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Laclede's Lament

Will the Landing ever get its act together?


The Laclede's Landing Wax Museum is home to 166 figures, complete with ghostly visages of Hitler and Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt and, of course, Charles and Diana. They peer out from dimly lit nooks tucked within the 160-year-old, five-story building.

Charlie Ashline, a.k.a. "Doctor Wax," acts as curator, a job that requires plenty of dusting and sometimes nursing the lifeless back to life. "They need constant attention," ruminates the doctor. "I'll fix their fingers when they fall off. I mend their broken legs." Not long ago, Ashline fit one of them with an artificial hip. Passing General Douglas MacArthur, he shouts, "You fix that shirt, boy! I've been telling him to fix it for a week."

Ashline has run the Landing's waxworks for a quarter-century and says the riverfront location isn't bad for business, particularly during summer months when perspiring tourists are wont to plunk down four dollars for a cool stroll through history.

Besides the wax museum, though, Landing visitors are offered few other seductions. There's Gibbol's Costumes and Novelties to peruse, especially for wannabe clowns in need of a trick red nose. And there's the Dental Health Theatre where "Dudley Goes to the Dentist" is shown in a continual loop. After that, well, erstwhile sightseers can browse Doctor John's for dildos or nipple clamps or, as a last resort, bring home a Cardinals pennant from St. Louis Souvenirs.

That's about it. Laclede's Landing is a tourist trap without many trappings.

"It's nice, but I haven't found much to do," sighs camera-toting Reid Lerum, on leave from a U.S. Air Force base in Germany. "They need to bring some clarity to the area."

It wasn't always this way. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the historic nine-block sector due north of the Arch led the charge of downtown redevelopment. While the rest of the city languished, the Landing stood as the vanguard for a new St. Louis. Back then, one could expect a two-hour wait for a meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory -- and most of the customers were locals. After hours, one big party ensued. Nightclubs presented original music and hotspots like Boomer's, Muddy Waters, Kennedy's and Mississippi Nights created a wall-to-wall rock scene.

Wilco seemed to distill the Landing's essence in their 2002 song "Heavy Metal Drummer": "I sincerely miss those heavy-metal bands I used to go see on the Landing in the summer," sang Jeff Tweedy. "Shiny, shiny pants and bleach-blond hair, a double kick drum by the river in the summer."

But like hair metal, the Landing's moment passed. Retailers are largely gone, and just a handful of restaurants remain to feed the area's 1,500 office workers. When the five o'clock whistle blows, it's a party crowd that dominates, downing shots of Red-Headed Slut and Liquid Cocaine at the Big Bang before heading to the Study Hall to be served by waitresses dressed as schoolgirls.

What happened?

"Laclede's Landing was largely passed over by the early wave of revitalization now so apparent in other parts of downtown," explains Rollin Stanley, executive director of the City of St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency.

Part of the blame, adds Stanley, must be aimed at the corporation that oversees the Landing. "[The Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corporation] guessed wrong about dotcoms, wrong about gaming, wrong about what people wanted for entertainment and wrong about downtown's general direction."

Now, with Pinnacle Entertainment's $400 million casino and entertainment development rising to its north, and Washington Avenue bursting with residential projects, the Landing is staring at the face of obsolescence. And the LLRC finds itself playing catch-up.

"They [the LLRC] were not trying to make the Landing people-friendly," says Nan Tolen, who for 25 years owned a now-defunct convenience shop on the Landing called Nan's This 'n That. "They wanted it to be known as the boozer place for the kids."

Like Laclede's Landing, Charlie Ashline hasn't kept up with the times. In fact, the museum hasn't yet introduced a Bill Clinton figure, let alone a soulless statue of George W. Bush. Here, the timeline stops at 1989, when Bush the elder was president.

"People look at the Landing and think, 'Why the hell would I drive down there?'" says Rich Frame, co-owner of Mississippi Nights since 1979. 'I'm going to get gigged on parking, drinks are going to cost more, and I've gotta pay to get in.' It doesn't add up. Then they look at this shit about the Bottle District and Ballpark Village. Throw the casino in and I go, 'Oh boy.'"

The late Jimmy Massucci, owner of the shuttered Café Louie on Third Street, is the man widely credited for giving a name to the area in the mid-1960s -- some 200 years after city founder Pierre Liguest Laclede, along with August Chouteau, designed a nineteen-block grid along the Mississippi.

When the ambitious Frenchman first set eyes on what today is Laclede's Landing, it was a frontier hamlet of fewer than 100 villagers, trading furs predominantly and living in primitive cabins. Over the course of the next century, buildings rose, streets were gas-illuminated, and in came a steady flow of livestock and millions of tons of goods. River men worked the boats, shifting product to and from the foundries and mills, manufacturing licorice and roasting coffee.

St. Louisans moved westward, though, and riverboats yielded to the railroad. Gradually, the bustle of the Landing ceased, leaving the district without purpose. By the 1920s, the place was home to drifters, says Carolyn Toft, director of the Landmarks Association preservation group and author of the definitive, if brief, history of the district, Laclede's Landing.

"The entire riverfront -- including the area that was demolished for what became the Arch -- was seedy," says Toft. "There was crime, and bars, and things connected traditionally with what little river traffic there still was."

The riverfront district was ultimately razed to make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, but demolition extended only to the Eads Bridge. What became Laclede's Landing survived, but was further isolated by the construction of Interstate 70. Left on its own, the area withered.

Searching for ways to encourage investment, the city in 1975 officially designated the Landing a redevelopment area and created the Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corporation. A privately held entity, its shares are traded among a combination of property owners and civic interests, which elect a nine-member board to oversee all planning and design. The LLRC's pact with the city extended 25 years. In 1993, it renewed the commitment with the government until 2018.

"If the city gives you this, they expect certain things to happen," posits John Clark, president of the LLRC and the lone resident of Laclede's Landing. "The main thing is they want to see development happen. That's why they give you these rights as a development company. We create design guidelines. We create a vision. We create a plan. Everybody's got to stick with the plan."

When the agreement was renewed a dozen years ago, the Landing's real estate values were depressed. But as downtown experienced spirited revitalization, the LLRC found itself controlling a more profitable chunk of city landscape. "It is in a position where the land is valuable," concedes Clark. "It's very valuable."

In essence, the Landing is a city within a city, its precarious future resting in the hands of the nine property owners on the LLRC directors' board, which operates in secrecy. Its monthly meetings are typically held at Jake's Steaks, and the public is not invited.

Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates, a New York landscape design firm involved in the recent riverfront redesign, has visited places like the Landing all over the world and says they are often separate from the city that surrounds them.

"It's like putting a wire fence around a piece of land. It becomes something that a few people get to do something about," observes Balmori. "They acquire certain rights. The cities give it away so someone else will put the money into it. But it's not considered when cities think about the overall plan."

For example, the LLRC, which controls land directly in front of the river, has built only one structure on its banks in its 30-year history -- a parking garage, owned in part by LLRC members.

Joe Berridge, a partner at Toronto-based Urban Strategies Inc., worked with the LLRC in helping to prepare a 1999 downtown St. Louis revitalization plan. He came away quite disenchanted.

"I thought the Laclede's Landing Redevelopment Corporation was a disaster," Berridge writes in a recent e-mail. "Public assets like that, one of the few places where great development would be a slam-dunk in downtown St Louis, somehow get privatized to an organization that loves parking."

The Landing inhabits a detached plot, with Interstate 70 creating a physical barrier that's both noisy and ugly. It's hard to imagine residents of Washington Avenue strolling across the overpass to grab a drink. To the Landing's south, a vast parking garage separates the Arch grounds from the district. To the north sit vacant warehouses and barren land, leaving the Landing as a little oasis in the center.

Within that oasis, Hugo Perez struggled six years ago to make a go of it with his all-night diner, a satellite of his popular Central West End coffeehouse, The Grind. He found the location didn't attract many customers, but he doesn't blame the LLRC.

"There's a psychological barrier there," reflects Perez. "You have the highway, you have the Arch, you have the old warehouses to the north, and you have the river. It's very, very isolated, to a certain degree."

And, reasons Perez, there's a price to pay for all that seclusion.

"One of the things that can happen if you're there long enough, you sort of detach yourself from the rest of the city. They're so removed, and there are no other affiliations with the rest of the city."

When construction began in September on the new casino, Pinnacle Entertainment heralded its arrival by shutting off Second Street, a major artery into the Landing.

"I see a fence go right along one side of the Landing. People were freaking out," recalls John Clark. "I was getting phone calls left and right." He contacted Pinnacle. "I said, 'Are we building a fence for a reason?' They said, 'Cool your jets. It's a construction site.'"

The rise of the eleven-acre complex (the first phase to be completed in 2007) signals a sea-change for Laclede's Landing. There now lingers the specter that both Mississippi Nights and Sundecker's, two district mainstays, will have to find a new location to make room for a luxury Four Seasons hotel, restaurants and a live entertainment venue.

At least this time, though, the LLRC has an idea of what it's up against. The redevelopment corporation faced a similar, albeit smaller, challenge in 1994 when the President Casino arrived on the riverfront. Then, merchants and restaurants were giddy as they envisioned thousands of people flocking to the area.

Tom Purcell, then executive director of the LLRC (that position no longer exists), could barely contain his enthusiasm, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994: "Gaming will bring back the romance and the excitement of the 19th-century riverfront. People will see the river as they dream of it."

A dozen years later, the President is in bankruptcy and the Landing isn't faring much better.

Says Lois Lobbig of Gibbol's Costumes and Novelties: "People go to the President, lose their money and then go home. They said there was going to be overflow, but some of us could see that it wasn't going to do that."

"The President sucked money out of the Landing," adds Nan Tolen. "We all saw a big difference. They'd stay on the boat and drink, they ate on the boat, went to the gift shops on the boat. That was a big eye-opener."

When Pinnacle Entertainment president Wade Hundley toured the Landing for the first time in late 2003, he offered this assessment: "We thought it was a little tired, maybe a little sleepy, and could certainly use a boost."

Diana Balmori also expressed disappointment.

"The area doesn't feel real somehow," she says. "Rather, it was as if someone had decided to take a little piece of St. Louis and make it an entertainment area. It felt like a false thing. Not old St. Louis or new St. Louis, but something that falls between the cracks, something not capable of attracting a good nightlife. It just didn't seem to work."

Hundley says the Landing isn't yet vibrant enough to attract a critical mass. The entertainment project should help, but he cautions that area businesses will likely realize only a residual spillover from the casino and other planned Pinnacle attractions.

Sundecker's and Mississippi Nights are both on Pinnacle property, and the Las Vegas-based company can evict them when and if the need arises.

Steve Owings, who owns both Sundecker's and the Morgan Street Brewery on Second Street, says he's been in conversations with Pinnacle and let them know that Sundecker's has been around for 21 years. "We're great neighbors and great tenants," he recalls telling company officials. "We'd like to stay there if we could, if it works with their plan."

Even if Pinnacle leaves the two bars alone, they'll still face stiff competition, argues Tim Weber, manager of Mississippi Nights. "Casinos aren't places where old ladies go to spend money anymore. They're the target market for what the Landing does. [Casinos are] packed with people who used to come down to the Landing. You can drink for cheaper, eat for cheaper. It's the exact same demographic."

The LLRC's John Clark may be resigned to the casino's arrival, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. "It's like sleeping with your sister," he grouses.

Says Rich Frame of Mississippi Nights: "Do I think that people will come down here after that casino's open to go to a separate restaurant or show and then walk up to the casino? No. I think the casino will offer it all."

Clark, too, has misgivings about the casino project -- even after assurances from Pinnacle representatives. Still, Clark says, "I'm thinking, there isn't shit that's going on on this riverfront. All the boats are gone. Maybe if we work with these guys instead of completely just saying, 'No, we don't want you here.' Why don't we just work with them? If we can't beat them, we might as well join them."

"A lot of people have asked me if we fear the competition," says Dawne Massey, executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association. "Anything that brings people downtown and gives St. Louisans more options is good."

Nan Tolen could be speaking of Mayberry when she describes her early years spent running Nan's This 'n That.

"It was my little town," she fondly remembers. "It was a lot of people's little town. We knew who was sick, whose husbands and wives were sick. I couldn't wait to get into the store in the morning. I got to know my customers, and I treated them like family. I ended up a mother figure, and then a grandmother figure."

As one in a long line of merchants, Tolen did research before committing to the area in 1981. She'd sit in her car and study the traffic flow. She canvassed the office buildings, counting people to determine how much soda she'd be able to sell in order to pay the rent. "I made my mind up that I could make a good living there," she says.

Others felt the same, and over the years, the Landing became home to an eclectic blend of craft and curio merchants: a candle shop, flea market, a bridge shop, a crystal company and a business that specialized in eel-skin clothing. Tolen gradually expanded her shop from 300 to 1,300-square feet, even realizing enough profits to open a second business, a deli.

Tolen says that retailers couldn't last because the LLRC never pushed the district as a shopping destination. Advertising promotions concentrated on the nightlife, leaving the retailers to fend for themselves. Nightlife attractions drew the twentysomethings, but by day, the Landing was largely silent.

"Tom [Purcell] didn't fight for retail," maintains Tolen. "Any time I would bring it up, I was ignored."

Lois Lobbig and her husband, Donald, have owned Gibbol's Costumes and Novelties for 24 years and have little good to say about Purcell or Clark's efforts to make retail viable in the Landing.

"They'd go outside the area to buy their supplies," she says. "One time during a Mardi Gras celebration they went out and bought masks. They never even asked us if we had them. Why wouldn't they buy the masks from us?"

"It's a tough nut to crack," counters John Clark. "The last retail that I remember that was serious retail and not bullshit retail -- I know, retail's retail -- was Overland Trading." The small shops that attract only tourists, he adds, have had a hard time enduring the winter season.

"I don't know how you can make it work," muses Clark. "The Arch is packed, but it all happens in three or four months."

Through thick and thin, Nan Tolen stuck it out, and even contemplated opening a grocery store in the Landing. She says she constantly heard talk of condominiums that never materialized.

"We were promised and promised, and I said I'd believe it when I see it. But I never saw it." Disillusioned, she closed the shop last year, saying bitterly, "It had become a cut-throat community."

Tom Purcell defends the sluggish pace of the Landing's evolution. The buildings are occupied, he points out, and there are some major employers, including Metro and Access US, an Internet service provider.

"In 1981, you have three buildings," says Purcell. "Now you have 25. We have a million feet of office space, and we're at about 90 percent occupancy. We showed that rehab had a demand and could be done.

"We showed that there was demand for mixed-use. It could be office, it could be commercial, it could be hotel -- and now it's being residential. We gave credibility to the riverfront. I think sometimes we forget sometimes what we started with: 100 percent vacant, total obsolescence."

Still, says Rich Frame, the Landing faces an uphill battle.

"The problem with districts," Frame concludes, "whether it be Washington Avenue or the Landing or this Bottle District or Ballpark Village, is that all of them hang on for a while. And then all of a sudden: poof."

In the late 1990s, Sam Glasser was the only inhabitant of Laclede's Landing, living in a loft in the Old Judge Coffee Building, which he owned. "I look back on it as a funny little era of my life," recalls the New York City native. "I could have made a significant impression when I was voting. I could have skewed the census."

When he first approached the LLRC about turning the top floor of his building into a residential loft, the St. Louis developer says he was baffled by the opposition he encountered.

"In any city in America, that would have been the loft district. They were nineteenth-century red brick buildings, five, six stories. For some reason, under Purcell's aegis, it never went residential. It was weird."

Until recently, notes Purcell, the notion of housing on the Landing was impractical. The one residential complex overlooking the river, the Mansion House, had struggled. "We always had the plan, commercial, office, hotel and residential and always stuck with the plan," insists Purcell. "Those things happen at different times. But we have remained loyal to our original idea."

Glasser finally convinced the board to allow him to build his dream loft, and he grew to love his neighborhood. "I knew it intimately," he recalls. "I loved it, especially in the winter, when you'd have it all to yourself. The sound of horses -- clip-clop-clip-clop -- down the old streets was very charming, like old Europe or something.

"There was a mist that came off the river in the wintertime. The arch grounds were pretty much left to me, since nobody else lived down there. It was like owning a little city."

Now this little city is in the hands of John Clark. Sitting in the back room of his restaurant, Jake's Steaks, Clark jokes about being the Landing's solitary resident. "It's a very lonely thing," he says with sarcasm. "Out in the middle of nowhere with the tumbleweed, nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to do. I'm bored."

A straight-shooter who speaks without concern for politics or propriety, Clark has worn many hats on the Landing. He opened rock club Lucius Boomer in 1978, Jake's Steaks in 1991, and seven years later, he bought from Glasser the Old Judge Coffee Building.

Clark says he never wanted to head the LLRC, but when Purcell retired from the post in 2003 after 27 years, the corporation needed someone to take charge.

"The joke," Clark recalls of a board meeting late last year, "was they threw the keys across the table. 'Here, you do it.' And I said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm just bitching about the way you're doing it. I don't want to do this crap.'" The next day, he changed his mind and accepted the position.

Clark, of course, was painfully aware the Landing was lagging behind. "There was this wave starting to happen downtown. If we didn't catch the wave, we're going to just be sitting out here. We're either going to look kind of stupid or the whole city's going to look silly if we're not doing anything down here."

Clark and the board set to work luring potential residential developers. This summer the LLRC managed to green-light two projects, including a new 49-unit condominium complex overlooking the Mississippi River that will begin rising next April.

Spearheaded by Clayton developers the Rodgers Brothers, Port of St. Louis, as it's to be called, will be the first housing built on the riverfront since before the Civil War. The second project will be helmed by Red Brick Realty's Pete Rothschild, who is leading redevelopment plans on the 131-year-old Switzer Building, where 28 condos will be situated above street-level retail outlets.

John Clark is enthusiastic about the new projects. But as a former nightclub owner, he is keenly aware of potential conflicts. "You can't have a nightclub and have a $600,000 condominium across the street at 2:30 in the morning," he says. "We both know what that's all about."

A year into the job, Clark is characteristically blunt when asked whether the board has a plan.

"No," he replies. "I think we're in a real in-between time. You almost have to watch it moving along. It's a changing animal, and we're all trying to get a feel for it. In the beginning I think there's this dream that it's total mixed-use, and that's fine, and I think that dream can work."

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