What About Bob's Plan?

He's a sculptor and an entrepreneur, and he built the City Museum. Now Bob Cassilly has a "12th-hour" plan of salvation for the St. Louis Arena. But there are no believers at City Hall.

In less conceptual terms, Cassilly means that by providing a beachlike, sand-filled playground fronting Oakland and decorating it with giant whale sculptures and fountains and turning the Arena into some public building with an amusement edge, you offer something that Chesterfield or Maryland Heights doesn't. So the city could save the Arena, though with a radical facelift (see photo) and still attract commercial office-space development around it.

That would be competing with what Cassilly calls the "suburbanization" of life without surrendering to it: The city shouldn't mimic what happens on its fringes.

"How much lower can you go? They're doing it for no good reason," Cassilly says of the demolition for an office park. "Their highest accomplishment would be to come up with a banality which exists everywhere else. That's the goal. It's like a Third World country wanting to be like America -- so they adopt the worst traits of America.

"It hasn't worked anywhere in the city of St. Louis. Imagine one public thing that's worked in the city. They wanted a suburban shopping mall downtown, and they tear down the retail stores and build St. Louis Centre. Then they try the low-end stuff at St. Louis Marketplace."

Cassilly is not just an artist prone to idle brainstorming. In addition to being the prime mover behind the eclectic City Museum, he has done a bit of real-estate wheeling and dealing. He claims to have owned 45 pieces of property at one time or other and that "on average, my properties are worth 20 times what I paid for them." In 1993, Bob and his wife, Gail Cassilly, bought two 10-story International Shoe Co. buildings for $525,000. He estimates that the two renovated buildings, which include the City Museum, are now worth around $10 million.

"The value went up. This is a better-valued property afterward than before," says Cassilly, referring to what is now called the International Arts Complex. "The opposite is true of the city. What have they brought us? St. Louis Centre; the place out on Manchester -- the St. Louis Marketplace; the top of the old Union Market that's a Drury Inn now. Everything they touch turns to shit. These people are pissing away history and a good deal for nothing. There's no compelling reason to do that. It borders on incompetence.

"I've got as much or more credibility than Balke," Cassilly says. "I've lived in the city; I've been successful in the city; I've never lost any money on any real-estate transaction I've ever made."

To come up with the earnest money he offered the city, Cassilly says he used the "unconscionable profit" he gained from the sale of one of his properties downtown.

The deal the city has on the table with Balke worries Cassilly, because he sees the possibility of the city paying for the demolition of the Arena, then Balke only buying 20 percent of the land -- the part that fronts Oakland -- then declining to buy the rest. "They could make the rest of it useless by just using the strip in the front and then say, 'Sorry, city, the rest of it doesn't have any value," Cassilly says.

Balke's first tenant was going to be Safeco Insurance, which had considered moving its regional headquarters from Sunset Hills to the site on Oakland Avenue. Safeco decided against the move, and no new tenant has stepped forward.

With Cassilly's idea, the tenants would come because of the interaction of public and private space, as well as the spectacle the Arena would become. The new roof would be copper, weathered to a "green patina," Cassilly says. A giant "fanciful creature" would be sculpted on the top of the roof. All the "baby-playpen-yellow paint" would be covered over and all the advertisements banished.

In a way, it would be a different version of the same theme that worked at Union Station, though it would not be a shopping mall or a retail-arcade approach. Ironically, Balke was involved in developing Union Station. Cassilly isn't very concerned at this point about what exactly would be going on inside the building, though he says he has 10-15 ideas.

"Doesn't make any difference," says Cassilly. "Right now it's an ugly dog. You turn it into a jewel. It could have the same relationship that Union Station has to the outside perimeter developments. Ironically, what Balke has done in Union Station is only possible because Union Station is there."

In other words, if Union Station had been torn down, any boutiques or shops behind it would not have thrived. Both the Arena and Union Station, in this comparison, are architecturally significant structures on major thoroughfares. Saving the old in this case, Cassilly feels, is saving something better.

"Remember when you were 8 or 10 years old and you're going into the Arena for the circus? It's huge and dark and threatening, huge halls with chewing gum on the floor, and shiny lead paint all over the walls, and arches upon arches, just like Rome. You go there early and you see the animals, the tigers, the lions. You go up in the stands and it's forever, it's huge, it's awesome, it's full of cigarette smoke and light. It's dark, threatening. It's unlike any suburban experience. It sticks with me to this day," says Cassilly.

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