The Scene: DeBaliviere Transit Oriented Developments Begin Making an Impact
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
The two transformational transit oriented developments (TOD) on DeBaliviere Avenue between Forest Park Parkway and Waterman, are starting to make their impact, and in a big way. Both projects border the Forest Park-DeBaliviere MetroLink station, which acts as the transfer and split-off point for the Red and Blue Lines.
The Expo at Forest Park (287 units) and the Hudson (155 units) offer three buildings replacing three underutilized lots. Expo is perhaps the most transformational of the two as it replaces a surface parking lot and rundown strip mall. Hudson replaces a former restaurant building at the Northeast corner of DeBaliviere and Pershing. Together though, they offer a well deserved transformation of a corner that once welcomed people to a thriving DeBaliviere strip. With the promise of bringing neighborhood amenities and hundreds of new residents, both Expo and Hudson will link two neighborhoods, DeBaliviere Place and Skinker-DeBaliviere, that were divided for decades by underutilized parcels.
Now, after months of construction on both projects, their true impact has started to be felt before any of them have even reached the halfway point (in both their height and construction).
At the Hudson, a yellow tower crane, visible from Forest Park, Southbound DeBaliviere, and other locations in the near vicinity, is the biggest reminder of the changes on the way to the area. Big Sur Construction's crew, which is the contractor building the Hudson, just began framing the 4th of 6 total floors. This comes just a little over a month since the precast parking garage piece was completed and a tower crane was erected on site. A few windows have also been installed. Across the street, construction on the Expo is also beginning to speed up.
The steel superstructure for both the North and South buildings of the complex are mostly complete. As such, framing for the upper floors of both building should begin soon and could top out towards the end of the year or into early next year, which isn't an unexpected time-frame considering other recent apartment buildings to go up around town.
In terms of building design for the Hudson, it takes on a more traditional style due to it being in a historic district, but gray brick and lighter colors should make it look modern than the recently built Chelsea down Pershing.
The Hudson is designed by VE Design Group and the Expo is designed by Trivers and HOK with interior design by RD Jones.
"The main approach on Expo is two-fold"
When looking at the elevation for the Expo at Forest Park, it's clear that the architects thought hard about creating a scale that was appropriate for the neighborhood. As evidenced, the buildings step down from a maximum height of 89ft-8in at the MetroLink station on the South end of the site to 42ft at Waterman at the North end of the site.
Trivers Principal Joel Fuoss went into detail regarding the design of the Expo at Forest Park buildings as well as some of the historic significance of the site and neighborhood. "The main approach on Expo is two-fold", Fuoss said and then elaborated what he means by that, starting first by explaining that this is a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) development.
"One: This is a true TOD development incorporating rail (two lines), bus, auto (ride share, private, and commuter), bicycle/scooter, and of course pedestrian connections. The sub-grade and ground floor circulation takes all of these modes into account in how one interacts with both structures creating sensible, safe, active, and beautiful street level presence. It’s an appropriate site to be developed as it was the entry to Forest Park with rail for the World’s Fair. Even the angled pool deck and orientation is not only to give views to the southeast, but also giving a nod to the streetcar line that once cut across this site as it headed west."
"Two: These structures are a part of a historic neighborhood and need to respond as such. Architectural massing is critical in making sure a building “fits”; I’d argue even more so than materiality or architectural style. The “stepping” you elude to is to achieve the monumental presence at the station edge, creating a “marker” for the station and gateway to the park (zoning code actually allowed a taller building, but wanted to keep the building closer in scale) then steps down to connect to the scale of the neighborhood. You see this in site planning between the two structures, elevating from 4 stories on the north edge along Waterman, to eight stories (technically seven as the top story is a mezzanine) to the southern edge".
Fuoss continues, "The south building itself steps down within its own footprint to connect down to DeGiverville while bringing the feeling of the Park “up” to the amenity deck and the private terraces where one can occupy the exterior of the building with elevated views. These moves in composite are intended to create a development that responds both to modern residential needs while being respectful and sensitive to the rich architectural history that surrounds."
It was mentioned during neighborhood meetings that there would be a few walk-up style apartment units on the first floor of the South building along DeGiverville. Those are still part of the plan.
Amenities for the Neighborhood
Central West End-based LuxLiving CEO Vic Alston says that the Hudson will bring a new retail space to the corner of DeBaliviere and Pershing. "The hope is that we get a restaurant in there, and that's very likely at this point. We want a tenant that will appeal to the demographic of people who are living in the neighborhood, which are up and coming 25-35 year olds, as well as visitors".
At the Expo, developer Jeff Tegethoff says that his development will have a focus on neighborhood amenities. "I'm excited to say that a grocery store has signed a letter of intent for 15,000sf of space in the North building." Jeff continued that, "the grocery store will offer premium and healthy products for everyone in the neighborhood". Beyond just the grocery store, Jeff said that a 3000sf fitness studio has a letter of intent on space in the North building as well. A formal announcement on the grocery store operator is expected within 45 days. With the grocery store and fitness studio, 18,000sf of the 24,300sf, or 74%, of the retail space in the North building will be leased upon opening. The entire Expo development will include 30,100sf of space.
Additional public amenities include safety improvements utilizing CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design). With CPTED, the public can expect the public spaces (sidewalks and plazas) to be designed with safety in mind. That means it will be well lit, generously landscaped, security cameras will be around, and storefronts will be generously sized to allow people to see out to the street. The official description of CPTED (pronounced sep-ted) is, "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a multi-disciplinary approach of crime prevention that uses urban and architectural design and the management of built and natural environments. CPTED strategies aim to reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas, reduce crime, and minimize fear of crime."(CPTED.net). Other things to note are that there will be plenty of bike racks in addition to a welcoming plaza for users of the Metrolink and people arriving by bus.
Nearby neighbor Tony Nipert is excited about these projects and the potential they bring to the neighborhood. He wishes them well. "I hope that the projects are highly successful and lease up quickly, both in terms of residential and retail units. More residents means more demand for a retail corridor along DeBaliviere and the East Loop. This is the last piece in the puzzle for a 15-minute neighborhood and a community that is truly walkable."
Both Alston and Tegethoff talked about that they hope that their developments will help improve the walkability and "the 15-minute neighborhood" factors in the neighborhood over the coming years by adding enough density to support new shops, restaurants and amenities that people can walk to instead of drive.
Both developments received their share of criticism from proponents of affordable housing in turn for city-backed tax incentives. The Expo, though, received the most criticism due to a $12.6 Million TIF (short for tax increment financing) being requested, and issued, to help back the costs of the infrastructure for the development along with a CID (worth $2.8 million) being established and a sales tax exemption (worth $1.5 million) on building materials approved.
"The TIF is justified due to the public infrastructure and safety improvements that we are bringing to the area as a result of the project," says Jeff Tegethoff, "We came into the project assessing the conditions, which were blighted and highly underutilized. Additionally, an agreement with Bi-State, which owned the site the South building is rising on, was made to include parking for users of MetroLink. Without the TIF, or CID, the project may not have been feasible".
Proponents of affordable housing though made it clear on social media that a provision should've been put in place to include a minimum number of affordable housing units in exchange for the TIF, especially when the building will feature amenities members of the public will never be able to use. When pressed on this, Tegethoff said, "I'm a firm believer in affordable housing and look at the opportunity every time we do a project. For the Expo, we conducted an internal analysis, and hired an outside consultant to do their own analysis, of the neighborhood and found that the neighborhood is sufficient with affordable housing. And while that’s not the thing all people want to hear, the numbers don’t lie". He continued by saying, “Sure, there's been several new luxury buildings that have gone up on Pershing, but there are still a lot of affordable options that help balance everything out".
A neighbor to both projects, and who would like to remain anonymous, had this to say about the issuance of tax incentives on the projects, "I understand the argument of economics and making these projects feasible, I really do, but you're incentivizing projects with lavish amenities that only people who are financially well-off can afford. Even with these incentives, it's not like normal people, like you or me, would be able to afford to live in these buildings. Plus, we're more likely to use transit than the people who will live in these buildings. I just wish we could have more mixed-income housing here, which would benefit both neighborhoods equally instead of just one type of housing, ultra-luxury."
Beyond just the controversy surrounding tax incentives, both projects have received criticism from neighbors about their size. Beyond project size, the biggest complaint was, and still is to some, parking. The belief is that the new developments will lead to an unbearable increase in traffic on DeBaliviere and Pershing and create headaches for neighbors who park their cars on the street. Both developers specified during public hearing that these headaches would be minimal as both projects include enough parking to prevent issues like the neighbors are worried about. Additionally, they're transit oriented and incentivize residents to live a car-free lifestyle. "We're right next to the park and right next to the Forest Park MetroLink station and in a very dense neighborhood," says Vic Alston, "our hope is that people who live here will consider living car free and get around via other modes of transportation".
"This feels like a big missed opportunity to place mixed-income housing adjacent to our transit stations." Says Tony Nipert, "With concerns of long time residents being pushed out of a gentrifying neighborhood, An affordable housing component would help to address that issue. Additionally, I would have preferred less parking. With all of these projects situated within the Metrolink station walkshed, there is no reason every resident needs, or should bear the cost burden for, parking. Some residents have complained about aesthetics such as brick color and massing, but I am fine with those aspects."
Other complaints have come from urbanists, who believe that keeping DeGiverville closed, just West of Debaliviere, prevents the street grid from healing and alleviating traffic on other streets, like Des Peres or Waterman. The construction of Hudson, and the repeated closures of Pershing, resulted in Clara being reopened at Delmar to alleviate traffic as the Debalivere Place neighborhood only had Pershing at Union as the main entrance and exit for thousands of apartment residents and their cars. Another complaint raised by urbanists is the lack of street-level activation on the Hudson past the retail space. According to Vic Alston, plans for the blank wall are currently up in the air, but present plans call for a landscaping feature with accent lights to spruce the blank wall up a bit, but a mural may also show up in that blank space.
Finally, both developers were involved in a bit of head-butting last year. According to the Post-Dispatch, dueling lawsuits were flying from both sides over issues like parking and a renewed business association. These lawsuits caused controversy to erupt on some social media channels. The anonymous neighbor said, "the whole litigation thing, regarding parking, is understandable but it's also petty. They're both getting a ton of incentives but yet one argued over, and try to derail, a project that would benefit them as much as their project would benefit the other guy's. It was petty and did not make either one of them look good". I declined to ask the developers about these lawsuits for this story.
"I welcome these developments"
Just North of Waterman, the Busey Bank/Dorze building can technically be declared the first TOD development on DeBaliviere in decades. And while other apartment buildings are situated along DeBaliviere, The Dorze, which added 20 units into the building at 415 DeBaliviere in 2019, is the first project to come about on a renewed Debaliviere strip. Blackline, which is led by Michael Schwartz and developed the Dorze, says he welcomes both the Hudson and Expo. "I welcome these developments. I do. I think density is a positive, especially in the context of a transit-oriented development. More people create safer neighborhoods, and this spot has suffered for a long time from high-crime."
"I do believe so", Schwartz said in response to a question about the Dorze benefiting from the two developments, "I think that the Dorze was always hindered by the strip center where Expo is going. I think that, because units at The Dorze are priced lower than the new buildings going up, they will not be competition for our building, but instead will allow those with a bit less income to live next to the much higher-priced new buildings."
In response to me bringing up the part of the Dorze parking lot that borders McPherson, which, in my opinion, makes sense for a new building, Schwartz said, "To be determined. I can definitely see it (new construction) happening at some point, but first we would like to see how these new buildings perform and make sure that they are stabilized." According to Michael, the Dorze's 20 units are all occupied. The corner retail space, at Debaliviere and Waterman, is still available for lease.
Related Note: A Building Tour of the Dorze Apartments can be found here: May 29th, 2019: A Look Inside "The Dorze" Apartments on Debaliviere
What to Expect Next
Jeff Tegethoff has said that public will see framing begin on the apartment floors in the coming weeks. Additional announcements regarding retail tenants will be made throughout the year. And when asked about when potential residents can insure about leasing, Jeff said, "Pre-leasing will begin in the 4th Quarter of 2021 with move-ins at the North building expected in January and move-ins at the South building expected at the end of March".
Victor Alston says the people who are interested in renting an apartment at the Hudson should inquire now for a move-in later this year. "Construction is moving fast as most of the building pieces are assembled off site then assembled on site like a giant Lego set," Alston says, "so the building is going up with amazing speed with a floor mostly framed after a week of construction". A point was made that a few reservations have already been made on the apartments. "The demographic we are going for here are 25-35 year olds who want a walkable lifestyle. Additionally, our buildings will make people fall in love with their neighborhood and include in-building amenities to be social with other building residents".
By this time next year (April 2022), all three buildings will be complete, people will be living and working in them. Visitors will also be spending money at the businesses that will occupy the ground floor at that time.
"Myself, along with my fellow neighbors, can only hope these projects are successful", says the anonymous neighbor, "because if they aren't, then it's going to come crashing down on everyone in the neighborhood and land on the taxpayers' shoulders".
Victor Alston believes that the neighborhood will look very different in 4 years rather than a decade. He says, "just look at the neighborhood 4 years ago. We, at LuxLiving, we're just starting construction on Tribeca and since then, we started and completed Chelsea, proposed and began building Hudson, the Expo was proposed and began construction, and the building at 415 DeBaliviere was renovated". Going off of Vic's point, an additional proposal for a 5-story, 60-unit apartment building at the Southeast corner of the Waterman and Clara intersection was proposed by Greg Daney earlier this year, but has since gone back to the drawing board.
"I hope more retailers and businesses move into the retail spaces throughout the neighborhood to increase walkability. St. Louis, like many Midwestern cities, is a hidden market. Compared to the other markets we're looking at, St. Louis doesn't have that much going on but we're slowly starting to see that change", Vic says, "The DeBaliviere strip is a special street, so we're proud to be involved in its greater resurgence as well as being one of the early investors into a St. Louis that is ready to boom".
Jeff Tegethoff echoed those comments saying, "We set the compass on DeBaliviere and so I was thrilled to learn that LuxLiving was going to build an apartment building, which we all know now as the Hudson. All of these projects help achieve a 15 minute and walkable lifestyle just North of one of the greatest civic assets in the country, Forest Park. I believe that as time goes on, and more developers get into the game here, the free market will reign supreme and will lead to better projects and products for the renters and residents of the immediate area alike." Jeff continued his comments by saying, "The DeBaliviere and Pershing intersection seemed like a natural junction for activity in the neighborhood as it bookends the dense Pershing Avenue. Now, we're seeing an anchor for additional developments taking shape right there at that intersection that will hopefully spread Northward up to Delmar and then East and West on Delmar".
For the nearby residents, the outlook over the next decade is positive. Tony Nipert elaborates: "In a decade, I see the neighborhood as a vibrant 15-minute community that continues to be one of the most diverse places to live in the region. With the coming form based code and a robust neighborhood master plan, I think the neighborhood will be mostly built-out and tax abatement should be unnecessary unless affordable housing components are included. I am excited for what the future holds." The anonymous neighbor offered her outlook for the decade, "The next 10 years will bring many new residents and businesses to the neighborhood, which I'll welcome and am excited about, just I wish this was all more inclusive".