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Opinion Post: Why I'm Supporting LuxLiving's Optimist Site Proposal

Typically when new development proposals are proposed, I'm neutral about them. I don't pick and choose favorites in my blog posts. I simply share what's proposed and leave it up to the public decide whether they like or dislike a project. I believe that all developments proposed, underway, or built in a City are beneficial in the long run. The Optimist International site though has caught some flack from preservationists, of which I say I'm among them in more cases than not, but this is one of the circumstances where I break from the crowd and let me explain why.

The argument right now is because the Optimist International buildings are featured on a survey and report of our architecturally significant mid century modern buildings, they should not be demolished for an apartment complex or really anything else. My argument here is that there are far better examples of mid century architecture throughout the City and County that exceed this complex's notoriety. Think of buildings like the Abbey Church, 505 Washington, Lindell Terrace, the Flying Saucer Del Taco near SLU, the Archdiocese Administration Building, the AAA Building on Lindell, or that house on Lindell just West of Debaliviere. There are other examples scattered throughout St. Louis City and County that, in my opinion, are just more significant than the Optimist International buildings. Plus, from the looks of things, the Optimist buildings have been frowning a bit in recent years.

At the two neighborhood meetings/charettes held by the developer, LuxLiving, to introduce neighbors to the project, the comment was made that neighbors thought the building was vacant and then delve into why they thought that. Things such as the "for sale" sign at the corner of Lindell of Taylor, which has been there for about 8 years now, weeds growing in the sidewalks, the occasional overgrown grass, some dirty spots on the facade, and the almost always empty parking garage and deck give the appearance that the complex is vacant.

Of course the argument could be made that the 37,000sf complex could be redeveloped into apartments or office space, but that idea, put out there by a few on social media, makes no sense without knowing the state that the building is currently in. You're talking about a building that's over 60 years old, has metal pipes, outdated electrical systems, and has such small windows that barely any light enters into the office spaces. It very much feels like a fortress. At the maximum, you could get roughly 52, 700sf apartments in the complex, but that's before you add hallways, elevators, stairways, and things like that. So the actual number would be less. And you'd have to cut new windows into the building and reorganize the floor plates since the shorter building's floors do not match up to the slightly taller building's.

So really, a developer would spend millions to acquire the complex and then spend millions more on converting a building with limited reuse potential as-is. You'd basically be building an entirely new building in the shell of the old. Redeveloping a building isn't as easy as it may sound and especially with a building built at a time when asbestos was a go-to for insulation, that just adds to the headache a redevelopment would bring.

Six years ago, the Koman Group proposed redeveloping the building into Class A office space, but having no tenant meant the undertaking, worth $9 million then ($10.3 million today), wasn't worth it. By time renovations were complete, 80% of the building would've been brand new and the look of the building would've been altered to look entirely different than it does today. So if a redevelopment into an office building didn't work then, how would it work now? Short answer: it simply wouldn't. If a single-user office tenant or developer wanted to buy the Optimist complex and turn it into modern office space, don't you think it would've been done by now? The complex has only been for sale for close to 8 years now.

With me supporting the new proposal by LuxLiving, I also look at this from the standpoint as a young person who, despite the problems St. Louis has, wishes to see St. Louis grow and be stronger. This means having continued investments into our neighborhoods that bring people, jobs, and tax revenue into the mix.

For people, the Lux proposal brings 150 apartments in studio, 1 bedroom, and 2 bedroom configurations. If you had one person for each bedroom in this building, that's 180 new residents to the Central West End. That's 180 potential new customers for the bars, restaurants, shops, and services in the neighborhood. That's 180 potential new residents to the City of St. Louis. That's 180 new residents that would add some additional street life to the neighborhood. And maybe there will be more residents in this building. I don't know. I'm just saying that the extra residents benefit the neighborhood. And with these new residents, there's the potential for more jobs being created in the neighborhood down the road from new businesses and the like.

People want to be in the Central West End, and this has been proven time and time again. The newest apartment buildings, with the exception of 100 Above the Park, are all in the high 90s in terms of occupancy. 100 Above the Park, the most expensive apartment building in the entire metro is approaching 60% leased. People who move to the Central West End do so because of the ability to have a car optional life style. You can walk to everything in the neighborhood and even take a short bike or scooter ride to get around. This demand is what drives up rental rates in the Central West End. Developers invest in the neighborhood and build these large apartment complexes because they know people want to be in the neighborhood. Lux knows this and that's why they're getting in on the game here. If no new apartment units are built, existing units rent will increase overtime as demand exceeds stock. So more apartments/housing units are needed to keep things in check and prevent rents from skyrocketing too quickly.

Lastly is tax revenue. The Optimist International club is a 501c3 non-profit organization. It has not paid a dime in taxes in the 60+ years they have been on this property. Selling the building to a private developer, in this case LuxLiving, who doesn't intend on seeking a tax abatement from the City means that this property will contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the City's tax rolls every year. That's money that will go to our schools, public safety departments, roads, and what not. It's the outcome many in St. Louis want to see as neighborhoods grow and evolve.

From an urbanist standpoint, the proposed building is a win in many aspects. It meets the requirements set in the form based code, which as adopted by the City of St. Louis in April 2013, does not create any new curb cuts, and features street-level activation on the Lindell and Taylor side. Additionally, the massing and materials are perfect too. This won't be a building clad in stucco or EIFS paneling. This will be clad in brick and metal and built with concrete, steel and wood.

Like LuxLiving's Chelsea, this project will feature a lobby bistro, open to the public, and nicely landscaped sidewalk spaces. On Taylor, small community offices, geared towards people who wish to have an address and office in the Central West End neighborhood, are planned. These are small 10 by 15 (150sf) office spaces and there are 8 of them (four on the first floor and four on a mezzanine level). The four on the first floor have walkup doors from Taylor whereas the ones inside you access from the lobby. With the exception of a fairly small blank wall on Taylor, the parking garage is hidden, so that's a benefit in my mind too.

And finally, the sale of the building will go to support Optimist International's charitable work.

So in conclusion, I am supportive of the new development proposal. I believe the current building is beyond it's usable life, which is something the Optimist Club director agrees with and has said to people at the neighborhood meetings, and that the new building will bring a higher and better usage to this key corner in the Central West End neighborhood. Not to mention the extra tax revenue from this building will benefit the City, even if it's just a couple hundred thousand dollars. Some times you have to lose some to gain some and that's exactly the case here. If it made economic sense to redevelop the existing complex, it would've been done by now.

I will be speaking in favor of the development at this Monday's Preservation Board meeting.

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