By George Sells
The key to finding a diamond in the rough is often imagination, and looking at the current state of the site that will house City Foundry STL — St. Louis’ first true food hall, a curated retail & entertainment experience, and creative offices infused with historic industrial architecture — it’s hard to imagine much that sparkles. But Steve Smith, CEO of St. Louis’ Lawrence Group developers, saw that shine when others didn’t.
“There were definitely people who had that puzzled look in their eye, like do you really know what you’re doing? Does this really make sense? But that is sort of motivating for me,” Smith said.
His motivation began with a look at the outside of the dilapidated Midtown structure with his son in tow, and a question at the security gate.
“Can we go in the building and see inside,” Smith remembers asking. “And they said no. The security guard literally said you might die. So we said okay, drove around the back and snuck in the building. It’s a tremendous volume, a huge space.”
And after his breaking and entering adventure, he began to see potential in the old building. It’s potential that by early 2020 will be a nearly unrecognizable rebirth of the century-old industrial building most had given up on.
“We are going to convert it into a food hall, with offices, restaurants, retail, and entertainment,” Smith said, “and there is nothing like that in the St. Louis region. It will be one of a kind.”
One of a kind only in the St. Louis region, though. Smith has seen this sort of makeover done before in other parts of the country.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to travel a lot and see a lot of other developments around the country, and there are some very unique developments in other cities that take old industrial buildings and convert them into ‘Instagramable,’ progressive, modern dynamic spaces. I’ve seen those in New York, and Atlanta, and Denver, and places like that, and we’re going to create that here in St. Louis.”
The “bones,” so to speak, old buildings ready for new life, have been in place in Midtown St. Louis for years. The Foundry location is nearly 100 years old and once was bustling.
“This building was built in 1922. They would melt ore and cast casings for Electric Motors,” Smith said. “Then during World War II we understand that they made aircraft carrier parts for the war effort.”
The auto industry took it from there, but by the recessions of 2007-2008 it was shut down and abandoned, just waiting for something to happen. What happened was an economic boom surrounding the Cortex Innovation Community. In 2010 there were 30 companies in the area. Today there are 380 with a hotel on the way and more.
I don’t want to say that it’s all Cortex but we have 5,000 employees in the district, Cortex President and CEO Dennis Lower said. “You put those 5,000 together with 20-30-thousand employees at the medical center and another 12 to 15 thousand at Saint Louis University and there’s a real density of employment in this area.”
And that density is feeding places like the Foundry in the surrounding area. In fact, Cortex says the Foundry is part of $1 Billion in investment that is the result of all the new business activity. These are spinoff businesses pointed toward a “placemaking” philosophy. Lower says that part of the equation – if fairly simple. “You want to create an environment that’s 24-7 and gets people to come early and stay late,” he told HEC.
That’s exactly the idea Smith and company are following at the Foundry.
“At eight in the morning we have a company called Multiply, and a company called Orion Genomics – so we have other office tenants. First thing in the morning we have people working here. Midday we have the food hall and restaurants so people will come here for lunch. Throughout the afternoon we have retail, so people will come here to shop.”
“Then in the evening,” Smith continues, “we have Punchbowl Social and Alamo Draft House (which is a movie theater) so people will come here to socialize. Then we’ll have residential for overnight in our next phase. So we will be be a 24-7 environment.”
All if it, he says, is part of a growth strategy for the area that goes far beyond this single building and its “good bones.”
“In ten years you’re going to have a lot more people living here,” Smith predicts. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ten-thousand more people living in Midtown in the next ten years. You are going to see a lot more people working here. “
“Microsoft just moved into Cortex, it’s been published that Square is expanding rapidly into Cortex – if you have people living here, working here, then you have a lot more support. You’ll have restaurants and cafés and bars, places to shop, places to entertain yourself, movie theaters like we will have here. So, City Foundry is part of providing support to the neighborhood of Midtown that is growing rapidly and dramatically right now.”