TEARING DOWN THE GARDEN WALL

The Missouri Botanical Garden teams up with the Shaw Neighborhood, infamous for its feuds, to reach across I-44 in an effort to rescue McRee Town. All that's needed are a few miracles and about $50 million.

Even though Covenant House said it would only serve youth from the Shaw neighborhood, McGovern was skeptical that they wouldn't go looking for clients and that if someone came from farther away, they would turn them down.

Gina Ryan, a former president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association who lives at 3822 Flad, opposed the sale and didn't like the way its opponents were portrayed. "There's a handful of people in the neighborhood who are Covenant House supporters. It's gotten to be an awful lot of finger-pointing about who's tolerant and who's not," says Ryan, who feels that's a bogus charge. "Not one person said Covenant House is a bad organization or they're running bad programs. Everybody just said it was the wrong location for it."

Those who knew of the sale to Covenant House early on "didn't anticipate that everybody would react like they would," says Ryan. "It was treated casually, and it backfired."

Floyd Wright successfully led the opposition to a 1991 plan by the Missouri Botanical 
Garden to buy his and others' property for increased parking and better access to the 
highway. This time he's on board. "Everything so far has been quite above board," 
says Wright. "If it ever wasn't, I'd quit."
Jennifer Silverberg
Floyd Wright successfully led the opposition to a 1991 plan by the Missouri Botanical Garden to buy his and others' property for increased parking and better access to the highway. This time he's on board. "Everything so far has been quite above board," says Wright. "If it ever wasn't, I'd quit."

On April 27 at the meeting of the affected blocks, the vote went 16-5 against Covenant House's being in the building. Trouble was, in the meantime the city had issued an occupancy permit on the basis of the proposed usage for the building and the initial approval by the neighborhood association, even though the approval was stated to be "contingent" on the OK of nearby residents.

As if the situation couldn't get any stickier, the occupancy permit was revoked and the Board of Adjustment held a hearing. Presiding over the meeting was John Koch, a former alderman for Shaw who was familiar with its pitched battles — he once survived a recall effort. People took days off from work so that they could testify. Opponents of the deal cited parking problems, noted that the intended use of the building was different from the current use and stressed the expected negative impact on the neighborhood.

The board listened and, about a week later, issued a conditional-use permit limiting the operation to daylight hours and banning any residential component and any recreational or "social programming on the exterior grounds." The program was to "focus only on the youth in the Shaw neighborhood who are between the ages of 17-21."

The opponents were not pleased. With the Benedict-Joseph Labre Center, a shelter for abused women, the Missouri School for the Blind, Cornerstone Child Development, the planned American Youth Foundation and several other agencies, the addition of Covenant House made Shaw appear, as one resident said, as if it were the "Social Services R Us" neighborhood.

What also galled the residents was that Covenant House had tried and failed to locate a facility in the Central West End, at 4314 Lindell Blvd., and later at the corner of Manchester and Boyle avenues. Each time they had such difficulty with either the zoning or the redevelopment authorities — Washington University Redevelopment Corp. and McCormack Baron — that they looked elsewhere.

Suggestions that Covenant House try buying the soon-to-be-vacant International Institute on Park Avenue or locate on a busier thoroughfare went nowhere. One Shaw resident, Kathleen Sharkey, believes Covenant House wanted to locate in a nicer neighborhood because its "volunteers from the Junior League" wouldn't go to McRee Town or other areas where a building might be cheaper and more convenient. Sharkey, who says she has donated to Covenant House in the past, thinks the new social- service agency on the block will be a magnet for trouble.

"There is going to be a higher concentration of troubled kids in the neighborhood," she says. "We have troubled kids now; nobody is denying that. In fact, (about a week) after the Board of Adjustment hearing, I was mugged — right here in the neighborhood. It was an 18-year-old who would be a prime candidate for Covenant House services. But why bring more of that kind of kid into the neighborhood? I was standing with two other people, a man and a woman; we were on a really good block. This guy was so bold. I think he needed a fix of drugs. Twelve noon, broad daylight. I had my purse over my shoulder, and he grabbed the purse and threw me down. The man I was standing with started to fight with him."

The assailant got away, but within a week an arrest was made in connection with the assault on Sharkey.

There is the option of an appeal on the Board of Adjustment ruling, but that would mean hiring a lawyer. In this case, Covenant House has deeper pockets than a bunch of disgruntled neighbors. "They are in essence a multinational corporation with $132 million in assets," says Sean Thomas, of 3805 Cleveland Ave. "They have money to burn."

Marian Wolaver, executive director of Covenant House Missouri, hopes the worst is over as she prepares for an Aug. 16 opening of the facility. Wolaver says the main attraction of the building was it needed no real renovation and lay in an area that needed to be served. "There are many people who support what we're doing, and there are some people who don't," Wolaver says. "Quite frankly, I don't have time to go around rapping on people's doors and asking if they've changed their mind because we're busy trying to get going so we can help kids. That's the bottom line."

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