We’ve been hearing about it for years—a renaissance is happening in downtown St. Louis. Supporters will tell you that all you have to do is take a walk down Washington Avenue to see that it’s real. Downtown St. Louis seems more alive today than at any time since its ‘heyday’ before the outward migration in the 1950s and ’60s.
The newest element of downtown’s increasingly vibrant streetscape is taking shape near the spot where St. Louisans once poured into the city from the Eads Bridge on horse and buggies: the newly formed district on Washington Avenue between 6th and 7th streets that’s been dubbed ‘MX.’ The abbreviation is the updated name for Mercantile Exchange, which is probably what our forefathers with buggies would have called it.
In what was once the old Stix, Baer & Fuller building and the St. Louis Centre Mall, there is now a glistening new Embassy Suites Hotel, the Laurel Apartments and the future site of the National Blues Museum. Across the street, construction is underway on a mix of shopping, restaurants (including a new PI), and a ‘dine-in’ movie theater.
One of the more original projects is called The Collective at MX. That’s where you will find Nicole Benoist. Her name is genuinely as French as her great, great, great, great-grandfather, Francois Marie Benoist, who came to St. Louis as a fur-trader in 1790. Francois’ son was Louis August Benoist, a pioneer banker who built the historic Oakland House in Affton. Nicole Benoist is confident that the same opportunities that opened up to her St. Louis ancestors also lay ahead of her.
Benoist is the director and managing curator of this soon-to-open store that is more accurately defined as a retail co-op. She says The Collective (expected to open in late August) represents a shopping concept that is new to St. Louis. “We handpick retailers who exemplify style like Blush, Byrd Style Lounge and Vintage Highway, with all the merchandise sold in one open space and staffed with people who know the product,” she explains. “All of the vendors I’ve approached are not only behind this project, but they are genuinely excited.”
Benoist has seen retail co-ops work in other cities and thinks it will go over just as well here. “It’s very edited and curated, so when people come in they know they are getting the best of the best.” She isn’t just basing her prediction on a hunch. She’s worked for Chanel and designer Todd Oldham in New York. In San Francisco, she teamed up with designers for Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, and in Los Angeles, her clients included Estée Lauder, Aveda and Diptyque. To top it all off, she helped manage the pop group, Hootie and the Blowfish. It’s a resume that some might think would land her in a place more like Paris, and yet she came back to her hometown where she and others involved in MX hope to keep downtown’s momentum going.
“There’s energy to it and that’s a part of it— we want to build on that energy to have this urban environment,” Benoist says. “We have a beautiful city downtown and people should take advantage of it. I’m excited to be a part of something that is going to make it come alive.”
This one block is expected to be a destination location for tourists and city dwellers, as well as suburbanites. The MX and partners like The Collective are certain it’s another sign that the downtown renaissance still is on track. All you have to do is take a walk down Washington Avenue to see for yourself.