"I just cringe to think what the average tourist would think of our downtown after visiting St. Louis Centre," says loft developer Craig Heller. "If I see conventioneers down here asking where to shop, I never send them to St. Louis Centre."
"It remains the one big black eye for downtown the way it is right now, particularly from the standpoint of conventioneers," seconds Jim Cloar, executive director of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "I can tell whether they've gone east or west on Washington Avenue based on their feedback. If they say, 'Downtown's dead,' I know they've gone east on Washington. If they've had a positive experience, I know they've gone west.
"It's almost like a psychological Berlin Wall," Cloar adds, describing the four-story building where the vacancy rate stands at more than 50 percent. "People just don't want to go past it."
In the summer of 2004, public-private civic booster Downtown Now! was so intent on bidding good riddance to St. Louis Centre that the organization offered to buy the facility out of foreclosure for $4 million ostensibly to raze the building and redevelop in its footprint.
"The city was fully behind us," recalls Downtown Now! executive director Tom Reeves of the bid. "We didn't anticipate that anyone would go to the foreclosure sale and pay it off in full."
But a low-key, California-based investor named Barry Cohen surprised everybody by doing just that.
Cohen, who in 1993 purchased the historic Jefferson Arms apartment complex on Tucker Boulevard, snapped up the entire moribund mall at a courthouse auction for $5.4 million or one-nineteenth of its 1985 price tag of $95 million in August 2004. In fact, Cohen, who is in the process of rehabbing a similarly downtrodden shopping center in Harrison, Arkansas, was the only person to submit a bid.
"We didn't even go," says Reeves of the auction. "We honestly thought that $4 million was pushing it, so there wasn't any missed opportunity."
Several months after taking control of the property, Cohen verbally agreed to cooperate with Reeves' plan to demolish the infamous Washington Avenue skybridge that connects the green-and-white mall to a shuttered Dillard's department store. Then, in September, Cohen pulled out of the handshake pact, deeming the plan unacceptable amid timeline concerns.
Cohen maintains he still intends to dismantle the glass-and-tile-enclosed bridge, although he won't say when, which has alienated Reeves.
"I'm very frustrated," complains the Downtown Now! executive director, who says his negotiating window with Cohen closed when the developer pulled out of the skybridge pact.
"Downtown Now! has offered several generous and creative ideas to move the process along," Reeves adds. "It is an eyesore, and it has a tremendous negative investment, which is even more magnified because everything else around it is being redeveloped."
"I think [Cohen's] heart is in the right place," says Jim Cloar. "But we would have liked to see him move a whole lot quicker."
If Cohen's Arkansas project, a sparsely populated shopping mall dubbed The Fashion Center, is any indication, he'll eventually deliver the goods albeit on no one's timeline but his own.
When asked if his constituents have been satisfied with Cohen's stewardship, Harrison city councilman Pat Moles responds, "Yes and no. For several years he kind of let it go, and it went downhill. But the last few years, he spent some money on it. I don't know the man and have never met him, but it's doing better."
Which essentially encapsulates Cohen's modus operandi: Keep a low profile, preach patience, and then gradually generate value through a meticulously planned overhaul.
"It was tired, dated and needed a lot of money," Cohen says of his Arkansas mall. "When we bought it, it had some long-term leases at very low rates that prevented renovation. So as tenants have started to turn over, we've put a lot of money into it."
But St. Louis Centre is a different animal, at least politically.
"I'm kind of off the radar, so this has been an interesting experience for me," he acknowledges. "I didn't appreciate [the extent of negative public perception] until I bought it."
Conscious of the fact that there's no escaping the Scrooge label for now, Cohen insists better days are around the corner for St. Louis Centre. He's already lured Gold's Gym eastward from 16th Street and Washington Avenue, and says he's in negotiations with a new investor (whom he declines to identify) that could culminate in a thorough redevelopment plan as early as February.
Cohen has also been wooing Borders Books with the promise of city-approved tax breaks and has ceded the mall's vacant third floor to a five-year-old nonprofit artists' collaborative called ArtDimensions. The group considers the space a godsend.
"Once I walked through it, I realized: Everything's clean, there are floor outlets, there's track lighting, there's security, there's a garage across the street that's a dollar an hour, with a bridge that brings you right across," says ArtDimensions director Davide Weaver. "These are some beautiful things that we've never had before, which lets us focus on the art."
"The whole idea of artists doing work in a downtown mall is just wild to me," adds stencil artist Peat Wollaeger, who grew up in Webster Groves and remembers visiting the shiny new mall as an adolescent visits that ceased once the shinier, newer Galleria opened in nearby Richmond Heights. "It's very surreal to see all this great art go up in empty spaces."
But is art a silver bullet? It depends on whom you ask.
"St. Louis Centre has got to offer something with a sense of place that's distinctive," posits Andrew Hurley, a professor of urban and environmental history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And like many social scientists, Hurley considers the downtown mall boom of the 1980s a nationwide urban-planning disaster.
"Downtown still has the aura of an artsy place a cultural center. Art is an area where it has a leg up on the suburbs in terms of reputation. When they have art walks, people go down there. So I'd say an art gallery is a better bet than what was there before."
"As much as I like the idea of having a strong arts element downtown, that's not really a portion that can carry its own weight economically," counters Jim Cloar. "At one time Barry talked about bringing all of his retail down to the ground floor, which is one of the real keys.
"Back in the mid-'80s, the hard lesson we learned was that we compete best by being a downtown. Not by trying to copy the suburbs."