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Collage of photos taken from the Downtown Loft Tour with Ventana Lofts (1635 Washington Avenue) in the background.

LOFT WORKING, LIVING, PLAYING

By James Nicholson

Lofts are suddenly synonymous with the new urban lifestyle. They provide a spacious expanse of open space, high ceilings and lots of windows. They’re usually inhabited by committed new urban pioneers who set the trend, rather than follow it. Maestro David Robertson lives in a loft. So does Les Sterman, director of East West Gateway Coordinating Council. Washington Avenue has moved from a street of empty warehouses to anchor the burgeoning loft and club district. The next step in urban loft and housing development is quite logical, but may surprise you.


Tony Thompson,
president and CEO,
Kwame Development

Tony Thompson, president and CEO of Kwame Development, looks out the window of his office to the street below and muses, “We were the first fully occupied building on Washington. When I moved the offices here the street was empty. That was before the repaving, too. Now look at it.” There’s street and sidewalk traffic in both directions on view. “You should see it at lunch time,” Thompson grins. “We’re very proud to be part of the future of St. Louis.

Thompson moved his offices from Clayton and admits his workers were skeptical at first. They were quickly won over. “Downtown offers more real estate for the buck,” Thompson explains while exhibiting his office’s kitchen and lounge area. “There’s more open space to work which provides for greater creativity. We’ve had receptions for the Governor and the Mayor. It’s a very convenient space with an ample work area.”

Oh, yes. It is a loft. The higher floors house eight residential lofts. Business and trendy living coexist vertically. One of the tenants, Thompson relates, lives in Atlanta and uses his loft as both an office and as a residence. That seems to be an interesting trend. A new building Thompson has proposed developing is designed for 17 residential units. A prospective tenant has already proposed purchasing an entire floor for office space. That’s a trend that’s evolving. Thompson, coining a phrase, notes that people are now “condo-izing” their lofts.


Andy Hillin,
principal,
Jacob Development Group

Andy Hillin, the principal of the Jacob Development Group (in his office, in another loft a few doors down the street) provides a concise description of the benefits of lofts as office space. “They emphasize the inherent structure of what are, in essence, historical warehouse and manufacturing buildings. They have high ceilings and wooden beams. The walls are exposed brick. The floors are stained concrete. They have a unique character and are much more appealing than normal office buildings, which tend to have lower ceilings, not as many windows and are made of steel and concrete, not timber and brick.”

He goes on to explain that the “working environment as well as the attitude picks up” in a loft office. “They’re open, airy and non-traditional. (Because of their) flexibility, they provide (workers) more enjoyment and productivity picks up. A lot of businesses like that,” he understates with a knowing grin.

He knows his product. “All loft developments,” he explains have a commercial component on the first floor.” Now further commercial components are becoming a viable element for loft development. “Some people live and have their offices (complete with small staff) in the same space. Companies like U.S. Bank have entire units operating out of loft space offices. A graphics design firm occupies a second floor space, while there’s an art gallery on the first floor. Retailers live on the second floor while their businesses occupy the first. The possibilities seem endless and Hillin concurs. “We see a lot of offices in buildings with residences. They’re not just one (kind of space) or the other. There’s a lot of mix.”


Steve Smith, co-founder of The Lawrence Group, joins Mayor Slay in recent opening of the renovated Marquette Building

Add to the mixture the developments of The Lawrence Group. “We’re expanding the downtown residential lifestyle beyond lofts,” explains co-founder Steve Smith. “For five years, all downtown residential development consisted of loft-style spaces. Not until the Marquette Building have non-loft downtown residential condos become available.”

Smith views loft-livers as “young, creative and very urban,” but feels there’s a “large segment of people who desire the urban lifestyle,” but feel that lofts are not for them. He immediately cites lawyers and corporate executives and others desiring a more traditional home environment.

Not that he disdains the loft livers and developers (“they’re absolute pioneers”), but he does want to make explicit that, due to The Lawrence Group, there now exists an alternative downtown living environment. “Our units are fully finished, not lofty. They follow traditional (two to three bedroom, et cetera) housing unit patterns.”

“We now can offer lifestyle opportunities not available in smaller developments,” he states, citing The Lawrence Group’s new Park Pacific Development, which will be anchored by the old Missouri Pacific Building. “It will have a doorman, a swimming pool, a restaurant with room service, a dry cleaner, a wine cellar, a spa, an in-house auto valet. A thirty-unit building simply cannot afford such services,” he observes. If that isn’t enough of an incentive, the new portion of Park Pacific will offer floor to ceiling glass, downtown views, contemporary construction, gas ranges and fireplaces and abundant covered parking.

He finds the new opportunities “tremendously exciting,” because “they broaden the appeal” of living downtown. “Do you know that downtown you can select a new restaurant every day of the month that’s within walking distance?”

“If you travel around the country,” Smith observes, “you’ll find lots of other cities—Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Austin—with lots of downtown housing and a busy downtown.” He feels the market is demographically driven with the children of baby boomers being the loft-living pioneers and the empty-nester boomers themselves embracing the new urbanism in downtown condos.

If so, now that downtown as a neighborhood is not only established, but growing and larger projects such as the Bottle District and Ballpark Village loom on the horizon, downtown residents will be able to both work and play within walking distance of their ultra-urban homes.

THE PLACE TO BE


Pat and Jeff Nudi, loft owners

St. Louis is on the move. Since 2003, 31 new restaurants and 26 new retail stores have opened their doors. This happened because more and more people have made the leap to downtown living.

“According to a report by Steve Smith of the Lawrence Group,” says Joe Ambrose, First Bank Regional President, “only 3,800 people lived downtown. Now, there are approximately 10,000 with a projected population of 18,000 by 2010.”

Originally from Buffalo, NY, Pat and Jeff Nudi moved to the Terra Cotta Lofts two and a half years ago from their Benton Park house, which they bought because they needed a yard for their dog.


Casa Semplice, downtown

“When our dog passed on, we made the move,” Nudi says.

A principal at Cannon Design, Nudi now walks to work. “The cleaners is on the way, so I can drop off my shirts. I travel a lot so I walk to MetroLink and take it to the airport.”

His wife, Pat, likes it because of their proximity to Savvis Center. “We’re Blues season ticket holders, and it’s so nice to be able to walk there, or to any sports event.”

And they got another dog, a toy Fox Terrier which is litter-box trained!

Miguel Cotignola moved to the Railway Lofts from his West County home in 2004. “I like the environment, the mix of people, the location, the size and the fact that it’s low maintenance. I grew up in a flat in Madrid, Spain, so the loft feels like home to me.”

Chuck Cantrell’s opened Casa Semplice, an “urbanized” kitchen wares store, in August of last year.

“We moved here because it was a developing community,” he says. “We have a competitive product and we need to be in a market that has the right diversity and income mix, and St. Louis has that.”

ABOUT DOWNTOWN

Neal Peirce, keynote speaker, 2005 RCGA Leadership Trip, October 2005: “Now, praise the Lord, the center city certainly does seem to be on a recovery path. The turnaround of downtown St. Louis over the past eight years is the most significant I have ever witnessed.”

The New York Times, March 31, 2006, reporter Larry Friedman: “St. Louis has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1972, when the spectacular demolition of its high-rise Pruitt-Igoe housing project became an indelible symbol of urban decline. Young professionals drawn to new biotech and medical research industries, as well as a new wave of immigrants from places like Bosnia, are bringing new life to neighborhoods that last thrived a century ago. New loft districts, old civic jewels and revitalized night life are making the old refrain of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ a welcome phrase again.”

Associated Press, April 10, 2006: “Invest-ment is growing at an unprecedented pace. In 2004, the city had $341 million in downtown investment. That grew to $590 million in 2005, and downtown boosters are predicting $1 billion in investment for 2006.”

GO FIGURE


Downtown Facts and Figures as provided by
The Downtown St. Louis Partnership

  • Between 2000 and 2005, downtown St. Louis added 1,594 residential units, nearly all of them lofts.

  • In 2006 alone, downtown will nearly double that number, with another 1,392 lofts scheduled to come on-stream.

  • And in 2007, another 1,410 are scheduled to come on the market, for a tripling in two years.

  • In 2006, new construction will join rehabilitation for the first time, with several new mid-and high-rise condominium towers scheduled to break ground.

  • The residential population of downtown—8,500 in 2000—is projected to more than double to nearly 18,000 in 2008.

  • In the last three years, almost 60 new restaurants and retail establishments with 150,000 square feet have opened.

  • Another 250,000 square feet is scheduled to open in 2006 and 2007, and about 750,000 more is being planned.

  • The original plan for downtown’s rejuvenation, completed in 1999, called for $1.2 billion in public and private investment by 2006. In fact, more than $3.7 billion has already been invested, a figure that will grow to $4 billion by year’s end.
These figures far exceed what cities like Denver and Cleveland, both known for the restoration of their downtowns, were able to generate in a comparable period.
 

 

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(clockwise); Tom Reeves, Rodney Crim, Jim Cloar and Barbara Geisman,
Ballpark Village
Schupp Co.
Earl Bingham

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Pinnacle
Red Moon
Mayor Francis Slay
Carlos Pereira

 


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