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.

Whatever the outcome, the packed hearings turned some heads at City Hall. After the second hearing, Jerome Pratter walked out of the Kennedy Room marveling at the organized opposition he had just witnessed. "It was fabulous," observed Pratter, who is an attorney for the Stolar Partnership, which is working for Kmart. Pratter was referring to the Internet research conducted by the Southside Coalition, the association of neighborhood groups that have rallied together against the proposal. Pratter made it clear that he thought they were misguided but said he admired their drive and ingenuity. Just a few minutes earlier, during the hearing, Pratter had issued an ominous warning to the opponents of Kmart's plan for the Southtown site.

"A woman told me this morning that every present she ever received as a child, from her birthday to Christmas, came from that Southtown Famous store. Well, let me tell you -- that store no longer exists," Pratter told the crowd. Later, he added that those trying to block the Kmart proposal "were taking a gamble," because, if they succeed, the city could end up with two vacant lots, the one at Kingshighway and Chippewa and one at Gravois and Gustine avenues, because Kmart plans to close its store at Gravois Plaza.

Gregali, Klevorn and the Southside Coalition have a different plan for the long-empty corner, and Kmart is not a part of it. Instead of one "big-box" development, they envision two or three smaller stores, something along the lines of an Old Navy, Circuit City or T.J. Maxx, connected by smaller storefronts featuring the likes of a St. Louis Bread Co. or other small stores and restaurants. In their plan, the stores would be close to the street and the parking would be behind the stores -- still free, just not as visible from the street. The bricks and architecture would be more suited to the surrounding apartments and businesses, similar to the strip on South Grand Boulevard at Arsenal Street.

To this end, they have been in contact with Jeffrey Anderson, a developer from Cincinnati. Anderson has visited the site, even lunching at the Applebee's across the street, and has expressed interest in developing the site. Gregali and Todd Britt, an aide to Slay, traveled to Cincinnati to meet with Anderson and tour his developments. Klevorn believes having two or three retail anchors along with smaller ventures gives a more varied mix to the development. Depending too much on one large discount retailer, particularly the somewhat financially troubled Kmart, is riskier, says Klevorn, and doesn't fit the neighborhood.

"This is a big-box concept," Klevorn says. "This is a Manchester Road concept they're trying to put in an urban environment. We're opposed to the idea of taking the second-busiest corner in the city, a prime location, and not developing that in a manner that adds to the neighborhood. We already have a Kmart. This is just shifting it and giving Kmart a competitive advantage."

Much of the tone of the two days of testimony by opponents dealt with the reputation of Kmart's store at Gravois Plaza, which is less than a mile-and-a-half away from the Southtown site. Many called Kmart a "bad neighbor" for letting that store's merchandise and customer service decline.

Gregali says Kmart has been telling him it will close the Gravois Plaza store for the last three years, so he's not sure it's anything more than talk. During the hearings, Kmart spokesmen said that whatever happens with the Southtown proposal, they do plan to close the Gravois Plaza store "due to declining sales, inefficiencies of operation and site limitations." Gregali says that Kimco Realty Corp., the owner of Gravois Plaza, has offered to raze much of the minimall to enhance and expand Kmart's store there but Kmart has refused to discuss the offer. Kmart denies that any real written offer has been made.

What Kmart has done is suggest that if they get the Southtown site, the company might consider placing a store in North St. Louis. Just who originally brought this up is unclear -- no one seems to want to claim authorship of the idea. The closest it has come to being stated in any clear way was on the postcard the owners of the site, DDR, sent to area residents. In citing the reasons the Kmart proposal should be granted, the seventh and last reason listed was this: "This store is a key component of Kmart's overall strategy for the entire City of St. Louis."

Bill Kuehling, an attorney hired by Kmart, says Harmon brought up the idea of a North St. Louis Kmart. Gregali says a representative of Sansone Holding Co. brought it up. Either way, the linking of a possible, as-yet-unspecified North St. Louis project to the approval of South St. Louis project rubs Gregali and others the wrong way.

"I'm insulted by that," says Gregali of the proposed trade-off, saying it "drives a wedge between north and south" St. Louis. There should be no connection between Koch's recommendation and the idea that Kmart "might consider building a store in North St. Louis." Gregali insists that the opposition to the current proposal isn't so much anti-Kmart as it is wanting a better use for the Southtown site. "We don't want Kmart to leave. It's in the same neighborhood," says Gregali. "We want them to stay, but at a redeveloped site."

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