St. Louis’ Ballpark Village: Subsidizing the Status Quo

Some see the rising steel structures in downtown St. Louis as milestones in a long-awaited project, others as an unwelcome reminder: as construction on the Cardinals’ Ballpark Village becomes more visible, controversy surrounding the $650 million development has also grown.

Ballpark Village has been envisioned as a new downtown destination for over a decade, but like thousands of other developments nationwide, remained just a vision until earlier this year due to the recession. The 2007 plan included high-rise condominiums, bars, shops, restaurants, plus the introduction of a street grid intended to integrate the project into the surrounding downtown neighborhood. The current construction, however, will include none of the mixed-use features, and replaces much of the planned development with a bemoaned surface parking lot.

But is a Midwestern parking lot worth discussing within a larger planning context? The success of American cities in the 21st century has to a large extent come from the reclamation of - and reinvestment in - urban identities. Ballpark Village, by contrast, neglects downtown St. Louis’s urban character, which is increasingly dense, walkable, and home to a wealth of independent shops and restaurants. In ignoring the city’s resurgent urbanity, developers have also shown a disregard for St. Louis’s historical position as a major American metropolis, missing out on an unequivocal opportunity to showcase a nationally meaningful urban identity.

St. Louis, Missouri, is a city that has undergone multiple transformations, which map closely onto broader national trends. It has morphed from Mississippi trading post to peripheral Rust Belt manufacturing center, to glimmering site of the magnificent 1904 World’s Fair, to metropolis known for blight rather than bustle. In the last half-century, St. Louis became a laboratory for misguided urban renewal attempts that coincided with the construction of one of the nation’s most impressive monuments to modernism, the Arch. St. Louis’s urban fabric and population have also continuously been shaped by federal housing policy: the massive ambition of the Arch, appearing just a few years after the ill-fated construction of Pruitt-Igoe, one of the country’s most infamous housing projects, attest to the city’s synchronicity with nationwide sentiments and policy currents. Appropriately, Al Jazeera opinion writer Sarah Kendzior writes that in the 21st century, St. Louis has become “the gateway and memorial of the American dream.”

 1965 construction of the St. Louis Arch, roughly 10 years after the completion of Pruitt-Igoe. Source: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

1965 construction of the St. Louis Arch, roughly 10 years after the completion of Pruitt-Igoe. Source: National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Today, St. Louis’ identity reflects each of these national epochs, but amajor piece of the city’s character comes not from its industrial history, housing projects, or architectural talking points. Instead, it draws from America’s favorite pastime—baseball. St. Louis’ relationship with its baseball team, like many American cities', is a historic relationship closely tied to the city’s identity and a source of pride. The Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, located centrally in a downtown area, is a boon to the city. Frequent ballgames draw spirited crowds, who often venture outside the ballpark to downtown restaurants and fill area bars following both raucous wins and disappointing losses.

Rebuilt in 2006, Busch Stadium was unusual in that it was financed predominantly by the Cardinals’ private funds (nearly 90%). The city did, however,cover a local admissions tax on tickets, as well as assist with initial public infrastructure costs. There’s no doubt that the construction of the new stadium in 2006 was a worthwhile investment with a sizable return for the city. But does this justify the team’s newest endeavor?

The reality of the project today, after six years of delay and economic uncertainty, is far less ambitious than that initially proposed. The development’s first phase is now slated to offer a baseball history museum, a “Cardinals Nation” restaurant, a cowboy bar, and a two-story “Budweiser Brew House.”

 An early plan for the development shows the introduction of six city blocks.  Source: nextSTL

An early plan for the development shows the introduction of six city blocks. Source: nextSTL

 An early 2013 plan also shows the diminished street grid and the replacement of housing and retail with surface parking.  Source: nextSTL

An early 2013 plan also shows the diminished street grid and the replacement of housing and retail with surface parking. Source: nextSTL

Critics, including leading urban blog voice Alex Ihnen of NextSTL, as well as a few local aldermen, are particularly incensed by a400-plus-space parking lot. Developers promise the lot holds potential for additional uses in the next phases of development, but there are currently no concrete plans for the space. Alderman Scott Ogilvie told the St. Louis Riverfront Times in August that "It is literally the exact opposite of the kind of development that creates better urban environments,” arguing that a taxpayer subsidy should go to development that has more to offer the city.

Ogilvie’s argument has merit. A much-cited analysis published by the Brookings Institution studied the economic effects of sports and found little significant gain when public funds are invested in sports teams and stadiums.The authors found that rather than attracting additional spending, new sports facilities simply “realign” purchases that fans might’ve made elsewhere. That is, it’s unlikely that they’ll bring additional revenue downtown to anyone but the Cardinals’ owners and stakeholders.

Private interests vested in Ballpark Village’s construction will profit the easy way: with no obligation to deliver progress or innovation to downtown St. Louis. Ballpark Village, which city aldermen voted to give TIF (tax-increment financing) benefits, is receiving substantial public funds. When applied discriminately, TIF can be a powerful tool for revitalizing neighborhoods and drawing businesses and people to struggling areas. But without a mixed-use district that includes housing options as well as restaurants and bars, the project won’t bring anything new to downtown St. Louis. What does this mean for the city that represents the “gateway and memorial of the American Dream”? Ballpark Village is an unprecedented opportunity for the Cardinals and the City toleverage St. Louis’s love of baseball and create a walkable, mixed-use new stadium area. This will not only draw crowds from the suburbs on game days, but may convince St. Louisans of the vitality and viability of actually living downtown.

More than that, though, Baseball Village prompts questions regarding urban identity and development that are playing out not just on the local scale, but nationally as well. Foremost--how is urban identity constructed? An excellent video on Buffalo, New York’s history as “America’s Best Designed City” showers attention on the city’s points of planning pride. Cincinnati has just begun construction on the downtown Cincinnati Streetcar. The Marcy-Holmes neighborhood in Minneapolis launched its own participatory community planning website over the summer, where residents can suggest and vote on riverfront improvements and bike lane additions, among other things.

Instead of capitalizing on urban character like projects in these cities, however, Ballpark Village has St. Louis once again apologizing for its urbanity, attempting to make itself more palatable to nonresidents. The city’s immense and meaningful history deserves better. A new downtown parking lot in St. Louis can—and should—serve as a contested space: one that was initiallypromised to St. Louis’ residents as a vibrant mixed-use district. The project still holds the possibility of fulfilling the positive expectations kindled by the original plan, but onlyif St. Louisans demand more from the developers, the Cardinals, and local government.

NOTE: St. Louis has also had some of its own great urban ideas! See, for example: the Sustainable Neighborhood Small Grant Competition, the Trestle railroad bikeway and the Sustainable Land Lab project.

Anna Carlsson is a third-year undergrad at UC Berkeley pursuing degrees in Political Science and German. She’s interested in the dynamics of urban development and political representation (especially in her hometown of St. Louis, MO) and hopes to gain an international perspective on urban issues while studying abroad in Berlin next semester. Anna can be reached at asc92@berkeley.edu.