New Downtown St. Louis Renovation Project, The Jefferson Connector, to Be Completed 2020-21
In St. Louis, you can see the handiwork of real estate developer and architect Jassen Johnson most notably in the city’s Midtown Alley neighborhood, along Locust and Olive Street just east of St. Louis University. Working with a complex network of investors, lenders, tenants, clients, designers and others, Johnson has been determined to transform the area into a self-sustaining neighborhood for over a decade. He also founded his own development firm, Renaissance Development Associates, in 2004.
Johnson’s latest project is the highly ambitious Jefferson Connector, located between Downtown West and Midtown Alley. While Downtown West is populated by residential condominiums and apartments and Midtown Alley is home to nearly 50 creative agencies, offices and restaurants, a space of opportunity remained between the areas, largely undeveloped until Johnson’s proposed project. Slated to open starting 2019 through 2021, the Jefferson Connector aims to reinvigorate the area with a community neighborhood center, small offices, retail spaces, residential living, lodging, restaurants, bar/entertainment venues and ample parking, all as rallying points to knit the surrounding neighborhoods together.
A native of central Illinois, Johnson attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he received an undergraduate degree in architecture and went on to receive his master’s degree in architectural management and business. While in grad school, he became connected with St. Louis through a university endeavor called the East St. Louis Action Research Project. There, he discovered the true power of an initiative that works to pull a community together. Keep reading to learn more about Johnson’s journey and the Jefferson Connector.
Tell me about the Jefferson Connector and your vision for the project.
In essence, it really started out with the historic Beaumont Telephone Exchange building at 2650 Locust Street, which was built in 1902. Architecturally, it’s shaped like an “E,” so it doesn’t have a big dark center core. It was perfect for bringing in residential and small office space, but there was really nothing around it. So, the challenge was, how can we get residents to want to live in a building like that?
Ironically, I met with a construction company called the Ross Group, out of Tulsa, and they were looking to invest in St. Louis. On a visit to Tulsa, I toured a project they’d just finished building called The Boxyard. It’s a whole community built out of shipping containers with retail and restaurants built around a plaza that constantly has programming.
There are community events, bands playing, fashion shows, food festivals and more, which bring people to the neighborhood. It couldn’t have been a better model for how to create and nurture a community. That’s what we envision for the Jefferson Connector. We talk with agencies all the time about talent recruitment and retention. Once this project is finished, a young professional could come to St. Louis, take an Uber to the Jefferson Connector and stay in a cool hotel surrounded by restaurants, retail, microbreweries and more, with different events happening. That will propel students from Washington University, Saint Louis University and more to want to stay and live here.
The Jefferson Connector bridges the Creative District of Midtown Alley to the residential portion of Downtown West by giving both of those areas a real community center. The Boxyard, office spaces, lodging, a music venue, microbrewery, retail and restaurants are all being developed as a little village center to finish off the whole central corridor. It ties the whole thing together. That’s how you create a self-sustaining community.
How did you make your way into redevelopment work and urban planning?
I grew up in construction and worked on the East St. Louis Action Research Project while I was earning my graduate degree in architecture. We interviewed residents to learn about racism and poverty and started doing outreach projects. We did things like trash pickup and installed pocket parks. Eventually, we received community buy-in for the kinds of projects the community wanted to have happen in their neighborhoods, which was huge. We had volunteer participation as well, so the students and community volunteers were working on projects together. I was spending so much time in St. Louis driving through Midtown that it really caught my eye.
The neighborhood plan I developed for Midtown Alley was actually my thesis project, and I was able to make a good case for it based on my work in East St. Louis. It was helpful for stakeholders to see a real project that was working. For Midtown in particular, I felt that with anchors like Saint Louis University, Harris-Stowe State University and Wells Fargo, this area would be successful. Having the buy-in of the neighborhood was also extremely important. Banks, lenders and tenants could grasp that enough would be completed at one time that they could really start to envision what the neighborhood could be.
At that point, how did you build out your full vision for Midtown Alley?
I actually started developing the first three buildings as I was wrapping up my degree. As we were starting the development work in Midtown, we started discovering that people who work at creative agencies that do things like branding, PR and marketing like being situated in buildings that are unique and customized for their business. Agencies like the opportunity to really create their own identity. We took that and ran with it, and started targeting the agency world for our office spaces. To build a long-term self-sustaining neighborhood, you need a mix of residential, commercial and business spaces, so we incorporated residential spaces as much as possible. Our residential buildings in the neighborhood are already constantly rented out, and we plan to grow our residential offerings with the Jefferson Connector.
Since we have a number of offices spaces at different sizes, we’ve also been moving agencies into larger office spaces as they grow, without being tied into a lease. It’s been a business incubator. We’re also working on making our office spaces Fitwel-certified, which means they’re designed in a way that supports healthy living. Fast-forward about 15 years, and we’ve developed 56 buildings housing 40 agencies, 15 restaurants, and both apartments and condos.
Now that Midtown has density, we are finishing the master plan with all the missing pieces: The Jefferson Connector.
This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. All images courtesy of Renaissance Development Associates. Cover image courtesy of Sarah-Marie Land.