After the NFL left St. Louis and planning for a new north riverfront football stadium came to an abrupt halt, talk of revitalizing the lonely, post-industrial stretch of the city’s riverfront quieted, too.
Three years later, the stretch of Mississippi River frontage just north of downtown is still largely abandoned. A $330,000 Great Rivers Greenway-commissioned study performed by Forum Studio and Development Strategies has received little attention since it was completed and adopted by the St. Louis planning commission in 2015.
Riverfront redevelopment open house at Central Library on Wednesday gave visitors a vision of parks, restaurants, lofts, business incubators and barge gardens — with and without a new stadium.
In the interim, Justine Petersen, a nonprofit born 20 years ago as a homeownership assistance and financial counseling service, has stumbled into the role of north riverfront land bank. Whether that signals simply owners tiring of property taxes and giving up on redevelopment happening anytime soon or new thinking and nonprofit leadership in a long-neglected area remains to be seen.
“It wasn’t necessarily their strategic plan to become a land assembly and land bank on the near north riverfront,” said attorney Mark Schulte, who made a part-gift, part-sale of the Cotton Belt building to Justine Petersen he and partner Tim Tucker had owned for more than decade.
But through happenstance and connections — Schulte, for instance, was a founding board member of Justine Petersen but is no longer on the board — it has found itself the owner of close to 10 acres worth between $2 million and $3 million in the area just north of the Lumiere Place casino, Justine Petersen CEO Robert Boyle said.
Justine Petersen is now in charge of the iconic, skinny Cotton Belt freight depot on First Street, decked out in a rainbow mural to soften an otherwise gritty view greeting drivers crossing the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.
It also owns the former Hammond Building on Cass Avenue (connected to the Stamping Lofts) and the acreage to the north where a developer once dreamed of a fish farm and hydroponic facility.
And it’s also redeveloping a former food label manufacturing building at Biddle Street and Broadway into a small business incubator centered around urban agriculture and food production.
If not resolved, the dispute could complicate a land deal for the proposed riverfront football stadium
It’s still figuring out exactly what it wants to do with the rest.
“On the one hand, if there is a developer who wants to purchase the property, we’re most willing to consider that,” Boyle said. “The other option, which is the longer-term option, is to somehow participate in the development.”
The project that is underway, what Justine Petersen is calling a “greencubator,” is being built in the former home of Sev-Rend Corp., a food-labeling manufacturer now located in Collinsville. The former owner, Rob Williams, donated it at the end of 2016. It received a $780,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and $480,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to build and operate the incubator, which it hopes to have running by the spring.
“We were looking to put together something with indoor urban agriculture,” said Justine Petersen Chief Operating Officer Sheri Flanigan-Vazquez. “It’s really going to focus on assisting our small-business clients to start and expand.”
Businesses that have used Justine Petersen’s loan products are the target tenants for the 20,000-square-foot greencubator. Already, urban agriculture firm Good Life Growing plans to move its operations there.
Perhaps, Flanigan-Vazquez said, Good Life can eventually expand from its base in the incubator and use some of the open acreage where developer Greg Heller once envisioned his Farmworks development. Justine Petersen now owns that acreage around the Hammond building, a few blocks to the northeast of the greencubator.
As for the Cotton Belt, Schulte said that while he loves the building, he doesn’t want to be too attached to structures. He’s seen them ruin people. Whether it’s demolished or preserved, he hopes to see it become something that helps people because he has “no interest in facilitating anything that doesn’t produce living wages and sustainable jobs.”
The area should add some sort of tribute to the Mississippian cultures who inhabited the area, he said. They built dozens of mounds between 1000 and 1450 C.E. — similar to the far more famous Cahokia mounds — north of downtown. The 34-foot-high Big Mound, for which St. Louis got one of its nicknames, was unceremoniously removed in the 1860s. Its dirt was used to build North Missouri Railroad along the river.
“I want to see this become a Native American, First People’s interpretive center,” Schulte said. “With mounds.”
While the stadium didn’t come to the area, there is momentum just to the south. The $380 million Gateway Arch revitalization is complete, creating new energy in Laclede’s Landing, where new apartments and redevelopment is underway. The north riverfront is the next step if that momentum continues creeping to the north.
The Arch grounds are open and investors are betting on a Landing comeback.
Longtime neighborhood resident John Sweet, who runs the small William A Kerr family foundation from the building on O’Fallon Street on the north riverfront, has helped financially with the greencubator project. He said the Kerr foundation may rethink how it doles out a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, mainly as operating grants to small nonprofits. Maybe it could put more focus in the area where it is based. “I wish something would happen. It’s been abandoned for 75 years,” he said of the north riverfront. “It’s high time the business community put some money in that area.
“If Justine Petersen can get some small businesses and people to start doing stuff, maybe more individual people that have some ability and energy to do it,” Sweet continued. “I’m really frustrated with the whole doughnut hole of north city abandonment. It’s a disgrace... We’re not going to transform anything ourselves.”