A little over two decades ago, a blighted 200-acre industrial district on the southern edge of Midtown St. Louis was populated with abandoned and deteriorating buildings reminiscent of many distressed neighborhoods in post-industrial cities.
But then Dr. William H. Danforth, who had retired as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and founded the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, set out to establish St. Louis as a national research hub. Building on the momentum of the world-class research being done by local institutions and companies, Danforth believed plant and life sciences could be a powerful economic engine for the region. After a visit to the Boston area with civic leaders to learn more about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had funded development of the thriving Kendall Square innovation district in Cambridge, Danforth and his friend, businessman John Dubinsky, returned with a vision for replicating that model in St. Louis.
Soon after that, in 2002, St. Louis civic, institutional and business leaders came together in an act of unprecedented collaboration to found Cortex (Center of Research Technology and Entrepreneurial Exchange). The founding members were Washington University, BJC HealthCare, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University and the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Today, that 200-acre swath of neglected land that had physically divided those anchor institutions is now bringing them—and hundreds of smaller organizations—together in a vibrant, mixed-use innovation community just four miles west of the downtown core.
"We aren't just developing space. We're building an entrepreneurial community where innovation thrives." — Doug Woodruff , Senior Director, Wexford Science + Technology
Since rebranded as the Cortex Innovation Community and expanded in scope to welcome all sorts of knowledge-based startups and tech enterprises, Cortex is in year 18 of a 30-year development plan, with six new buildings in various stages of development. It is home to approximately 425 companies and 6,000 employees across two million square feet of coworking, office, lab, clinical, innovation center, event and educational space.
Land values in the neighborhood have climbed sharply. Attracted by the nearby universities training future occupants of Cortex as well as world-class hospitals, vibrant residential neighborhoods, restaurants, museums, recreation opportunities, a respected arts district and easy access to the region’s highest concentration of entrepreneurial talent, tenants ranging from one-person startups to the innovation arms of Fortune 100 companies like Boeing, DuPont and Microsoft have taken space at Cortex. The Brookings Institute has cited Cortex as a model for U.S. innovation districts.
When fully implemented in 2032, the Cortex master plan calls for a total of $2.1 billion of construction, more than 4.5 million square feet of research, office, clinical, residential, hospitality and retail space, and 13,000 permanent jobs.
Shaping the Physical Environment at Cortex
Over the past two decades, HOK’s planning and design teams have helped transform Cortex from a life and plant sciences district into an entrepreneurially-charged, live-work-play-learn community. In addition to early conceptual master planning efforts and ongoing development and parking master plan studies, HOK has completed several architectural and interiors projects. We have collaborated with Wexford Science & Technology, which is owned by real estate investment trust Ventas Inc., on three of the building projects. Together, our goal has been to create “econic” (economically iconic) facilities that meet market pro formas while being clever, interesting and transformative.
Cortex One | 2005
HOK’s first building commission at Cortex was for the design of a 165,000-sq.-ft flagship, multitenant building that also happened to be the nation’s first coworking wet lab model. Tenants have included Stereotaxis and digital payment processing company Square.
@4240 Duncan | 2013
The design for @4240 Duncan enabled the adaptive reuse of a 183,000-sq.-ft., 1948 telephone handset factory as a LEED Platinum workplace for 500 high-tech jobs. This project was HOK’s first with Wexford Science & Technology. Large floor plates and highly adaptable mechanical systems enable @4240 to support tenants ranging from individuals needing a hot desk to small startups and established research organizations.
The rejuvenated building includes 30,000 square feet for the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), one of the country’s leading business incubators, the Venture Café, Park Avenue Coffee, Washington University’s Office of Technology Management, and offices for Husch Blackwell, AB Mauri, Boeing HorizonX Ventures and Square.
4220 Duncan | 2018
For this project Wexford Science & Technology challenged the team to design a building that would serve as a hub for workers and visitors to Cortex The multitenant building provides highly flexible space for entrepreneurs, researchers and tech-sector employees to work, collaborate and unwind in one central location.
Tenants include the Microsoft Technology Center, Aon, BJC HealthCare’s fitness center, Boeing HorizonX/NeXt, the Washington University/Saint Louis University COLLAB research and education suite, Maryville University’s technology center and an expansion for the CIC.
4340 Duncan | 2019
This renovation of the 1930 Crescent Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and had once been a printing facility for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, creates 90,000-sq.-ft. of office, lab and modular spaces for biotech startups.
The anchor tenant is the nonprofit BioSTL, which supplies free resources and support to startups. Developed and owned by Washington University, the building also is home to BioGenerator Labs, Confluence Discovery Technologies, WUGEN/RiverVest Venture Partners, Arch Oncology and Canopy Biosciences.
4210 Duncan | 2021
The legacy of the site—formerly occupied by a metal manufacturer—inspired the design of a linear, metal facade for this 10-story, 320,000-sq.-ft office building bordering 4220 Duncan. When it opens in 2021, this will be the largest building on the Cortex campus. The flexible floor plan accommodates all types and sizes of space configurations. A hospitality lobby links to the new Cortex Gateway Plaza, an urban outdoor space with restaurant terraces.
After spending more than 15 years thinking about and working on Cortex projects, HOK’s teams have discovered that the design of disruptive innovation space—places where creative people thrive—is scalable. Design strategies used to attract the best people and promote the diversity, inclusiveness and curated interaction that leads to innovation in a 200-acre district also can be applied to a 5,000-sq.-ft. office. HOK is bringing this thinking to projects like One Discovery Square (below), part of the Mayo Clinic’s multi-billion dollar Destination Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Our experience designing space for the fast-moving, tech-savvy occupants of Cortex also is advancing how our teams work. Instead of showing PowerPoints or PDFs illustrating static drawings of a proposed new space, for example, design teams rely on building information modeling as well as virtual and augmented reality software. This enables future Cortex inhabitants to immerse themselves in the space long before construction starts. It’s a faster, more powerful way to make collaborative decisions about how a space should function and look.