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Dressing up downtown

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Dressing up downtown

By Tavia Evans

Of the Post-Dispatch

05/26/2004

Lee Johnson is betting on downtown St. Louis.

Johnson, a native New Yorker, predicts that in a couple of years, the downtown area will boast a thriving streetscape with sidewalk cafes, retail stores and restaurants.

And he's betting that his own "urban wear" boutique, Lee J - which opened Friday in the Merchandise Mart at 1000 Washington Avenue - will help to fill the gap left by retailers that fled downtown more than a decade ago. The 2,600-square-foot boutique is the first new retail store in the rehabbed Merchandise Mart building, also home to Kitchen K bar and restaurant and the Merchandise Mart Apartments.

Lee J faces little competition downtown for the hip-hop labels he carries, like Sean John and P. Diddy's new Bad Boy line, as well as men's and women's custom shirts and suits from local designers and other apparel. Johnson's clientele includes many who may not have visited downtown St. Louis in years.

"We're going after the urban person who likes city life and wants to be able to look good and shop," said Johnson. "When tourists come here, they'll see the familiar brands they can see in Chicago or New York and San Francisco."

Groups like Downtown St. Louis Partnership welcome Johnson's vision - and customers - to herald the area's rebirth. The group, an official cheerleader for downtown development, packages incentives like forgivable loans and a chance at prime storefront property to draw retailers.

"He (Johnson) is now getting in on the front end of a re-emerging market for downtown," said Jim Cloar, president of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "He's near the convention center and the growing residential market and he doesn't have a lot of competition. It's an excellent time for him to get in."

Johnson hopes to duplicate the success he's achieved since he left an executive position at Edison Brothers in 1999 to become an independent clothier. He opened his first Lee J in the Central West End later that year, which he closed to relocate downtown. He also has a store in Ladue, which opened in January.

The downtown store is along a stretch of Washington Avenue that has many buildings under construction. Johnson's counting on commuters - along with the new wave of urban dwellers in the downtown area's 7,500 apartment and loft units - to drive business to the area.

"The advantage to retailers is that they have two distinct customer bases, the tens of thousands who work downtown every day and the thousands of residents who are now discovering that you can have a great quality of life living downtown," said Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development.

But whether new retailers draw customers and keep commuters downtown past the work day is a chicken-and-egg question, said Mike Jones, head of the Greater St. Louis Empowerment Zone.

"Do the people come first or is it the successful retail that comes first?"

Other retailers are signing on for the area's anticipated growth.

Ambiente Collection, a Raleigh, N.C.-based furniture retailer, will open June 1 at the corner of 10th and Locust streets. Local grocer City Market is due to open this summer a few blocks away at Olive and 9th streets. Both have received assistance from Downtown St. Louis and the Empowerment Zone.

As more businesses trickle downtown, Johnson predicts the area will become a major dining and shopping district. He's betting that his boutique is on the front end of downtown's rebirth.

"When this street gets packed with stores, I want to be the one that gives great customer service so that people feel good about carrying a Lee J's bag and shopping downtown. I want to make people feel special about the downtown area again."

Reporter Tavia Evans

E-mail: [email protected]

Phone: 314-340-8159

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