The Arena Isn't the Only One Dying

The city sells a piece of its soul for an office park

The city of St. Louis has a vision, finally.
That vision looks a lot like Maryland Heights. Or Chesterfield. Or Manchester. Or Fenton. Or any number of other communities -- fine burgs, one and all -- that scuffle gamely to land that next prized suburban office park.

It's a vision in which jobs and development and tax revenues matter far more than history and character and soul. It's one in which nothing is sacred if there's a more expedient economic deal on the table.

Welcome to the world of late-'90s government, where cash is king and where one dreams of landing on the National Registry of Profitable Places.

Strapped for dollars -- and bankrupt of creativity -- the city government has puzzled for nearly a decade over what to do about the historic-but-now-vacant St. Louis Arena and the prime real estate that surrounds it. Now comes the answer: Pave paradise (and even its parking lot) and put up an office park.

The Arena seems certain to be torn down in favor of one such corporate holy place, a decision by Mayor Clarence Harmon that was largely sealed last week as a committee of the Board of Aldermen voted 10-0 to unleash the wrecking ball. The politicians have heard enough from the idealists: It's time to let people with the money on the table (a.k.a. Balke Properties) have their way.

Instead of turning 70 next year as what architect Ted Wofford aptly terms a "remarkable, international engineering landmark," the Arena will just be another dead historic thing. Wofford is the author of an ambitious plan -- ranging in estimates up to $400 million -- that would turn the building into a world-class aquarium, along with office and residential developments on the 26-acre site.

Barring a last-minute miracle-on-where-the-ice-once-was, Wofford's idea will be more than a little moot. Harmon and the aldermen say they've given the aquarium proponents more than enough time to produce financing, and demolition could come early next year.

Sorting out the Arena issue may be every bit as hard as saving the structure itself. It's hard to remember an issue in which the various parties had more different interpretations of the same set of facts.

Harmon spokesman John Boul told me Tuesday, "The Arena is a derelict building at a point where it would take millions of dollars to bring it up to any kind of safety code, much less bring it up to any kind of use like an aquarium."

Responds Wofford: "That's ridiculous. I've studied the plans, and I wouldn't have pursued this for three years and spent damn near $250,000 of my own money if this building were derelict or unusable."

How's that for being far apart?
Even the question of financing comes down to an indecipherable chicken-and-egg argument. Harmon and the aldermen can state accurately that they haven't seen evidence of financing from Wofford and his group, which includes several prominent St. Louisans.

But Wofford counters that the city's lack of cooperation has been the key obstacle.

"The problem has not been funding the project, but proving to our investors that there was a project to fund," Wofford says. "We've been working with some of the top financial consultants in the country, but they've come back to me and said the city sounds fishier than the aquarium."

Want a definitive answer? Go fish.
What we do know, pretty much for sure, is that St. Louis' reputed civic guardians have long wanted the Arena dead. It's hardly a stretch to understand that city government -- and especially the politicians -- aren't exactly doing cartwheels to save the space.

Much of this problem was created when Mayor Vince Schoemehl and the civic big boys -- known as the Kiel Partners -- cut their corporate-welfare-laden deal for the Arena to be replaced downtown with the Kiel Center. Incredibly, the city sweetened its $35 million-or-so pot with agreements not to charge admission at the Arena (so much for the free-enterprise capitalism extolled by Civic Progress). Even more incredibly, some maintain the prohibition would prevent an aquarium from charging a fee as well.

That attitude toward the Arena may be the clearest statement of all. For all the vagueness and competing claims and wildly divergent numbers that characterize the debate, this much seems certain: The powers that be aren't getting goose bumps when they drive by the old barn on Highway 40.

"Their agenda has always been to tear the Arena down," says Wofford. "When the city refinanced the building in 1994, their appraisal speaks of a site without the Arena building and dedicated to Class B office space."

Whether Wofford can raise all -- or anywhere near -- the money needed to restore the Arena as an aquarium development is unclear. But there's something eerily believable about his feeling that the fix is in, that the reason St. Louis is going to lose a beloved landmark is that some fairly powerful people don't love it so much.

Even respecting that city government is trying to do its best here -- the jobs and economic development are a critical priority -- it should tear down a historic treasure like the Arena only if it's clearly shown that no use for it is viable and only if a clearly superior alternative is at hand.

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