Big Boxes Write American History

Local media has been reporting the demise of St. Louis’s Chinatown, another victim of big-box development. But it is not so much a Chinatown—officially it is called the Olive Link—as a small polyglot area of Olive Boulevard near Highway 170, which the Post Dispatch calls “the gritty back door” of University City. University City is an inner-ring suburb with 35,000 residents, “poised to become St. Louis’ next great business center,” according to the city.

The Olive Link does not have the gates, integral quality, or size of larger cities’ Chinatowns. It is not even as coherent as, say, Chicago’s Little Saigon. The specifically-Chinese population in St. Louis was always relatively small, from the time of the Civil War, and by the mid-1960s only “30 elderly men” were said to remain in the original Chinatown razed for Busch Memorial Stadium. Even now data show only 1,930 Chinese Americans living in St. Louis proper—.6 percent of the population.

The first thing you see of the Olive Link from the highway is an enormous Public Storage and the Beyers lumberyard that has been there since 1954, then tired apartment buildings, a Japanese restaurant, a Korean Catholic church, and worn-out strip malls on both sides with Jamaican, Vietnamese, and African businesses as well as Chinese. None of the strip-mall restaurants, markets, a brokerage franchise, tattoo parlor, or smoke shop appeared to have customers in the middle of a recent Tuesday afternoon.

The Novus Corporation, which has developed a million square feet in St. Louis, is the current winner in all this. They describe the Olive Link’s 51 acres (an area a half-mile by one-third of a mile) as “underutilized land (not highest and best use)” with “minimal sales tax generation,” and “a lack of overall vibrancy and life to the site.” Development will cost $189 million, but Novus wanted and will get public assistance in the form of a 1-percent surtax on retail sales and $70 million in tax-increment financing (TIF). They project annual sales at $163 million. Their plan shows retail stores around an anchor (a Costco) and three housing areas, but two of the housing developments are called out for possible use as more retail.

On August 22 the University City TIF commission voted 10-2 to allow the project. “When an investment the size and scope of this project is made in any community, it serves to stimulate further economic development; new businesses move in, property values increase, more residents locate nearby, and progress occurs,” the city says.

Indeed, that passive-voice “progress” is what is really at stake. University City promises neighborhood improvements, “while still [being] economically and racially diverse.” Eminent domain will be used “only when necessary,” and relocation assistance and incentives to move within University City will be offered.

Perhaps even more disruptive than the forced move or loss of businesses is the damage done to the 70 percent black neighborhood directly behind them. The small, trim, brick homes currently sell for about $75,000 (and are declining in value). Thirty-seven percent of the people rent, and a third are older than 55. An opponent of the changes said his grandmother was redlined into her house to begin with, and now is in danger of being driven out.

Novus says they want permanent assets in their portfolio, and they will care for this area long-term. Actually, they stick around only about 60 percent of the time. It does not help their case that the evidence they provide of their savvy is several areas turned into giant parking lots inset with the usual suspects of American, strip-mall retail: Wendy’s, Sam’s Club, Starbucks, McDonald’s, bank branches, sudden-care clinics, etc. These are no more beautiful or inspiring or enduring than the latest trailer park.

Some mysterious threshold of coherence and symbolic value must be acknowledged to save neighborhoods. No one is going to put a Costco on The Hill any time soon and scatter its businesses. (Their neighborhood association’s motto is “improve not move.”) But that is another way of saying revenue is fending off the big-box stores.

Change is inevitable and inevitably results in personal disasters. We have metaphors for this both pollyannaish (“common good”) and cynical (to the victor go the spoils; winners write history; there have always been defeated people). Baron Haussmann’s say drowned out the voices of those he evicted to build modern Paris.

As a Chinatown, the Olive Link does not feel like a great loss. But the new Olive Link will be no Paris. More like Olive Garden. For this, residents will suffer.