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The recently-opened Renaissance Grand Hotel and the development as a whole is a boon to the hotel industry, but even more importantly has catalyzed redevelopment of a whole neighborhood.

A CATALYST FOR DOWNTOWN REDEVELOPMENT
The Renaissance Grand Hotel:
There’s Not Another One Like It.


BY PETER DOWNS

One can hear the pride and excitement in Traci Russell’s voice as she talked about opening the new Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis. “There is not another project like it going on in the country,” she raves. Most convention hotels are functional, but not much more. The Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis combines modern facilities and amenities with the restored elegance and 1920s opulence of the historic Statler Hotel. Unlike other convention hotels, “this one has a lot of character and old world charm,” Russell says fondly.

The $265 million convention hotel project developed by Historic Restoration, Inc. (HRI) in partnership with Kimberly-Clark Corporation restored the grandeur of the original Statler Hotel, which won national design awards when it opened in 1917, while making it even grander with a deftly designed addition that brings the hotel’s room total up to 918, including 42 suites. The original building sat vacant for 13 years after becoming damaged in a fire.

Both terra cotta ornamentation on the exterior and intricate plasterwork on the interior were carefully and expertly restored. The original milk glass and aluminum lobby skylight now overlooks Capri, a three-story atrium Mediterranean-style restaurant. The original chandeliers in the famous rooftop Crystal Ballroom were replicated, and the ballroom’s 22-foot-high windows and ornate balustrades were lovingly restored.


“The addition of these rooms downtown will allow us to book more simultaneous, overlapping, and back-to-back conventions.”

Carol Moody
president,
St. Louis Convention
and Visitors Commission

“People are in awe of the beauty,” says Ronald Silverman, senior vice president and regional manager of HRI, of reactions to the Renaissance Grand, which opened on February 15, 2003.

A new ballroom facility, joined to the hotel by an underground concourse, houses the 20,200-square-foot Majestic Ballroom, which provides table seating for up to 1,700 guests. The Irish-made carpet is said to be the largest nonrepeating carpet ever loomed. The new ballroom facility, with a total of 30 meeting rooms, also features an 11,000-square-foot Landmark ballroom.

According to Carol Moody, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, convention planners around the country were waiting for this hotel to open before they took a look at St. Louis. “The addition of these rooms downtown will allow us to book more simultaneous, overlapping, and back-to-back conventions,” she says. “With more than one headquarters hotel (the Adam’s Mark is the other), we can accommodate more groups needing 1,000 to 1,500 rooms on their peak night. America’s Center can already accommodate more than one convention of that size.”

Since 2000, developers have increased the supply of hotel rooms downtown by 67 percent, adding 2,000 new rooms to the existing base of 3,000, and almost all the new rooms are in historic landmarks.

“One of the very important things convention planners look for is hotel rooms in close proximity to the convention center so they can reduce shuttle bus costs,” Moody says. “With the Renaissance Grand, we can commit a minimum of 5,000 hotel rooms downtown to any one convention, or two or three, as opposed to 3,000 and the rest at the airport or Westport. We now have conventions booked out as far as 2012, and tentative bookings through 2015, and we’ve had convention planners tell us they would not even be looking at St. Louis if not for that hotel.”


"If we go from 33 meetings to 60 meetings a year, that is another 100 nights of business for downtown restaurants."

Michael Jones
executive director,
St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone

Michael Jones, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone and a certified sports fan, credited the Renaissance Grand with helping St. Louis land two NCAA Final Four tournaments, in 2004 and 2005. “We always had the convention center, but we never had a chance at those before,” he says.

“We’re at a really good point,” he adds. “The number of hotel rooms we have now supports a convention center the size of America’s Center.”

The convention hotel project actually is more than one hotel, and its importance to downtown goes beyond the hotel industry. The project consisted of work on three other buildings in addition to the Renaissance Grand. The historic Lennox Hotel adjacent to America’s Center was renovated into a 165-room Renaissance St. Louis Suites Hotel. The Lennox, which opened in 1929, was designed by Preston Bradshaw, the architect of the House and Senate Buildings in Washington, D.C. HRI carefully restored the lobby’s marble floor, patched and replaced its dark mahogany woodwork, restored and sealed bronze elevator doors, and refurbished the extensive plaster ornamentation. Both the Lennox and Statler buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.


The restored elegance and 1920s opulence is captured in the lobby and three-story atrium restaurant.

The Renaissance St. Louis Suites hotel sits across Washington Ave. from the Renaissance Grand and adjacent to America’s Center itself. Across Ninth Street from the Grand is the hotel’s new ballroom and meeting center. Behind it, HRI developed a new 10-story garage for 880 cars, with first floor retail space.

This four-building project has catalyzed redevelopment of a whole neighborhood. Across Tenth Street from the meeting center, HRI renovated the historic Merchandise Mart building. The massive one-time warehouse building, which takes up a whole city block, now houses 213 apartments and first floor retail space. Further up Washington Avenue, other developers are turning other vacant century-old warehouses and factories into living spaces, linking the convention center development to an established area of loft conversions four blocks away. A $17.5 million streetscape project is intended to further strengthen that activity.

One block behind the Renaissance Grand, the Old Post Office district is seeing signs of new life, too. Construction workers are converting old office space into living space, and there are plans for a boutique hotel and, in the Old Post Office itself, for an urban campus for Webster University.

“That wouldn’t be happening without the Renaissance Grand,” Silverman says.

“We wanted a project that would be catalytic for downtown redevelopment,” says Jones, who, as deputy mayor of development for Mayor Clarence Harmon, championed HRI’s convention hotel proposal. A competing proposal from Mesirow Stein and Hilton Hotels to convert St. Louis Centre and the attached Dillard department store building into a convention hotel reminded Jones of Detroit’s Renaissance Center. “It is a great building,” he says, “but a terrible one for an urban center, because it keeps everyone off the street...HRI had a neighborhood redevelopment approach. It got people on the street, which is the key to getting energy downtown.”

RCGA president and CEO Dick Fleming, a member of the mayor's selection committee, which picked the HRI team notes, “Pres Kabacoff and his HRI team presented an opportunity to revitalize an entire district, in addition to producing a competitive convention headquarters hotel for St. Louis.”

He further notes, “This development is another vivid illustration of the return on investment of Missouri’s Historic Preservation Tax Credits, without which, this private investment would not have occurred.”

The Renaissance Grand also boosts downtown residential development, Jones says. Thousands of apartments and condominiums are under construction or planned in downtown, but to actually attract residents, downtown will have to offer services residents want. The Renaissance Grand creates a base for those services. “If we go from 33 meetings to 60 meetings a year, that is another 100 nights of business for downtown restaurants,” Jones says. “If a restaurateur looking at downtown sees there is only traffic for 100 nights of business a year, that is not enough to locate downtown. But if the traffic there is traffic for 200 nights a year, it makes sense. Once you have restaurants and nightspots open downtown, someone can say ‘if I lived downtown, I’d have access to these restaurants.’ It really does take a synergy of residents, businesses, and travelers to get energy downtown.”


“It will be a social gathering place, like hotels along Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Madison and Fifth Avenues in New York. That’s something we haven’t had. It will be the place to go before or after a game, or before or after a movie or show.”

Ronald Silverman
senior vice president and
regional manager, HRI

The hotel can become a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment because it is always open, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, Silverman says. The Renaissance Grand will have a Starbucks, a three-meal-a-day restaurant, and the Grand Lobby bar. “It can become a meeting and greeting place for people downtown,” Silverman says. “It will be a social gathering place, like hotels along Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Madison and Fifth Avenues in New York. That’s something we haven’t had. It will be the place to go before or after a game, or before or after a movie or show.”

The Renaissance Grand has salespeople operating from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC. They are booking conventions from planners who never looked at St. Louis before, and they hope to grow the business more each year.

“We have the ability to draw new business to St. Louis, but the revitalization effort has to continue. People planning conventions look at the quality of the headquarters hotel and the quality of the convention center, but they also look at restaurants in the area and things to do.” That means, Moody says, that the hotel should not be the end, but only the beginning.


Peter Downs is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.
 

 

 


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