St. Louis Escapes Its Rust-Belt Past In downtown St. Louis, the opening of the new Busch Stadium is the latest effort to beautify and improve an area that once was called an eyesore and a tragedy. More than 50 businesses have opened in the area, where residential lofts are booming and major projects are building excitement in St. Louis.
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St. Louis Escapes Its Rust-Belt Past

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St. Louis Escapes Its Rust-Belt Past

St. Louis Escapes Its Rust-Belt Past

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From the suburbs to the city now and a story about a downtown renaissance in St. Louis. The city has a new baseball stadium and millions of dollars have been put into new downtown housing. In the past, big redevelopment projects did not turn out as boosters had hoped in St. Louis. But city leaders say this revival will serve as a lesson to other rust-belt cities with decaying downtowns.

From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Matt Sepic reports.

MATT SEPIC reporting:

By the early '80s, St. Louis' old garment district on Washington Avenue was in such poor shape, so down at the heels, that movie producers thought it would be a great stand-in for an apocalyptic Manhattan of the future. In Escape from New York, Kurt Russell machine guns his way through this city, which in the movie has become a giant prison colony.

(Soundbite of Escape From New York)

SEPIC: But now St. Louis's historic warehouses and office buildings are attracting more than just Hollywood location scouts. Lots of nightclubs and restaurants have opened and developers have turned many of the sprawling structures into condos and apartments.

All this activity has drawn more than a thousand new residents downtown in the last five years, including Mark and Meg Boyco(ph). The couple in their mid-20s recently moved back to St. Louis from, as it happens, Manhattan. They share a spacious loft apartment with big concrete columns and 16-foot ceilings.

Mr. MARK BOYCO (Downtown St. Louis Resident): Part of it was practical reasons. We didn't have a car in New York. And if we didn't live downtown in St. Louis, we would need to buy two cars starting out.

Ms. MEG BOYCO (Downtown St. Louis Resident): It's a wonderful place for a young professional who works downtown to live. Like, you can't get better.

SEPIC: Civic boosters in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati have been talking the talk of urban renaissance for years. New sport stadiums, museums and art centers have made those downtowns look better, but they still lack the hustle and bustle St. Louis is trying for.

Dick Fleming, who heads the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, cites three billion reasons why things will be different here. He says that money spent in recent downtown development goes well beyond big public projects.

Mr. DICK FLEMING (St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association): This isn't simply a matter of a couple of mega structures going up in a downtown and declaring victory. This is a block by block, building by building revitalization.

SEPIC: Fleming says good public policy is driving much of this. Like about half the states, Missouri grants investors a 25 percent tax credit when they fix up historic buildings. Ohio lawmakers are considering a similar plan and Cincinnati Developer Tim Voss says it could make all the difference on a rehab project he wants to do.

Mr. TIM VOSS (Cincinnati Developer): If the state credit passed, it would go from where it is now, which is a marginal deal and banks aren't going to want to get involved in marginal deals, to a really economically sound deal that I think I could get financed.

SEPIC: Voss says there is a residential future for old, rust-belt central business districts. And those places are attracting homebuyers, even as Americans continue their exodus to the suburbs and beyond. But in St. Louis, Business Analyst Julie Neiman says for downtown to be a neighborhood that attracts more than just yuppies, it needs to support businesses beyond art galleries and nightclubs, ones like dry cleaners and full-service grocery stores.

Ms. JULIE NEIMAN (Business Analyst, St. Louis): You need a concentration of population before it definitely makes sense. That isn't there yet. Until you get a good concentration of population, you're not going to have the support services.

SEPIC: Joel Kotkin with the New America Foundation agrees. He says urban St. Louis's real strength is anywhere but the central business district.

Mr. JOEL KOTKIN (New America Foundation): Downtown concrete block living seems to be a little bit of a hard sell to me. Livable, affordable neighborhoods that have a kind of urban feel but are very green, that's where St. Louis comes out ahead.

SEPIC: And one of those neighborhoods, or even a suburb, will probably be where loft dwellers Mark and Meg Boyco wind up. With their first child on the way, Meg says driving three or four miles just to buy groceries or rent a movie is getting old.

Ms. BOYCO: It seems nice, but then it's like, are people going to grow old here? You know, are they going to really stick around and have a family in a loft or are they just gonna, is it going to be people moving in and out for three years at a time, maybe, while they get established and then bump into the suburbs.

SEPIC: But downtown rehab and building is still going strong in St. Louis, with another billion dollars being pumped in this year. The one thing all the big projects have in common is housing, a lot more apartments and condos. Civic leaders here hope those will continue to draw residents and that the rebirth of St. Louis's downtown can be replicated in other older American cities.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.

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