Even just ten years ago, downtown St. Louis had seen better days. What was once a bustling downtown area with a booming population, well-tenanted housing districts and burgeoning businesses became a ghost of itself. In the thick of all that, Amos Harris, a New York native, came into the picture 18 years ago, and now runs the local branch of a Connecticut-based real estate firm, Spinnaker Real Estate Partners. He’s also the primary developer behind the new Mercantile Exchange, or the MX, a massive rebuilding project downtown.
Harris and I have never met. All I have to identify him is a small profile photo on the Spinnaker website I have pulled up on my phone. Soon, he walks up towards the corner of 7th Street and Washington Avenue, well-dressed, well-groomed, and extremely well-coiffed. Extending a firm handshake, he takes out a set of keys that glint in the afternoon sunlight, and struts up to the front door.
The buildings have the feel of a brand-new train set unveiled on Christmas morning, shiny and new. The area is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. “In technical real-estate terms, this was the ass-end of downtown,” says Harris, dry sarcasm etched into his voice.
He hopes to transform it further into something of a citywide gathering spot where friends, families, tourists, and natives can spend all day exploring a carefully curated menu of experiences: eating, shopping, music, art … he’s aiming for the stuff of culture and class, things that aren’t always as easy to see as our problems.
“There’s no iconic place that people resonate with in downtown St. Louis. The challenge is to create that central place,” says Harris. “Part of it is telling a story that’s compelling, that feels like it can happen.”
For almost 7 years, since 2006, Harris has been laying the groundwork for the new space here. He has pored over building plans, met with architects, pitched to tenants, businesses, restaurant owners, sponsors, and even his family, convincing them of the potential for beauty here. Given the sheer magnitude of this kind of rebuilding project, he has had to hand over a huge part of himself in order to make it happen. The process has provided him with an intimate knowledge of the MX and it’s surrounding areas. Urban development, real estate, and buildings are what Harris knows best. He talks about these things with a confidence that was bred in his early days in New York City, which carried onwards to his undergraduate studies at Yale and a successful career in real estate.
So what on earth is Amos Harris doing here?
“You’ve got 4.5 million square feet of class A office space around it, you’ve got the Convention Center, the Convention Center Hotel, the Arch grounds three blocks away, you’ve got the landing, Lumière … but it was in such bad condition that nobody wanted, really, to touch it. Because you couldn’t just do one side or the other, you had to do it all, or it wasn’t worth doing. We chose to take it on.”
Harris moved here 18 years ago, and in his words, “I was making money for people in New York out of distressed real estate in St. Louis,” he says. That really is how it started, but he hadn’t planned on the city taking hold of his heart and refusing to let go, nor had he planned on cultivating his role in the evolution of downtown.
His wife didn’t want to stay either. It took Harris’s convincing to help her see what the city could become. “I was like, ‘No, no! We’ve got to stay and make this better,’” says Harris. “I saw that there was potential here.” Now, St. Louis has grown to need him.
Harris walks us into the labyrinth of the MX, through rooms and hallways decorated with large pieces of edgy modern art, everything clean, new, and fresh. In addition to the actual buildings, he has also built a respectable compilation of tenants for the MX, from Pi Pizza to Robust and Snarf’s, which surely took some clever, fervent persuading.
“How did you sell people on your vision?” I ask him.
“Uh … lots of beer,” he says.
However he did it, Harris has won over the trust of well-respected businesses who surely would not have taken such a huge risk without some savvy pitching.
“How do you build trust?” I ask.
“We try to do what we promise. Any real conversation depends, to some degree, on trust.”
But there is still much to be done: his next mission is to transform downtown into a pedestrian-friendly space. “Nobody does it, but it’s a ten-minute walk to the Four Seasons from here. It’s easy. But we haven’t created that pedestrian experience. People from St. Louis will walk two miles down Michigan Avenue and not think about it, but they won’t walk a half a mile in St. Louis. So it’s not the people, it’s the experience,” he says.
Processing this conundrum, I still wonder: Who is this person, who has adopted St. Louis as his own, and vowed to make it beautiful? According to an article in St. Louis Magazine, “He arrived from New York in the early ’90s, and much of his background remains a mystery. He is a beekeeper, throws legendary parties at his extravagant loft, and is friends with both the owners of downtown buildings and the people who clean them.”
With minimal prodding, he cracks open more.
“My father was a writer. We moved around a lot,” he says. By contrast, he has kept his family in one spot. His daughter was born three years ago.
“We were sure she was a boy,” he says.
“Did you have a preference?” I ask.
“Oh no. I mean … I’m 55. I was happy to have a child at all.”
“I wanted to experience that kind of love, [the kind] that I imagined it would be … and it has been every bit of that. Every bit and more. I mean, it’s hard to imagine … I would of course, step into traffic for her, take a bullet for her … there’s just … that’s just pretty amazing.” He stops, as though startled by what he said. He can speak eloquently about the city and how to attack its problems with ease, but it’s much more difficult to talk about himself.
However, without being prompted, he tells the story of how he met his wife on Match.com. Harris was ahead of the curve, as an early proponent of online dating. “I got more dates on Match.com than I knew what to do with. Then I met my wife and that was it,” he says.
“Are you going to be a shotgun dad when your daughter starts dating?”
“Probably,” he says, wincing at the thought.
Although he was something of a playboy in his earlier years, Harris has a crystal clear recollection of the first time he met the woman he loves. “We both had lived in New York and we met the day after September 11, 2001 … it was a major kind of moment,” he says, and takes me through the first time they met. “We meet at King Louie’s. I get there a little bit early … this beautiful woman walks in with a halter top and gorgeous slacks. I’m like, ‘Please God, let this be her.’ And it was.”
“What is it like connecting to someone in that way?” I ask.
“It’s … different. You know, without … when you’re in your twenties and maybe early thirties, you got the hormones raging, and there’s all this … it’s all about sex, at least it was for me. And now, it was much more about finding somebody whose company I just loved.”
On first impressions alone, Harris seems like the type of person who would attempt to hide these kinds of authentic, vulnerable details, but he’s surprisingly forthright. It’s an ability he has achieved over the years. “I’ve told that story multiple times,” he says. “I knew right away. It took her a lot longer, but I knew right away.”
He then proceeded to propose to her not one, but three times.
“She said, sort of, ‘I’ll get back to you.”
These were no ordinary proposals. Harris is not one to skimp on grand gestures of love.
For the second one, “I took her on a trip, a beautiful trip, to Spain. We were in the Picos de Europa … gorgeous mountains in the North of Spain. We were standing in an old monastery, it was in the hills. And I’d arranged breakfast,” he says, recalling the details of the entire event with striking acuity.
“I got down on one knee, asked her to marry me, and it was like, ‘Uh…let me get back to you,’” he says.
“Were you scared?” I ask him.
“Scared isn’t the right word. I was confounded. But when I just put the diamond on her finger, she finally caved in,” he says, laughing. But he never questioned their love, and never questioned that he’d found the one, no matter how much of a fight she put up.
“I think in the end, people want to figure out how to connect,” he says. Perhaps this simple, fundamental understanding is what drives him in some subconscious way: he is committed to creating a space for people in the city to build relationships. To him, one of the benefits of what he does in real estate is “having enough of a footprint so that you can change the perception of a space.”
Now, with his wife, daughter, and downtown apartment, Harris has channeled his whole life, family, home and work into improving the city. He wound up here, planning to leave, and latched onto all of the possibilities instead.
In the light of possibility, buildings, spaces, cities, and people become full and multifaceted, which can grow and thrive given the right conditions. In the light of possibility, the MX is more than a movie theater, restaurants, and shops. In the light of possibility, what once was dilapidated and vacant is now a shiny new gathering space, populated by buildings with glass doors, fresh coats of paint, and people of all different kinds. All because someone looked at it and saw what it could become.
“This isn’t just one person’s work,” says Harris. “This is the work of the vested interests of all of downtown. St. Louis is blessed with some world-class folks that will pitch in and make this work.”
For more information about Amos Harris and the Mercantile Exchange, visit www.mxstl.com