Three ways for downtown St. Louis to avert the “doom loop”

This article first appeared in the Solutions newsletter. Click here to learn more about the newsletter and sign up.

The “Doom Loop” story in the Wall Street Journal last week wasn’t wrong in this respect: Downtown St. Louis does have some dim, empty corners. Which hurts, given how chromatic our region’s front entrance used to be—and still could be.

The piece had few surprises for downtown’s denizens and visitors—the boarded-up Railway Exchange and One Bell Center are hard to miss—though many locals have lodged objections. One was the piece’s reliance on a University of Toronto study, which had found that St. Louis ranked dead last among 66 cities in North America when it came to recovering foot traffic in the post-pandemic era; that study only considered a central patch of downtown, leaving out the nodes of activity west of Tucker (e.g., CITYPARK, Union Station, City Museum), to say nothing of Gateway Arch National Park, which in 2023 had the most visitors in a decade. 

Still, parts of downtown do feel spectral and degraded, and allowing them to spiral further would do outsize damage. For one thing, downtown is a net revenue generator for the city, kicking in about a fifth of its general-use funds. For another, the region’s success arguably hinges on it. Mayor Tishaura Jones and Jason Hall of Greater St. Louis Inc. put it bluntly in an op-ed response in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The St. Louis metro area will not grow without a strong downtown.” 

Maybe you’d argue, as Jones and Hall did, that the glass is half-full; maybe you agree with the WSJ, that it’s half-empty. Either way, it’s not a full glass. How do we fill it?

Some factors lie beyond any single person’s control. Nobody can reverse the historic plunge in demand for office space in central business districts, for example. Nobody can bring down the costs of capital and construction, which have climbed so high that nearly all office-to-residential conversions are just impracticable for now. 

That said, certain mindsets and behaviors are very much within our control—and would help. 

Realism about incentives

To catalyze conversions, St. Louis may not need to launch an ambitious grant program, as Calgary is doing, or offer low-interest loans, as Pittsburgh is planning to do. But tax abatement—holding the property levy constant for set periods despite increasing property value—is likely inevitable, given the expense of conversions.  

There’s a skepticism in progressive circles toward tax abatements, and I get it: A decade ago, according to a St. Louis Magazine feature, the city was giving out such development incentives “with no hard-and-fast criteria, according to no overall plan, with no requirements and no tracking of outcomes”—the big loser being St. Louis Public Schools, a primary beneficiary of property taxes. 

But now the city does have an overarching plan, and the incentive analyses at the St. Louis Development Corporation have become much more rigorous. Take a peek, for instance, at the proposal to convert One Bell Center into a “vertical city” called The Beacon: The high-end estimate of the developer return (which is gross, not net) is 9.2 percent. That’s nearly the same as the area’s median return of 9 percent. So here, the incentives appear to be bringing the project up to normal, not to wildly lucrative. 

Certainly, there’s a cost to giving developers anything they want, but there’s also a cost—born by public school kids of the future and crumbling historic buildings today—to not acting, to the city sitting on its hands in hopes of perfect market conditions or developers willing to break even or lose money out of love for the city. Developers are going to need to make some money. That’s OK as long as the city benefits in a big enough way. 

Realism about crime

The “Conservative Guy Scared of Cities” Halloween costume became a meme (and made me chortle) because that guy definitely exists. I try to give grace to all my fellow humans, whose brains are wired by evolution to be especially leery of threats, and because we in the news media are not always great at putting crime news into context. So let’s do context. Consider what happened two Saturdays ago: An estimated 100,000 people converged downtown for three pro sports events and a concert. According to an email from a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokesman, these were the reported crime totals for that day in downtown and Downtown West: 

Those are spectacular numbers. 

Let me say: In no way do I wish to minimize the experience of crime victims. And there’s no question that violence is, in fact, a problem in the city; although the worst of it is concentrated outside of downtown, there’s a nonzero chance of falling victim to it. Also, be you politically red or blue, you’d have strong grounds for being wary of downtown’s reckless, high-speed drivers, many of whom suffer no consequences. Many cities have installed speed cushions, which are similar to speed humps but have cutouts for the wheels of fire trucks. This way, they slow down cars but allow the fire department to respond quickly. 

But reckless driving and fears of becoming a statistically unlucky crime victim are reasons to be careful and alert downtown, not reasons to avoid it altogether. If everyone avoided the neighborhood, it would indeed feel less safe. There’s safety (and prosperity) in numbers.

Realism about Homelessness

There’s nothing good about people trying to live downtown in “unsheltered” situations—that is, in tents, under overpasses, on sidewalks, or at bus stops. It’s unsafe and unsanitary for them, and because the unhoused population shows rates of drug addiction and mental illness that are higher than those in the general population, they’re perceived by some downtown workers, residents, and visitors as unpredictable and dangerous—a perception that certain scholars believe is unfair, though solid data is reportedly scarce. 

Several aldermen and activists have pushed for more emergency shelters in the city. Shelters have a role to play, especially in extreme weather. But as I’ve written before (here and here), federal funding does not reward, and the body of evidence does not support, a shelter-first strategy. Rather, the best solution appears to be “housing-first” policies, which are premised on the empirical finding that unhoused individuals respond best to wraparound support while living in residences of their own, not while living in shelters.

Cities that have succeeded in this area—Houston is a great example—have done so because politicians and providers across the system decided to row in the same direction. That’s not happening in St. Louis. At least not yet. 

In any event, I have more ideas, which I’ll save for a later edition. What are yours? Please share them by clicking here.

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