The Ivory Soapbox: An insider’s opinion on Loop expansion

I have lived on the Delmar Loop in University-owned housing—University Terrace, to be specific—for more than a year and a half. In that time, I have grown fiercely attached to the Loop. For all of its flaws, ranging from crime levels that are at times alarmingly high to its distance from campus, the Loop and the surrounding neighborhood are my home, and in a few months, I will be sad to leave it.

It is for this reason that I lend my full-throated support to Wash U.’s massive housing and commercial development project that was begun this semester and will be completed over the next few years. The Loop, despite once making an annual list as one of America’s best streets and despite being one of St. Louis’ main attractions—it’s impossible to drive on any of the city’s highways without seeing signs advertising it—is a struggling enterprise. When first I arrived at Wash. U. in 2009, and in the subsequent year or two, I attributed its empty storefronts to the recession that was just finishing debilitating the country and hitting already-troubled cities with particular ferocity.

I was wrong. In the three and a half years of sluggish recovery that have followed, the Loop has barely continued to limp along, and stores close with surprising regularity. Just this year, the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge went under (though given the grungy nature of the establishment and its clientele, this might be for the best).With the exception of the recently opened Chubbies, that entire block is enjoying a period of empty space worse than I have ever seen.

Wash. U.’s new housing project will change much of that. Where once lived just fewer than 70 regular residents and where once was room for 150 more tenants who could cycle in and out for a maximum stay of five months, Wash. U. is building a gargantuan complex that will occupy, it seems, half a block, with room for more than 600 occupants and space facing the street reserved for new businesses. This expansion cannot help but revitalize the anemic economic life on the Loop. Most Wash. U. students are blessed with wealthy parents, and while some may experience more financial independence by the time they decide to move north of the Loop, the vast majority of us are never in such financial straits that we can’t afford to frequent a Loop-based culinary establishment a couple of times a week. The addition of hundreds of hungry, expendable-cash-laden students will be a huge boon to local restaurants, retailers and bars, particularly in that most depressed stretch, which happens to be just across the street.

Businesses, for their part, have always been hugely eager to attract more members of the Wash U. student body. Many years ago, the overpass that connects Wash. U.’s Danforth campus to the Loop was constructed for the purpose of aiding Wash. U. students in visiting the street. Last year saw the expansion of Wash. U.’s Bear Bucks program to multiple Loop businesses, and the beginning of every academic year sees the installation of a gigantic banner over the Loop that reads “Welcome back, students!”

There are legitimate grievances, of course. The expansion will inevitably lead to the growth of the Wash. U. bubble and further diminish the need to leave it, and nearby property values will probably rise, forcing some of their occupants to look for accommodation elsewhere. On the whole, however, the expansion is a good thing. More money spent on the Loop will aid in job creation and wealth distribution, revitalizing an area that, if the vacant spaces and last year’s riots and shootings are any indicators, is badly in need of it. And as far as students are concerned, booming businesses are more aesthetically pleasing than shuttered doors, and eight restaurant choices are better than five. Wash. U. regularly acts in self-interested ways, but in this case, the decision is good for everyone involved.