Washington Avenue has long had a reputation for late-night thrills. But maybe not for much longer.
Greater St. Louis Inc., the region’s business development organization, is spearheading a push to ban new large clubs in most of downtown and require any new drinking establishment to close by 1:30 a.m.
A vocal group of Washington Avenue residents and developers have been trying to tamp down the nightclubs — and the high-profile shootings and other trouble they associate with them — for years. They’ve complained to city officials, called the police and worked to yank liquor licenses. But now, they’re trying to run off the clubs for good, and they’ve enlisted St. Louis business leaders for help.
“Residents need to know it’s safe, and they need to feel safe,” said Jason Hall, Greater St. Louis’ CEO. “And they need know that if you have to get up in the morning and go to work, there’s not going to be a nightclub going until 3 a.m.”
Hall and other leaders have broader ambitions to reinvigorate a city center struggling with office and retail vacancies exacerbated by the pandemic, plus the violent crime and drag racing that has fostered a sense of lawlessness. They’ve already called for more investment in public safety downtown and more events, like concerts, to increase foot traffic. But with the new rules, they see an opportunity to make explicit Washington Avenue’s future as a residential anchor, with restaurants, bars and shops catering to thousands of loft-dwellers and visitors.
Club owners are crying foul, casting the effort as yet another misguided attack on the corridor’s original draw.
“It’s actually comical,” said Bobbi Baker, who runs Europe Night Club just off Washington on 15th Street. “That place was dead prior to the nightclubs going down and revitalizing that area.”
Crime, Baker said, is not a club problem but a city problem.
“We always are the scapegoat,” she said.
Proponents of the new rules, contained in a larger rezoning plan, concede there are other issues. Trouble also crops up at parties in lofts rented out online and in parking lots left unguarded at night. Downtown Alderman James Page said he’s working on legislation to address those issues — but maintains that the clubs have to be reined in, too.
The new rules wouldn’t apply to existing businesses or venues that are part of hotels, casinos and stadium complexes. They would generally stop south of Chestnut Street, so they wouldn’t touch the bars around Busch Stadium and on South Broadway.
That puts the focus on Washington Avenue, where residents and club operators have been at odds for two decades.
‘It’s a little edgy’
The clubs came first. Washington Avenue’s first modern nightclub, 1227, opened in 1989, and the street started making a name for itself as a late-night destination.
Things started changing in the new century. Historic renovation tax credits fueled a loft-building boom. Retail shops, restaurants and office rehabs followed. Rising rents pushed out some clubs; new residents complained about those that remained.
A duel over a liquor license in 2006 foreshadowed the modern debate. A club called Ten14, located in an otherwise abandoned building at 11th and Locust streets, sought the right to stay open and serve until 3 a.m. Owner Kip Fischer said he probably couldn’t stay in business closing earlier.
But Craig Heller, one of the original loft developers, opposed the idea.
“I’m not against nightclubs,” Heller said then. “The question is: Is this the right place for a club the scale of this one?”
Fischer, the club owner, argued back, “What is a downtown? It’s not a neighborhood like in the suburbs. People are moving downtown because it’s a little edgy, it’s a little dangerous.”
Four years later, a spate of shootings on Washington Avenue rattled City Hall enough to call in club managers for meetings, and to try to yank the liquor license of one club, Lure. Lure’s owner said the city targeted him because many of his patrons were Black.
The club eventually closed. But the concerns about shootings, fighting and cruising bubbled up every few years.
In 2012, complaints about teenagers loitering and heckling patrons prompted a curfew and closed streets. In 2015, a teenager was killed in a robbery attempt outside Europe Night Club.
Then, in 2020, Reign Restaurant opened.
That December, four people were injured in a lengthy shootout just outside its front door. A few months later, liquor control officers reported brazen violations of Reign’s 1:30 a.m. closing time. Alarmed residents put together a petition to pull Reign’s liquor license last summer, but a judge ruled they were short signatures. It took two shootings in a week last August before the city moved to shut Reign down.
But that got residents thinking. What if they could use a special zoning district, as other city commercial districts have, to manage what properties were used for?
‘People are worried about safety’
Residents then talked to Greater St. Louis, which in turn hired professionals from PGAV Planners to survey downtown stakeholders and work with the city to craft a proposal.
Last week, a Greater St. Louis executive and a PGAV planner spoke with the resident-led Downtown Neighborhood Association about zoning changes to build a “dense, safe and vibrant downtown.” Other uses were addressed: No more payday lenders, gas stations or storage facilities. A special review process for new smoking lounges or convenience stores.
But the rules concerning clubs were the main event.
Page, the alderman, who lives in the loft district downtown, liked what he heard.
The violence tied to some clubs has scared off convention-goers and people coming down from St. Louis County who help support downtown businesses, he told the Post-Dispatch. And the noise drives away residents.
“It makes living above those places a living hell,” Page said.
Developers said they liked what they were hearing, too.
“I love it,” said Amos Harris, who lives downtown and developed the Embassy Suites, Laurel Apartments and the MX on Washington Avenue. “We’re desperate in downtown for a change.”
But Sonny Saggar, who ran a private social club near Washington Avenue that drew complaints from the neighborhood association, heard only bad ideas.
“They’re trying to make the downtown area into another part of suburbia,” he said. And it would do nothing, he said, about the root causes of the crime, like guns.
The plan also gave pause to longtime Washington Avenue figure Paul “Pablo” Weiss, of Hot Locust Cantina, the Side Door music club and Kitchen K fame, who still owns the building that houses The Pepper Lounge club on Locust Street. He called the plan a “blunt instrument” that could bring unintended consequences for economic development downtown. He suggested the city consider more stringent enforcement of the liquor license rules it already has.
Michaela Hogue, who lives on Washington Avenue and works at a restaurant there, is willing to try the new plan.
“A lot of people are worried about safety,” she said. “Getting people to come down here is a struggle.”