Spring 2009

Planner Spotlight

Livelier River Cities Unfold at the Gateway

Gateway to the West

By Tara Leigh Buckner, AICP

A trip to St. Louis, Missouri, is not complete without visiting the Gateway Arch Riverfront. The Arch is an impressive 630-foot structure symbolizing the city's rich history. Visitors taking a tram ride to the top of the Arch experience breathtaking views of the city as well as southern Illinois, which lies just across the mighty Mississippi River.

During the Steamboat Era in the latter part of the 19th century, St. Louis was the largest city in the Midwest. The facing riverfronts of St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, served as major distribution centers for trade and the final urban stop for westward travelers. Eventually, the Steamboat Era gave way to the Railroad Era, and Chicago grew larger than both cities and served as the connection point for travelers.

The growth of St. Louis and Chicago exhibits how transportation adds to a region's economic development capacity.

The Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone

St. Louis Gateway Arch on the St. Louis RiverfrontWhen Congress and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established an initiative to spur economic growth, communities on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi found common ground to create the Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone. Initially, that was not the case. In 1994, during the Round I funding process, St. Louis and East St. Louis submitted separate applications. Each community received approximately $3 million under a smaller program called the Enterprise Community. In 1998, when the Round II funding process took place, the communities worked together and submitted a joint application, which also included St. Louis County. This collaborative effort resulted in an Empowerment Zone designation for the bi-state region and $26 million in funding.  There are 15 Round II Urban Empowerment Zones across the country, and there have been 30 Urban Empowerment Zone programs in total.

The Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone is unique because it covers five local jurisdictions in two states and 22 census tracts, and comprises nearly 50,000 residents in 20 square miles. Our HUD application highlighted our commitment to grassroots involvement and regional change, as we included a volunteer resident-led Community Council to review project proposals and make recommendations to our board of directors. The vision for including the council in the application allowed grassroots involvement to take shape and flow through the process. The council provides a real voice to each project, echoing the community's desire to improve living conditions and empower residents.

Overseeing the vast amount of economic development projects through the Empowerment Zone initiative is a planner's dream. We revitalize deteriorating urban communities through tax incentives, grants, loans, technical assistance, and community outreach. Since the program started in 1999, we have received $25.6 million in HUD funding, which has leveraged more than $335 million in development projects through public and private partnerships within the near-river communities of Lemay, St. Louis, and Wellston, Missouri, and East St. Louis and Centreville, Illinois. We were able to accomplish many projects using Empowerment Zone tax-exempt bond financing and a revolving loan pool.

Development that Makes a Difference

Renaissance St. Louis Grand and Suites Hotel — Washington Avenue, Downtown St. Louis, MissouriThe Renaissance St. Louis Grand and Suites Hotel, an anchor hotel for the St. Louis Convention Center and a short walk west of the riverfront, is a sparkling jewel among redevelopment projects. The hotel covers three city blocks and represents the essence of the successful execution of the Empowerment Zone's mission to act as a catalyst for collaboration.

The hotel development project planning was first initiated by a redevelopment plan led by the City of St. Louis and Downtown Now, an organization of downtown businesses. The Empowerment Zone awarded $95 million in tax-exempt bond financing to fund the redevelopment of two vacant historic hotels. The total price tag was $267 million, with the Empowerment Zone bonds making up a third of the project cost. The project, developed by Gateway Hotel Partners LLC (involving Washington Avenue Historical Developers LLC and Historic Restoration, Inc.), was the first of the Round II Empowerment Zones to initiate the use of the bonds on a project of this magnitude to stimulate downtown urban development. Using the bonds mandated that Empowerment Zone residents make up 35 percent of the hotel's workforce, which has led to a greater presence of historically undeserved populations in the labor force. And although the recent economic downturn has adversely impacted the hotel's occupancy rate, overall, the Renaissance St. Louis Grand and Suites Hotel has more than paid for itself by spurring tremendous economic growth in downtown St. Louis.

The hotel project fostered new development that created a fresh image of downtown as a place to live, work, play, and do business. For example, Washington Avenue, a bustling garment district at the turn of the 20th century, is now a trendy loft district for young urban professionals. Additionally, personal services needed to sustain the area's growth are taking shape, making the downtown an inviting and healthy neighborhood with around-the-clock activity. Looking back a decade ago when vacant structures lined Washington Avenue, we now realize that revitalizing the appropriately named Renaissance Hotel brought a true rebirth to this area.

Take a stroll along Washington Avenue today and you will see beautifully restored 20th century architectural structures and new street designs that include decorative sidewalks, new lighting, park benches, restaurants, retail shops, residential loft living, and a vibrant nightlife. Neighboring side streets are equally vibrant, taking on their own character with trendy coffee shops, tapas restaurants, bars, and clothing stores. The area is also a hot spot for sports fans. St. Louis is home to three major league professional sports franchises: the 2006 World Series Champion Cardinals in baseball, the Rams in football, and the Blues in hockey. All the sporting stadiums are located downtown and within walking distance from Washington Avenue, the Gateway Arch, and the riverfront.

Head further west in the Empowerment Zone to St. Louis County and you will find the reemergence of a community once described as one of the most crime-ridden and impoverished areas in the region. The City of Wellston is now a shining example of what happens when Empowerment Zone funds are directed to the core of a community — its residents and workforce. In partnership with the county, careful planning went into building a job training facility closely situated to a new light rail transit system and bus station.

The Metropolitan Employment and Training Center is a one-stop shop for career building, first-time employment, assistance for needy families, GED and college-prep classes, drug counseling, and re-entry programs for ex-offenders. The area is now home to a nearby Empowerment Zone–funded business industrial park and business incubator. It is truly uplifting to see a once-neglected area transformed into a mixed-used atmosphere bustling with people, transit, and commerce.

This same scenario of transitioning a community from neglect to vitality is manifest right across the river in the Empowerment Zone area of East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis was once a rail and transportation hub for stockyards and warehouses. In 2004, the Empowerment Zone acted as a catalyst by contributing one million dollars toward the $30 million development cost for a multi-family mixed-income housing community, the first of its kind in 30 years.  A 20-acre development, Parsons Place is located near public transit and interstates, providing residents with accessible mobility options. The housing rental community has boosted homeownership on adjacent property and  created economic self-sufficiency among residents. Parsons Place has also allowed residents to enjoy the easily accessible commercial uses located within a mile of the development. This includes the State Street Plaza, a four-phase Empowerment Zone development project, complete with a chain grocery store and pharmacy, fast food restaurants, boutique clothing stores, and specialty shops to cater to resident needs.

Entertainment on the River's Edge

Parsons Place Housing Development — East St. Louis, IllinoisThe first major bond project since the Renaissance Hotel development is taking shape on the north edge of the riverfront. The Empowerment Zone is using $4.5 million in bond financing to revitalize an old warehouse district that was once home to the Laclede Gas Power Station, shipping, and rail yards. Plans are underway to build the first amphitheater on the riverfront. It will be an excellent addition to compliment the Arch grounds and Lumiere Place, a new casino, and the new Four Seasons Hotel. This project will accommodate luxury residential living, high quality restaurants, office space, and nightlife entertainment. These are first round plans to create a livelier riverfront.

As you can see, this is not one planner's story, but the story of communities that worked together to get things done. Empowerment Zone funding opened the doors for prosperity in the designated areas severely in need of economic development. Without the Empowerment Zone funding, many developments would most likely linger in the drawing board phase. The Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone is one of the only organizations in the region designed to revitalize blighted areas and spur economic growth on both sides of the Mississippi. Furthermore, the funding process includes grassroots involvement from all of its member communities and subsequently demonstrates that the best approach to regional improvement is to work on projects that will benefit a diverse group of people and communities. We are far from the finish line, but our outlook could not be brighter.

Looking Forward

Despite a lagging national economy, new projects are being developed to enhance the St. Louis region and its newfound hope. An Empowerment Zone–supported initiative will renovate an old department store building that fell into disrepair; the first major grocery store chain is slated to open later this year; and charter schools and day care centers are open for business.

With the Empowerment Zone Initiative end-date approaching on December 31, 2009, communities across the country are asking Congress to extend the funding sources to continue the revitalization projects. Empowerment Zone–designated communities are some of the poorest nationwide and many have benefited greatly from the funding this program provides.

One of the most successful experiments in creative federal economic development planning, Empowerment Zones are helping rebuild our nation's infrastructure, while designing and reimagining resilient and competitive communities.

Tara Buckner, AICP

Tara Buckner is the executive director of the Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone and was previously its community development director. Prior to her work with the Empowerment Zone, she was senior planner for the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency. In her home state of Minnesota, Ms. Buckner served as city planner for the City of Minneapolis Planning Department. Career highlights include serving as the urban planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments in Detroit.


Images: Top — St. Louis Gateway Arch on the St. Louis Riverfront. Photo Wiley Price. Middle — Renaissance St. Louis Grand and Suites Hotel — Washington Avenue, Downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Courtesy Kimberly-Clark. Bottom — Parsons Place Housing Development — East St. Louis, Illinois. Photo Wiley Price.