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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thompson Coburn Garage and the Economics of Parking Downtown

Today, the St. Louis Business Journal is reporting that giant law firm Thompson Coburn announced today that it has signed a 12-year lease to remain in the US Bank Tower at 7th and Washington downtown. The lease comes with city incentives totalling $700,000 and, most interesting and unusual, a state-financed $15 million parking garage on the site of the Ambassador Building at 7th and Locust streets, currently a lifeless and unattractive "plaza."

The announcement comes after speculation that the law firm would relocate to the planned Brown Shoe Company campus on Maryland Avenue in Clayton. Clayton is still luring major businesses out of downtown, and snagging some that have also looked at moving downtown. Thus, the announcement is good news for a downtown that is seeing a decline in residential projects and a small, hopeful rise in the creation of rehabbed office space.

The parking garage component is predictable, although undesirable in terms of planning. Sadly, we live in a city with a parking economy built on an inverse ratio of supply and demand. Downtown St. Louis has more parking spaces than residents, and probably more spaces than daily workers. Parking is cheap and easy. Parking is not quite free, like in the suburbs, but in this dense urban core, it barely costs anyone to park at all. In these cirumstances, any major employer who wants copious and adjacent parking gets it -- either by building a new garage, leasing existing spaces or moving out of downtown where parking doesn't cost employees at all.

Obviously, downtown has an excess of parking. Lots are obvious visual blight, but garages aren't much better. Even with street level retail, a garage doesn't generate the same level of activity, visual interest and use as a building. That a garage on the Ambassador site is an improvement over the plaza says little about the new garage and a lot about the inadequacies of the protected private plaza.

Pine Street suffers from a glut of parking garages, and has little to recommend it as an attractive street on which to do muchy more than park or grab a quick lunch. Locust Street is much better, although the recent addition of the Ninth Street Garage chips away at its urban character. The Thompson Coburn garage will be two blocks from the Nonth Street Garage, and only one block from one of downtown's ugliest garages on Seventh Street, the so-called Hubcap Palace at Seventh and Olive streets.

This proximity is not good for developing a downtown that is a compelling, lively, architecturally distiguished place. The economics of parking and land values downtown allow such proximity, while the planning apparatus off city government remains weak. Rather than examine the health of street life or even desirable land uses for downtown, all decisions are subsumed by economic logic. That's well and good for function, yet we must remember downtown is not simply a series of useful structures, but also the core of our city that defines its architectural character to the world.

Obviously, we need Thompson Coburn and other employers downtown. The firm needs parking. But we all need a downtown that compells the world to respect the great city of St. Louis. (In other words, this had better be the best damn parking garage in the world!)


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

We need the jobs. Clayton is slime. Until Clayton stops trying to be the "new, all white" downtown this will never stop. Why don't you attack the county for what they are doing to the city rather than attack the city for trying to survive? Until we correctly blame the county and it's militant munis and fight together as a united front for the city we will not solve any problems. The blame city first thing is tired and hurting us.

Chris said...

Maybe a compromise could be reached where the original US Bank garage on the revitalized Washington Avenue could be replaced with mixed use development if the Ambassador garage must be built.

Doug Duckworth said...

I don't understand why were issuing bonds for a parking garage.

Anonymous said...

Because the state will own the garage, right?

Here's a thought...

How about two or three floors of something before the parking? Or vice versa?

It's free air space, right?

Doug Duckworth said...

What business does the Sate have owning or financing parking garages?

Does the State of Missouri purchase buildings downtown and rehab them personally? No. So why are they doing a garage?

Anonymous said...

What business does the state have assisting in the development of parking garages?

To help keep employers located in downtown St. Louis.

Developing parking is an economic development activity.

Anonymous said...

Bloody extortion, that's what it is.

Doug Duckworth said...

The timing of these events are not random. Slay has already taken enough damage on BPV. How would it look if we lost Thompson and Coburn, especially after Armstrong Teasdale left?

Yet, there's no actual problem or difficulty with the US Bank Building, whereas they already have their own garage with many surrounding. In reality, giving a hand out makes St. Louis look desperate and makes us vulnerable to even more companies which threaten to leave. Mayor Slay's wonderful PR team could have made this case, as they did eloquently when they attacked suburban areas who steal businesses. But rather Slay played into the very same game he criticized!

What would Mayor Slay do if this occurred after the election not immediately before? Would Slay project the facade of independence and then sell out, or would he actually take leadership and call this a shakedown!

Unknown said...

I KNEW IT!!!!!!!!! They knocked down the awesome AMBASSADOR BUILDING for a damn parking garage.... they should rot in hell.

Vanishing STL said...

Until Pyramid/Spinnaker closed St. Louis Centre, the parking situation at US Bank/Thompson Coburn was just fine, since there was a direct link to the huge LCRA owned garage at Locust & 6th to Broadway. When this connection was broken, shit hit the fan at the Bank tower. Since the City provided much support for the Centre mall and tower acquisition they should have insisted on an easement to maintain this connection after the mall was closed and through eventual re-development (even though it is not in the best interest of street life). This would have kept the plaza site open for a real mixed-use building in the future.

Now that the deal is done though, the City should insist upon a retrofit of the existing 8th & Washington to include ground floor retail. Unfortunately, the economics of demolishing this garage entirely and doubling the capacity of the new one probably does not make sense.

Anonymous said...

???"it barely costs anyone to park at all"???

Are you going to tell me that $100 a month is barely anything? I can do a lot with $100. I guess maybe to you it $100 is nothing, but to many it is quite a bit. Rather self-righteous I would say.

Chris said...

Look at it this way: $100 divided by 20-22 work days in a month, and you get an average daily parking charge of $4.50-$5.00 a day for parking. That is a steal compared to cities such as Chicago or New York, where it can easily be $20 to $40 a DAY in their downtown areas. Some would argue that is why mass transit is so successful in those cities (in addition more extensive systems and more miles of tracks). It's just too expensive to drive to work in the Loop or Manhattan.

Michael R. Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael R. Allen said...


Many downtown workers pay far less than $100/month. (Many employers pick up the tab, too.) Chris hits the nail on the head -- compared to other cities, even the most expensive downtown spots are a steal.

It's selfish and unrealistic to expect cheap and plentiful parking in the heart of a major urban city.

Regarding what $100 is to me -- I'd be a millionaire if I got $100 for every snide comment left by someone who won't even sign their name (talk about self-righteous!).