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Downtown West Reborn: A Visit to Centene Stadium

St. Louis gets a soccer team and a world-class stadium campus while Downtown West becomes the city's next "hot" neighborhood.

For roughly 2.5 years, construction workers have been hard at work delivering a long-awaited facility to the St. Louis sports scene - Centene Stadium. Soccer fans and normal St. Louisans alike have waited, and continue to wait, in anticipation of the new stadium to open so they can see their new hometown team, St. Louis City SC, play their inaugural season.

The site of Centene Stadium and team practice facilities were once home to a former highway interchange. The 22nd Street interchange was the largest remnant of the unbuilt highway 755 (north-south distributor) which was proposed to be built starting from Interstates 44 and 55 in Lafayette Square, linking up to I-64 in Downtown West, and up to I-70 in North City. For years, the interchange sat as a blackhole, disconnecting the rest of Downtown from the greater Central Corridor and serving as a reminder of the clearance of Mill Creek Valley that took place here in the mid-1900s.

Ever since 2016, this area of Downtown West has been eyed for a soccer stadium. In the 2016-2017 MLS2STL plan, the stadium would've sat south of Market Street. That plan faded away after voters failed to pass a ballot measure in the April 2017 municipal election, which would've helped fund a new stadium by redirecting money from a sales tax meant to help fund a new MetroLink line. In 2019, when Carolyn Kindle Betz resurrected MLS2STL under the new name MLS4TheLou, the stadium location flipped to north of Market Street with practice fields going south creating an urban campus unlike anything in the MLS.

The bid for being awarded one of the MLS's final franchises paid off when, in August 2019, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that St. Louis would be home to the 28th MLS team. In August of 2020, the team's name, St. Louis City SC, was announced.

Looking down on Centene Stadium. Market Street is on the top, 22nd Street (future) is on the right, Olive Street is on the bottom, and 20th Street is on the left.

Plans for the stadium called for a modern and clean stadium consisting of 22,500 seats and a year-round events venue originally known as the South Bar (now known as the Michelob Ultra Club). The stadium, designed by HOK and Snow Kreilich, is designed to be expanded up to 25,000 seats in the future if need be. Construction began in the spring of 2020 following MoDOT handing the land over to City SC. Centene Stadium, and the greater City SC campus, was built without a single penny in taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Beginning in November 2020, I followed construction progress with my own drone and documented, in fly around videos, as the site went from a muddy hole in the ground to a bright and clean stadium. In August 2022, as construction crossed over the 95% completion mark, I got the opportunity to tour the new state-of-the-art stadium and I'm happy to showcase bits of it here. Let's take a long-awaited, and highly anticipated, visit to Centene Stadium.

A Light and Bright Stadium

It's hard to not notice Centene Stadium when driving, walking, running, or biking by it in Downtown West. The Stadium's clean white facade, stainless steel ceilings, and bluish-tinted glass grab your attention when passing by.

The color scheme of the stadium, in my view, has a double job. It makes the stadium feel clean while also making it feel light and airy. No matter where you walk, whether it's inside the stadium or outside, it seems to be very delicate. Multiple entrances, open concourses, and other components help keep this delicate look alive, but don't let that fool you. Up close, the steel beams that hold up the distinct stainless-steel ceilings and large roof structures, which have their own double purpose, are huge.

The roof system helps cover most of the stadium's seating areas, but the ceilings are designed to amplify sound. As part of a game day experience, soccer fans, all 22,500 of them, will be able to make noise and be heard. The ceilings also conceal electrical wiring for the lights and speakers. Beyond aesthetics, you're never too far away from the pitch either as each seat is no further than 120ft away meaning that every seat is a good seat to see the action.

Navigating is easy too thanks to wider concourses and large wayfinding signs located across the stadium. Most concourses feature open areas where, if you're walking to a concession stand or restroom, you can still watch the game. Most railings feature small shelves where you can set a drink and stand. One thing I noticed is that most concession stands were a short walk away from any particular seating area.

It's entirely possible that during game day, certain areas within the stadium will be gathering spaces so fans can socialize, enjoy a drink and enjoy the game. From my observations, the four corners of the stadium appear primed for this since they're more open than the concourses and most feature a small bar or concession stand as well as areas to stand around.

I was told that through the City SC mobile app, you'll be able to place an order at any concession stand and pick it up to avoid long lines. A point about being contactless and cashless was made clear as it can expedite the process and keep business running efficiently. Operators for certain concession stands will soon be made known, but you can expect local favorites to show up.

A Neighborhood Booms

Not pictured: The Boxyard at JCMidtown, AHM's 2200 block of Locust historic building redevelopments, the Butler Brothers building rehab, and the City SC parking garage and HQ.

Outside of the stadium, you'll find a flurry of activity branching out in most directions. Simply put, Downtown West is on the move and it's moving fast.

Head two blocks east and you'll find the Butler Brothers Building undergoing a massive redevelopment into 384 apartments and some retail space. Heading north on 18th Street, the Lofts at the Hupp was recently completed, the redevelopment of 1800 Washington is moving ahead, and the new building at 1801 Washington is gearing up for construction.

Heading just north of the stadium, AHM Group shocked most people when they revealed a $200 million+ project back in June that includes the redevelopment of four historic buildings, the construction of two smaller multi-family buildings, and the construction of what will be the world's tallest timber building. Northwest of the Stadium, JCMidtown is slowly taking shape with the Malone apartments recently opening in the redeveloped Beaumont Telephone Exchange building on Locust. Five new restaurants will open in JCMidtown later this year and planning is underway for a 7-story apartment building and accompanying Boxyard development (additional office and retail space).

Directly west of Centene Stadium, Midas has a 9-story multi-family building planned on the 2300 Block of Chestnut and is apparently getting ready to begin construction on two hotels at the Wells Fargo campus (one being a Kimpton and the other a Staybridge Suites). And south of the stadium, City SC's team HQ is coming along in an older building down near I-64, the practice fields have been built along with a team training building and a pavilion structure on Market Street.

The planned developments total around 1500 apartment units, 300 hotel rooms, and well over $475 million in investment.

A Reminder of the Past

City SC, along with Great Rivers Greenway, is honoring the former Mill Creek Valley neighborhood by placing a monument along Market Street. The monument sits at the southwest entrance to the stadium at 22nd and Market and features 8 pillars situated inside of three outlines of where houses used to stand. Each house outline will feature the name of a resident who lives at that address. It's a simple monument, but it's a haunting one when you realize that these three houses were just the few of the 5600 that were cleared beginning in 1954.

Land clearance in the city is predominantly rooted in racism and classicism as the neighborhoods that were cleared were either predominantly poor or black. Mill Creek Valley, Carr Square, Kosciusko were three neighborhoods that were entirely, or mostly, demolished to make way for highways, parking lots, and office and industrial buildings. Other neighborhoods were bulldozed for failed public housing projects, like Pruitt Igoe, or bulldozed for the Arch Park (the Riverfront). Lives were uprooted when these events took place and to this day, St. Louis is still feeling the negative effects of such efforts. But the inclusion of the Mill Creek Valley monument serves as a reminder of these acts that are still talked about today and will continue being talked about well into the future.

While efforts continue to be made to rebuild Mill Creek Valley in some form, most of it sits underutilized thanks to parking lots, suburban style office buildings, warehouses and highways. The area, which goes from Grand to 20th and roughly Olive to Chouteau, unfortunately may never again see the density, or life, it once had thanks to the mistakes made in the past.

The Neighborhood Transformed

When you couple City SC's multi-block campus with the other mixed-use projects in the area, it's clear to see that Downtown West is on track to be transformed. But in many ways, it already has been.

The removal of the 22nd Street interchange and construction of the City SC campus single-handedly transformed Downtown West and helped better connect it to the Central Corridor. The intention, from the beginning, was for City SC's investment to make Downtown West into the next great neighborhood in the city. When this was announced, some scoffed at the idea saying that a stadium and practice fields would do little to help with the mission. Now looking at the grander picture, it's clear that the mission is becoming a reality.

City SC does intend to keep Lou Fusz Plaza active throughout the year with special fairs, farmers markets, and community events. The Michelob Ultra Club will also be home to events like weddings, conferences, and E-Sports events.

I'm happy to have visited Centene Stadium and see it before soccer fans pack the stands and start creating new memories. Beginning in March 2023, new memories and history will be made in a facility built for those who have waited for this moment for a very long time. I've enjoyed watching the stadium go up and transform the neighborhood and now I'll be able to attend a game and watch the neighborhood grow and develop around Centene Stadium. The future of Downtown West is here and I'm excited about it in more than one way.

The gallery below includes a few more photos of Centene Stadium and the City SC campus along with a few interior photos.


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