Back to the Future

For many in South St. Louis, replacing the Southtown Famous with a Kmart is just something they can't swallow. And they're letting City Hall know it.

One sign that people have lived in a place a long time -- perhaps too long -- is when they talk about a corner by referring to what "used to be" there. In South St. Louis, the highest-profile used-to-be corner is Kings-highway and Chippewa Street, and the lost landmark most mentioned is the Southtown Famous-Barr department store, opened on that corner in 1952, closed in 1992 and torn down in 1995.

The store's massive curved concrete facade fronted the northeast corner of two of the busiest streets in the city, beginning at a time when the city's population exceeded 800,000. The store's picture-window displays gave South St. Louis a little taste of downtown, a sign of commercial bustle that eventually faded over the years with the exit of more than 500,000 city residents, the rise of suburban malls and the demise of stand-alone branch department stores. Not so coincidentally, once Famous closed and its rubble was cleared, the vacant lot reinforced the perception that the surrounding neighborhoods weren't what they used to be, as people and money drained out of the city to the more spacious and homogenous suburbs.

Efforts to build on the site, which in the minds of many meant replacing the Famous-Barr with something of similar status, never led to much except for talk of a HQ hardware megastore, but that company's financial problems stalled those plans. Finally, eight years after Southtown Famous closed, Kmart announced plans for a store on the 11-acre lot. All developers needed, because they sought no new public subsidy, was a conditional-use permit from the city, and commerce would once again be rolling at Kingshighway and Chippewa. That's all they needed, but what they got was more than 800 signatures in opposition and a litany of grief from dozens of angry residents voicing their opinions for the record.

Site of the former Southtown Famous-Barr
Jennifer Silverberg
Site of the former Southtown Famous-Barr

The permit hearing, an event usually attended only by applicants who must be there and lawyers paid to be there, was packed with close to 300 citizens. So many people wanted to testify against the proposed Kmart store that the hearing was continued the next week. The second meeting, held March 28, was slightly less crowded, but still about 200 people attended, armed with written statements, charts, copies of studies, demographic statistics and a resolve that Kmart should not be granted the right to build on the corner.

John Koch, the former alderman who has been the zoning administrator for the city for the last five years, says he was surprised by the turnout. Koch hopes to make his recommendation to the Board of Public Service for its decision on April 11. Normally, Koch's recommendation to the Board of Public Service is acted on by the board the same day he presents it. "But, considering the volume of the evidence and testimony that was presented and the intensity of the passion here, the board just might decide to take it under consideration for a short period of time," Koch says.

Koch, a City Hall veteran, knows this has become a loaded issue. In 1997, Mayor Clarence Harmon warned the site's developer, Sansone Holding Co., to do something with the lot in 90 days or else but later backed off from his demands. Sansone had originally packaged the 4-acre Famous lot with an additional 7 acres and sold it to Developers Diversified Realty (DDR) of Cleveland. In July, once HQ went belly-up and its $50,000-per-month lease payment to Sansone stopped, the proposal for a new Kmart at the site started to coalesce. There was talk of relocating the Walgreens from across Chippewa. But the Southside Coalition, a group of more than 20 neighborhood and business associations, didn't like the proposal and looked for alternatives. The coalition leaders say they have found a developer with an alternate proposal, and they want the city to deny Kmart's request for a conditional-use permit.

At the first hearing, Rep. Patrick Dougherty (D-St. Louis) testified against granting Kmart the permit. So did Ald. Stephen Gregali (D-14th). The most dramatic opposition came from Aldermanic President Francis Slay, who is running for mayor next year against Harmon. In his brief statement opposing the Kmart request, Slay said, "This issue is too important to sit idly by and watch from the sidelines." That "sitting idly by" reference is one Slay has used before to describe Harmon. Slay's comments, at several intervals, were greeted with loud applause that may have been audible down the hall in Room 200. Later, during the second meeting, Southside Coalition leader Phil Klevorn turned from the podium to ask whether anyone from the mayor's office was in attendance and whether they wanted to speak. No one responded.

The size of the turnout, and the political weight of the elected officials speaking in opposition, showed how driven the Southside Coalition has become. The issue is a difficult one for Harmon, because if he opposes a Kmart at the site, the lot very well may still be vacant when he runs for office next spring, one more example of a stalled project. If he supports Kmart, he risks alienating a vocal and active group in his power base of South St. Louis. Because Koch's recommendation goes to the Board of Public Service, made up entirely of mayoral appointees, Harmon's position carries some weight. Ultimately, appeals could put the question before a St. Louis Circuit Court judge, with whom direct political intervention is unlikely. On Friday, the plot thickened as Gregali wrote St. Louis Development Corp. to request that it begin the process to obtain the property through eminent domain.

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