Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sav-A-Lot in the Gate District

Contemporary suburban designs typically don't inspire me.  Nor do they tend to add vibrancy or help form a sense of "place" that defines an area.  Yet, if the tenants of these boring contemporary strip malls bring convenience and respectable, clean stores that cater to the needs of the MIX of people living in the area (read:  highest and lowest demographics in an area), then they can serve a purpose that benefits the surrounding neighborhoods and just might add to the property values within the area.

The sea of strip malls and surface parking lots in the suburbs is part of the reason I live in St. Louis.  It is fun to live in a city that has character, and St. Louis has that in spades.  However, the city is not immune to succumbing to lazy, auto-centric planning that is so common in the 'burbs.  You'll see it rear its ugly head in nearly all part of the city.  One such auto-centric development that I've been following is the former National/Schnucks/Foodland building just north of I-44 at 1605 S. Jefferson in the Gate District Neighborhood.  This suburban property complete with a huge setback and sea of surface parking sits directly across from Lafayette Square, one of St. Louis' nicest neighborhoods.

This used to be a ~45,000 square foot grocery store opened by Kroger.  National bought it out and then Schnuck's who divested it in March, 1996.  It was sold to Family Co. of America and became a Foodland.  Folks I've spoken to who've lived in this part of the city much longer than I said the grocery store got pretty ghetto and was eventually destined for closure.  The store finally closed in 2004 when it failed to get neighborhood support for a liquor license.

The property was no doubt an eyesore.  The only thing uglier than suburban set backs, massive surface parking lots and cheap-as-possible contemporary building materials and no-design standards is empty said structures of such low quality.  Steve Patterson did 2 excellent posts on the properties in this area.  Read them here and here.

Here's what the site looked like, courtesy of UrbanReviewSTL.com:

 the old National/Schnucks/Foodland

massive surface parking lot

view of the thoughtless design and weird/dark entrance

So, when news that the property was purchased and would be re-developed by Green Street Properties and designed by local firm UIC...people in the area got excited.

The Post-Dispatch reported on this property back in November, 2011:
A grocery is high on the list of potential tenants, said Green Street's Phil Hulse, though the neighborhood likely can't support a full-size, stand-alone supermarket there. Hulse said he expects to split the building among tenants, and plans to put up a second retail building of 5,000 to 8,000 square feet. He said he's in discussion with a variety of retailers, but wouldn't name specific tenants yet.  "There's certainly a lot of voids in that market," he said. "We're out speaking to a fairly diverse group that would play well to surrounding community and would do well there."
To help fund the $6.6 million project, Green Street is asking the City of St. Louis for $1.36 million in tax increment financing, and to establish a Community Improvement District on the site, which would levy an extra 1 percent sales tax and raise $340,000. The TIF was set for a public hearing in January and will need approval by the Board of Alderman. Hulse hopes to start construction in the spring, and finish in late summer. 
A second phase would involve buying an existing retail building next door and rehabbing it - though Hulse said he doesn't yet have that building under contract.
Read the full story here.

So we subsidized this developer to the tune of >$1M...lucky them.  Let's see what became of the property and what Green Street was able to land for us to improve this vitally important part of the city.

Keep in mind this part of the city is a major sway area that can swing the pendulum toward quality contributors to the city such as Lafayette Square and Compton Heights, parts of Fox Park, McKinley Heights, the burgeoning Lafayette Avenue corridor between Jefferson and Grand.  This area is brimming with potential and needs to start aiming higher on all future developments than what the 1970s-1990s ushered in.

Additionally, this part of the city was deemed a "food desert" by the USDA, so obviously food options were needed to serve the many residents that live in these parts.

Hopes were high.  Let's aim for a development that will elevate the city, right?

Fast forward to a public meeting organized by then Alderman Kacie Starr-Triplett to engage the neighbors on Green Street's proposal.  There was a short presentation by UIC.  The building was going to be largely reused, yet stylistically re-fashioned.  I'm sure they'll do good work based on their previous work in the city.  OK, I'm listening, hoping for the best when the tenants were announced.

Then Green Street unveiled what we had all been waiting for.  A fitness club (Blast), okay, that's nice...a stand alone sandwich shop (Subway...interest fading) and then the bomb was dropped....Sav-A-Lot was to be the "anchor tenant".

What?  We subsidized a Sav-A-Lot?

This low-end discount grocer aims at the lowest demographic in the area.  They cater to cheap junk food, processed dry foods, discounted canned and frozen prepared foods and their fresh selections at the Loughborough and Jefferson location (just down the street) are days away from rotting.  This place is not good.  Trust me, I used to frequent the Loughborough location when I had little ones who drank 2 + gallons of milk a week (they had the cheapest milk in town).

The places smell horrible upon entry and they don't exactly add to the city in any meaningful way.  They are not pleasant places to shop.  They don't say: "wow, I want to live around this place".

I was not alone in my disappointment at the meeting, the neighbors:  white and black, young and old, Gate District/Fox Park/Lafayette/McKinley Heights, you name it everyone was pissed at worst, disappointed at best.  You could see it in the eyes of everyone in the room, maybe even the developers.  Try and think of a lower-end grocer...what would it be?  Aldi's is a step up for Pete's sake.

I can see subsidizing a Culinaria, Trader Joes, a Field's Foods Hub type concept (which is going in on Bohemian Hill, opening this winter, just east of here on Lafayette Ave).  But subsidizing a freakin' Sav-A-Lot?  The rug was pulled out from under the room.  The public comments ranged from anger to utter disappointment to the usual, hey its better than nothing lackeys.  But it appeared too late.  The deal was done.

Why, do we make these decisions over and over?  We aim to appease the lowest common denominator in the equation.  Just say no until something that will elevate the area comes to the table.

I realize Trader Joe's doesn't like St. Louis' numbers, but it would have been PACKED.  It would have done great, and the ghetto potential would be MUCH lower than a Sav-A-Lot.  It would have brought in people from all over the city, Downtown, South Grand, you name it.  THAT would have been worth subsidizing with our tax dollars.  That would have elevated property values.  That would have gotten the eye of potential new home owners...not a Sav-A-Lot.

Again, I'm all for subsiding quality development that will elevate the options and property values.  Stuff that'll draw home owners and quality renters to the area...not crap.  I get doing this for IKEA, not Sav-A-Lot.

This will not elevate the area by any means.  But, now that the building renovation is complete, I've got to say it looks pretty darn good.  And that alone will allow many to tout this as a success.

There was also talk of a hardware story (Ace); that would have been awesome too.  Nothing yet.  Back in May, 2012 KSDK reported on the development:

There are also plans for a hardware store, coffee shop, fitness gym and bank.

No hardware store, no coffee shop, no bank (or is HR Block the "bank"?).

The other stand alone building is now a Family Dollar store which has saturated the STL market of late.  There is a brand new, way more urban-designed one just down the street from this one in the McKinley Heights neighborhood which replace a shuttered Burger King (a step up) across from Trader Bob's Tattoo and the Way Out Club.

Sav-A-Lot is the lowest end discount grocer in our market.  They will be the "anchor tenant".  The Blast fitness is nice, we are members, it is okay.  There is an HR Block (who uses these things) that is largely vacant most of the time (except income tax season) and other vacant storefronts.

Now again, UIC did a respectable job.  It has good pedestrian access from Jefferson, decent from Lafayette.  Heck, it might be the coolest, sleekest suburban styled strip mall in the city...but the end result is still a Subway (which already existed in the now Family Dollar building).  A Wing Stop...check out their menu HERE.  Take that food desert....more junk food...a discount fitness club, HR Block and a damn Sav-A-Lot.  Thanks a lot...here's $1M Mr. Developer...we can't have nice things.  Thanks so much for considering the city of St. Louis where anything is better than nothing.  Damn shame.

But as I said, the building looks pretty damn sharp for new construction.  Here's the Subway/Wing Stop:

 fast food complete with a drive-thru window

 small outdoor seating areas

And here's the Sav-A-Lot, HR Block and Blast! Fitness building:

The various colors and building materials bring added life and interest to a formerly awful building.

The dark, hulking National front entrance was opened up and looks much better from the street and close-up; lots of windows along the front open up the building.

They also cut windows into the north wall allowing a lot of natural light into the gym.  There are treadmills on the inside facing out through the windows and they planted new trees along the north wall.

My hope is that the area continues to improve, the Sav-A-Lot eventually goes out of business and we get a new, better tenant.

There was little downsizing of the massive surface parking lots surrounding 3/4 of the main building.  But, they planted quality trees (many oaks and birch) and the lot is designed to minimize run off.  This breaks things up a bit from just a solid lot as it was before.

Trees planted along the property between the fast food shops and the filling station

The pluses are many and the building went from an eyesore with zero design to the the interesting re-skinning of the building and other contemporary touches that now exist.  Nice work.

While Green Street and UIC continue to do great work in the city (See Sheet Metal Workers/Dyna Labs building at Chouteau & Jefferson) and the amazing UIC investments in Botanical Heights and awesome designs and plans for DeTonty Street in Shaw, the tenants will be the thing most people will use to judge whether this is good or bad for the area.

What do you think?  Worth the tax subsidy? A plus, minus or neutral for folks in the Lafayette Square, Gate District, Fox Park, Compton Heights and McKinley Heights?

Now's your chance to comment and tell me how anything is better than nothing and I'm just a whiny yuppie :)

Whatever, these tenants suck...but maybe, just maybe we'll get a better use to a decent looking re-skinned strip mall in the future.  If Sav-A-Lot goes down the tubes, maybe a better grocer will step up and add to the charm of city living vs. shilling low end crap that we need like a hole in the head.

***Update December 15, 2015***

So I wanted to check in and provide an update on this strip mall after a couple year's have passed.  The Blast Fitness closed which is a bummer, I really liked that place. It has remained vacant since it's closing.

The Sav-A-Lot is awesome and I go there all the time. I was too quick to judge based on my experiences at the Jefferson/Cherokee and Loughborough/Morgan Ford locations. Their fresh food is sometimes better than the higher-end, more expensive place down the way.

The HR Block is not even open/staffed unless during tax season, or by appointment.

There is now an African-American hair supply store, and they had to install bollards in front of it to prevent cars from driving though the front to steal merchandise. There are also metal gates that are pulled down over the front windows when the business is closed.

So after giving it a couple years, was this worth the tax subsidy?


  1. I don't mind the Blast Fitness or the Subway. It's at least nice to have a fast food place close that isn't McDonald's. And as you said, I can easily walk there from Lafayette Square. I already belong to a gym in downtown, but when my agreement is up with them in November, I'm thinking of switching to Blast simply because it's closer... and it'll be easier on my budget. The Wing Stop will be ok. I can go either way on it. I do like some wings every now and then. However, the Family Dollar and the Save-A-Lot... big thumbs down unless it's a dire emergency for something. I will probably try the Field Foods down across from the Georgian instead.

  2. 1000% agreed. is Green Street the party responsible for finding tenants?

  3. not really sure how this whole fields foods thing is going to turn out, but I can see the development of that concept driving away a higher en grocer from the jeff/laff development. Also, the reason the family dollra further south of jefferson was built in an urban way was because of the form based code of McKinley Heights. The beautiful Gate District probably doesn't have one, or a very good one.

  4. I generally feel that this is better than what was there before but that it should have not received any tax incentives. Occupied strip mall>abandoned strip mall, yet an occupied strip mall, especially with these tenants won't exactly attract people to our neighborhoods. Tax incentives are overused in the city and ought to be reserved for quality developments that would not otherwise happen. While I don't know if this would've come through without the incentive and that demand might not be high enough for a good mixed use development I don't think that this really improves the quality of life here.

    And as an essentially lifelong Fox Park resident I feel like I have the credentials to say that demanding better than a save-a-lot and a family dollar is not necessarily being a yuppie. When walgreens wanted a huge suburban box at Jefferson and Russell we fought (and won) even though it is more of a middle class outfit.

  5. Is the Save-A-Lot even certain anymore? I live in the Square and have driven by/been in the development multiple times and I have not seen anything that would point to the Save-A-Lot opening. If they were going to open soon you would atleast see a 'Coming Soon' sign...

  6. The Save-A-Lot is going to open in Sept and will be the new "market styled" store. It will be much different then others you have seen. The Family Dollar is very disapointing.