Washington Avenue: St. Louis, Missouri
Once mostly vacant and deteriorating, Washington Avenue today has reversed decades of urban decline to become one of St. Louis's most popular districts. This downtown corridor — replete with residential and office lofts, boutiques, restaurants, and nightclubs — pulses with activity not seen since its garment district days, a time when sidewalks were filled with window-shoppers and buyers. A virtual museum of late 19th and early 20th century warehouse architecture clad in brick, stone, and terra cotta, this monumental corridor imparts one of St. Louis's most cohesive vistas.
Fifteen blocks between Eads Bridge to the east and 18th Street to the west.
The view west, from the foot of the Eads Bridge, is of an urban canyon lined with showcase buildings that create a distinctive sense of place through their attitude, size, scale, and materials.
The avenue's building stock reveals the artistic considerations that figured prominently in the creation of buildings that often served as both corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities. The impressive architecture and scale of the avenue reflects the rich history of St. Louis, a city once on the nation's western fringe that grew to become an industrial powerhouse and population center of national significance.
Washington Avenue gradually lost its vitality because of a decline in domestic garment production following World War II. Its functionally obsolete buildings stood vacant or underused. In the 1980s, loft rehabbers arrived but, unable to create a sense of community or security, their attempts to spark an economic revival of the area fell short. However, a move to list two segments of the street on the National Register succeeded in 1987.
It was the State of Missouri's 1998 adoption of a historic rehabilitation tax credit that resuscitated Washington Avenue by making large-scale reuse projects financially feasible. Investment — more than $100 million — poured in soon after. Meanwhile, the city began implementing its 1999 Downtown Now! Development Action Plan, focusing first on Washington Avenue's streetscape. Using $17 million in state and federal funds, it expanded public amenities, installed custom lighting, added and improved street furnishings, and enhanced landscaping and sidewalks.
Innovative pavement types were varied to calm traffic. A zipper-and-stitch-like paving pattern down the center of Washington Avenue — highlighted at night by LED-lit buttons — pays tribute to the history of the garment district.
Pedestrian-friendly Washington Avenue is popular with bicyclists, dog walkers, and stroller pushers as well. The street maintains a shared-use bicycle lane and is part of the city's bicycle network. Two subterranean light rail stations serve the street — one at the historic Eads Bridge and the other at 6th Street. A "curbless" stretch between Tucker Boulevard and 14th Street gives the appearance of an unimpeded civic space, lending itself to street festivals and celebrations. An increasing number of Washington Avenue's buildings boast large, elaborate, colorfully lighted signs. The street is punctuated each night with neon, boldly declaring its vitality.
Defining Characteristics, Features
- Originally called North "F" Street, and then Laurel to match the downtown convention of naming east-west roads after trees, street's name was changed again in 1835 when private owner donated street to city with proviso it honor President George Washington
- Established as distribution and jobbing center for East Coast goods at close of Civil War
- Evolved as hub of city's wholesale and light manufacturing industries. Companies — some of national/international prominence — produced dry goods, shoes, clothes
- As city's historic center of commerce and home to dozens of historic structures, Washington Avenue runs through heart of two National Register districts (est. 1987)
- Buildings retain fashion industry naming conventions — Bee Hat, Knickerbocker, Fashion Square
- LED-lit median down street's center highlights zipper-and-stitch paving pattern in a bow to Washington Avenue's garment-district legacy
Planning and design
- Platted (1823) by private owner as "a major artery for the city," Washington Avenue was originally 80 feet wide and 1.5 miles long
- Eads Bridge, first bridge to span Mississippi River at St. Louis (1874), is start of Washington Avenue; location reflected street's prominence as burgeoning commercial corridor and ability to accommodate traffic
- Avenue evolves organically from east to west; individual blocks have own character but unified by size, scale, materials; from turn-of-the-century revival style masonry buildings to steel-and-concrete frame structures expressing Chicago School functionalist principles
- City's Downtown Now! Development Action Plan (adopted 1999) identifies Washington Avenue as one of four focus areas; resulting $17 million streetscape project expands public spaces for café seating, public art and street performances; enhances linkages to adjacent destinations; installs street furnishings, custom lighting; enhances landscaping, sidewalks; traffic calming
- Missouri Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (1998) spurs major reuse projects totaling more than $100 million along avenue; 25 percent credit for qualifying rehabilitation expenditures
- Removing three-story skybridge between 6th and 7th Streets reconnects that segment of Washington Avenue with downtown; unobstructed view between Eads Bridge and 18th Street
Mix of uses
- Loft development begins in early 1980s. Lack of financial incentives, safety concerns slow progress; development takes off following passage of tax credit (1998)
- Downtown, centered on Washington Avenue, sees residential base climb to around 8,000; purveyors of goods and services open street-level shops and restaurants
- Avenue is part of major employment center, close to civic buildings, convention center, sports stadia; 80,000-plus office workers and millions of tourists a year support restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques
- City Museum — interactive Exploratorium for all ages – opened in 1997 in former shoe factory; attracts more than 700,000 visitors annually.
- Pedestrian experience enhanced by street-level retail and public open spaces. Wide sidewalks encourage walking.
- Shared-use bicycle lane is part of Bike St. Louis, city's extensive 70-mile bicycle network
- Washington Avenue served by two underground MetroLink light rail stations, one at Eads Bridge and another at 6th Street
- Downtown Trolley, a circulator bus, connects Washington Avenue with other downtown attractions; bus routes also cross or travel along street