By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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"The highway commission, the department itself, considers contractors like Fred Weber its customers," the source says. In other words, controversial road projects such as the Page Avenue extension are often seen not as a function of what the public needs but of what the agency's contractors want.
The massive Page Avenue road project was officially unveiled by the highway department back in 1973, when it was decided that another bridge was needed to span the Missouri River. At that time, the only things separating St. Louis County, to the east of the river, from St. Charles County, to the west, were the western fringes of Maryland Heights, the 1,260-acre Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park and the Missouri Bottoms area and all of its commercial potential.
The transportation agency predicted a glossy financial future for St. Louis and St. Charles counties if a major expressway was built connecting the two free-flowing traffic and explosive development in the bottoms area. Indeed, even before ground was cleared for the Page extension, the Riverport Casino complex and the Riverport Office Park were rising from the western St. Louis County floodplain as symbols of what could be.
But back in 1973, the transportation agency was still looking at 15 possible routes for an extension of Page Avenue, which ended at Bennington Place, west of Interstate 270. Nothing was brought to the public table, though, until 1986, when the agency put together its "Reconnaissance Report," which soon led to the department's "tentative approval" of what it called the "Red Route" through the park.
This Red Route took Page Avenue from where it ended at Bennington Place across the south end of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park, then across the bottoms area to the Missouri River and into St. Charles County.
The project wrestled with opposition from the beginning, and because the park had been enlarged in 1971 with federal grant money, it wasn't clear whether the highway could be built there unless other property of at least equal economic, recreational and ecological value was added to the park as mitigation.
In response, the transportation department issued its final report on the Page Avenue extension in 1990, outlining what property it thought should be bought by the state for mitigation of the environmental damage caused to the park by the expressway. It consisted of three areas of land, two to the north and one to the south of the park.
Though over the next decade there would be much calculating by county, state and federal agencies about how much more land should be added to the park for mitigation, the original three areas chosen by the state agency in 1989 and '90 were never once erased from the equation.
And over the next several years, as arguments broke out over what additional lands should be bought, whether they could environmentally replace what the expressway would destroy and whether the expressway could even legally be built, Fred Weber was winning contracts on the project, including $8.6 million to build bridge supports, $6.8 million to raise several local roads and $1.6 million to construct an interchange.
In the interim, the company was also quietly acquiring property near the route of the new road project.
It was the Page Avenue extension, the state's largest highway project, that provided the company the opportunity to profit not just from construction contracts but from land deals as well.
In April 1989, as the state was finalizing its Red Route plan for the Page Avenue extension, Fred Weber bought 40 acres of land on Creve Coeur Mill Road, which butts up against the southern end of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park. The property was purchased for $225,000 from an entity familiar to Fred Weber the St. Louis Construction Training and Advancement Foundation, which trains employees for contractors and is administered by Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, which counts Fred Weber among its members.
Also in 1989, the state began putting together its environmental-impact statement, which publicly appeared in draft form in 1990, for the project. In that draft, state highway officials indicated which parcels of land around the park should be used as mitigation for the environmental damage caused by the extension. It would, after all, be a 10-lane expressway, 60-120 feet high, that would cut a swath 650 feet wide for right-of-way through Creve Coeur Park.
In aerial maps included in the report, the state marked two large swaths of land, adjacent to the northern end of the park, that it designated "Priority 1 Area" and "Priority 2 Area." To the south of the park was "Priority 3 Area." The three areas together made up about 264 acres, which the state proposed buying for mitigation.
Included at that time in the Priority 3 Area was the 40-acre property Fred Weber had just purchased from the construction foundation.
After the environmental-impact statement draft was released in 1990, the state secured funding for the first phase of the Page Avenue extension. That same year, the right-of-way corridor for the extension was "secured," meaning that St. Louis County blocked any construction taking place along the proposed route.
Later in 1990, the transportation commission officially approved the Page Avenue extension and announced that it would be buying at least 639 acres of land at the north and south ends of the park as mitigation for the expressway. This included the three priority areas. That September, the Maryland Heights City Council also approved a resolution supporting the extension through the park.