It was 1993, and there had not been a new successful residential project in downtown St. Louis in 25 years. The 1 million square foot Metropolitan Square office building, completed in 1990, needed office tenants, so they convinced many businesses to move from the old loft buildings of Washington Ave. Washington Ave was dead. Many civic leaders called for demolitions to revitalize downtown and Washington Ave. Fortunately, that did not happen.
Ironically, the vacancies of these storied historic buildings actually created opportunity, opportunity for a few early pioneers to reclaim the buildings for loft residences. It started slow in 1996 with ArtLoft, and then with rocket-like acceleration in 2001 fueled by the new state historic tax credit, it seemed every building was being converted into the housing, and was reaching high occupancies.
For part two of the plan, it took two years, but they were able to put together a development plan and close on financing to create ArtLoft. The plan was pretty controversial at the time, and more than not predicted the Boyle’s would fail. Their plan: create 63 live/ work units (like those in movies set in NY), and market the units to artists that have low to moderate incomes. The Boyle’s were convinced that artists, given a property that met their needs, would start the re-colonization of downtown.
The plan was an overwhelming marketing and economic development success reaching 100% occupancy in 4 months. In 1998, Lee Harris of Cohen Esrey Real Estate came into the project as a partner. Eighteen years after the first resident moved in, ArtLoft has NEVER had an extended vacancy, other than normal tenant move out and move in, all without the need to spend a nickel on marketing, and typically working from a long waiting list and word of mouth.
In 1993, Tim and Suzanne Boyle of City Property Company contracted to buy The Frances Building at 16th and Washington. Immediately, the first step was to create a black box performance theater in the ground floor space. During its 14 years, ArtLoft Theater attracted thousands of audience members to productions such as The Rocky Horror Show, Chicago, 1776, Batboy, and Cabaret.
While many doubted its success, many stepped up to contribute to its success: The Carpenters Union Pension Trust, Doug Woodruff of Bank of American, Kathy Bader and Tom Reeves of Mark Twain Bank, Steve Stogel of TAC, Bob Clark of Clayco Construction, Jill Belsky of Rodemeyer Christol, Joe Klitzing of Klitzing Welsch Associates, Kevin Twellman of Commonwealth Title, the St. Louis Community Development Agency, Jill McGuire of the Regional Arts Commission, Sue Greenberg of Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, Kelly Lundquist and Tom Nordyke of ArtSpace Projects, Inc., numerous departments of the City of St. Louis, and many others.
ArtLoft changed how many people preserved downtown St. Louis, and proved that downtown’s problem was not its demand, it was its supply. Now in 2013, downtown’s supply cannot keep up with its demand, and that is a good thing.
The parallel success of ArtLoft during this time period is, of course, its residents, and the community within ArtLoft that they have created. Many residents have been in ArtLoft much longer than a typical rental resident, long enough to have proudly coined a phrase explaining the sense of diversity and uniqueness that they prosper under: “We’re all here, because we’re not all there”. Need more be said?