ST. LOUIS — The former St. Luke’s Hospital looms over Delmar Boulevard, its exterior beset by weeds, rust and broken glass. It's been that way since 2013 when the hospital, operating then as ConnectCare, went bankrupt. But come fall 2021, the 500,000-square-foot building will begin its second life — housing apartments, offices, a cafe and a highly anticipated nonprofit collaborative.
“It’s had nine buildings attached to it over 100 years,” said the project’s creator, Maxine Clark. “It’s been empty seven years and it’s an eyesore. It was so big, most people couldn’t imagine what it could be. … It’s something we might want to preserve about St. Louis.”
The project will be called the Delmar DivINe, named to counter the racial and income stratification that comes with the “Delmar Divide” moniker. Clark and Executive Director Jorge Riopedre anticipate closing on the project within the next few weeks and are completing leases with more than 20 different organizations and nonprofits.
Nonprofits such as the Mid-America Transplant Foundation and Humanitri are likely to be tenants, along with Washington University and the St. Louis Community Credit Union, all as part of a $100 million project that could transform a portion of the city near the Delmar Loop. Supporters say the project is precisely the kind of heavy investment needed to invigorate neighborhoods that fall just north of Delmar.
Clark, who founded the worldwide retail chain Build-A-Bear, came up with the concept for the nonprofit hub after working in the Cortex Innovation Community, which offers office space, capital, mentoring and networking opportunities to businesses. She decided to create something similar for nonprofits that would include a library of resources, regular training, space and technology for nonprofits to use.
“One thing I realized was that we had so many people coming to me saying, ‘Can you give us money for this or that,’ and I realized there are thousands of nonprofits in St. Louis, and we aren’t all coordinating, even in the same sector,” Clark said.
Riopedre, the former CEO of the nonprofit health clinic Casa de Salud, said he’s eager to get Washington University’s training resources into the hands of nonprofits so they have more tools to expand staff and services.
“In the best of times, nonprofits are usually in reaction mode,” Riopedre said. “They’re trying to react to whatever situation is thrown at them. … Because of the constant whitewater nonprofits are trying to navigate, there’s not a lot of space for them to think about important things like succession planning (and) board training. … This is a good marriage.”
The project, initially estimated at $90 million, has seen cost increases of about $7 million to $8 million and has been delayed by several months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first phase of the project will focus on the nonprofit working space and residential apartments. Later, attention will turn to more office space and services such as early childhood education.
The project is funded through a public-private partnership that includes a loan guarantee from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, new market and historic tax credits, and donations, including Clark’s own funding. Donations go to fund only the nonprofit collaborative portion, Clark said.
Nonprofits are a major sector in St. Louis, with thousands of them operating.
Behavioral Health Response, which provides confidential telephone counseling services to people facing a mental health crisis, will be one of the larger nonprofits in the building, leasing an entire floor.
“Oh my god, I’m so excited about it,” said Pat Coleman, CEO of Behavioral Health Response. “There are so many nonprofits in the St. Louis area, and even then, it’s (hard) not to feel like we’re on an island. Now there’s an opportunity to collaborate and come together with other organizations under one roof in like-mindedness. This will be transformative for us.”
Gateway Greening, which helps schools and neighborhoods establish community gardens, intends to relocate its headquarters to the site. And it will move its demonstration garden to an adjacent lot.
“Being with other nonprofits just down the hall will hopefully enhance our ability to connect them to nature and food access and promote their goals,” said Matt Schindler, executive director of Gateway Greening.
Clark envisions the development’s 150 apartments attracting young professionals in fields such as social work, nursing and policing.
“It’s a great location for a young person to live on a modest salary,” Clark said.
The project began more than five years ago when Clark saw the “for sale” sign in front of the empty, hulking former hospital. Since then, she’s met with neighbors to assess what they want. Clark said she’s kept her pledge to contract with companies on the project that have diverse work forces.
It’s no small matter to Clark that the project is situated where it is, on the north side of Delmar Boulevard, a street running through the heart of the city that serves as the unofficial demarcation of the city’s inequality problem.
“No one has invested there for decades,” Clark said. “People are scared because either they don’t know anything about it, or all they know is what they’ve heard. But the area used to be prosperous. It was a middle-class neighborhood with wonderful schools … hopefully we can bring that back by creating good value.”
‘We need investment’
Justin Idleburg is a resident of the West End neighborhood just north of Delmar, and believes his neighborhood can prosper like it once did. He sits on the board for the Delmar DivINe project and said his neighbors are excited to see what it brings.
“Right now we need investment,” Idleburg said. “Ms. Clark’s development is going to help the rebirth of the West Side. Since she made her announcement three or four years ago, all of those apartments went through a major rehab … a racial equity lens has been applied (to the development), from the board, to the tenants, to the construction portion of it. Everyone is included — black, white, everybody.”
The area has seen an uptick in development, with the Everly on the Loop apartments opening in 2017, St. Louis ArtWorks offering programs nearby and People’s Health Centers taking appointments in the neighborhood.
Madeliene Brice, chairwoman of the West End Neighbors, has lived in the area for 16 years and said it isn’t as “rough” as it once was. It still has its share of problems, but neighbors have expressed to developers a clear vision of what they do and don’t want near their homes.
“Development is needed,” Brice said. “We have a lot of vacant land and some houses need attention. … Overall the neighbors here want investment, they want improvement, but we don’t want it at the expense of losing the people who have lived here the longest and stayed and made it a place that has potential.”
Brice said residents are excited for the old hospital to be transformed into something meaningful. The building is “in bad shape,” she said.
“I’m anxiously looking forward to one day this not being called ‘the divide,’” Brice said. People “have no idea what is north of Delmar. That whole name, Delmar Divide, makes people afraid to come north of Delmar and they don’t even realize the potential … We have a wonderful community of great neighbors who look out for each other. People just don’t realize the jewel that it is.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that when the hospital went bankrupt it was operating as ConnectCare, and was no longer St. Luke's.