transportation system," Webber said. "Add those all together, and you have an extraordinary collection of quality-of-life assets you can't get anywhere else in the region."

Washington University is a major contributor to the corridor's growth. In addition to development on the Danforth Campus, the Washington University Medical Center, composed of the School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis Children's Hospital, and other health-care partners, continues to bring new projects and jobs to the area.

The medical center currently is undergoing the initial phases of a transformation, which primarily will feature expansions of St. Louis Children's Hospital, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and Siteman Cancer Center; more space for Washington University Physicians clinics and diagnostics; and new facilities for women and infants, oncology, and surgical services. The campus is also the site of construction of a new Shriner's Hospital for Children and new facilities for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

And, as a founding member of the 12-year-old CORTEX district, WUSTL has helped develop state-of-the-art facilities for bioscience and technology companies. CORTEX projects that some $2.1 billion will be invested in new research, office, clinical, residential, hotel, and retail construction. Other CORTEX members include BJC HealthCare, University of Missouri-St. Louis, SLU, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Among the new occupants in the district are employees of Washington University's Office of Technology Management and other functions involved in supporting the university's research efforts.

"The lesson of CORTEX, which will have more than 4,000 jobs within 18 months and likely far more a few years after, is that efforts like this grow slowly until they hit takeoff," said Webber, who serves as vice chairman of the CORTEX board. "It takes a long-term effort from public and private entities and a diverse array of strategies."

CORTEX serves two complementary goals, said John Hoal, PhD, chair of the Master of Urban Design Program at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. It provides opportunities for WUSTL students and faculty, and it helps create a new economy that will sustain the region for years to come.

"Washington University and the other universities are huge importers of talent. We are attracting some of the best brains in the world," said Hoal, founding principal of the design and planning firm H3 Studio. "The challenge is: How do we get these people to stay? It can't just be about affordable neighborhoods. You have to believe you can contribute. CORTEX is about that effort. It's about fostering St. Louis as a place of opportunity."

In the past, some urban universities have been reluctant to join such efforts, Hoal said. Not anymore.

"Universities used to wall themselves from their community," Hoal said. "Today, universities have to be part of a much broader community. One reason is that students demand it. More than ever, they want to be involved in the community."

The trick, stressed Webber, is to support projects that are win-win for both the university and region. The $80 million Lofts of Washington University complex in the Delmar Loop serves as an example. The project provides housing for students, but it also will bring a grocery store and a 24-hour diner—and hence, more foot traffic and tax revenue—to one of the region's most vital neighborhoods.

"The environment our students and faculty want requires that tens of thousands of non-university people chose to live here too," Webber said. "The Loop isn't supported entirely by us. The Pageant isn't there just because of our students. We have to meet an interest that is larger than the university's."

Although St. Louis and the university can be proud of the central corridor's success, much work is left to do to improve the region. Stretches of vacant buildings, especially between Tucker Boulevard and Grand Center, undermine the core's strength. The corridor also is too narrow and short, Hoal said. Next steps, he said, are to widen the corridor to include neighborhoods to the north and south and to extend it east into Illinois.

The greatest challenge, however, remains in North St. Louis city and county, where residents need more jobs and better schools. Hoal urged local leaders to find a regional solution.

It can be done. In 1972, leaders established the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District, which oversees St. Louis' world-class cultural institutions. And in 2000, voters approved the Great Rivers Greenway District, which has created miles of trails connecting the region's communities.

"We can't leave people behind," Hoal said. "Where we have chosen to act more regionally, we have been successful. That needs to be elevated if St. Louis is to be a growing, innovative place that attracts people.

"Take, for example, education. We are watching school districts go down in a spiral. We are not going to solve our educational dilemma unless we have a broader strategy for regional issues. If we could come up with that common vision, our track record shows we can outperform any city."