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.

If South St. Louis isn't what it used to be, it's still struggling to find out what it needs to become. For all the talk of people leaving, Southside Coalition members cited demographic numbers, some downloaded from DDR's own Web site, to show that the population within a five-mile radius of the Southtown site compares favorably with that in suburban sites, including a DDR development at Watson Road and Lindbergh Boulevard in Sunset Hills. Klevorn claims that as a result of density, there are four times as many households with an income of more than $50,000 within five miles of Southtown than there are around the Sunset Hills site, even though the average household income in the suburban site is $70,863, compared with the Southtown site's average of $49,475.

That may be, but the spear-carriers for Kmart just think the coalition is way too optimistic about what can happen at Kingshighway and Chippewa.

"There's a lot of risk involved here," says Kuehling. "DDR are businesspeople. They would love to find users for the site. They would love for there to be five or six different people competing to go in on that site. But the fact of the matter is, there isn't. They're not there."

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

Kuehling has his own memories of Southtown Famous. As Klevorn was growing up in West County, off Manchester Road, Kuehling was growing up on Tower Grove Place, within walking distance of the Southtown Famous. "I wish you could bring it back," Kuehling says. "I'd love to be able to go to Famous Southtown and go to the candy counter that was on the first floor. I shopped there from the time I could remember -- my mom would drag my brothers and me up there. But it closed up. And it's not coming back. And they're not going to get Ladue Crossing or something in there. I wish they could, but I just don't see it. It's not viable."

Whatever is or is not possible, Gregali is optimistic. He likens the current process to a similar one that occurred years ago, when Huck's, a convenience store and sandwich shop, wanted to locate at the southeast corner of Kingshighway and Chippewa. Claiming it would not "promote the general welfare," Gregali and others opposed the conditional-use permit. It was denied, and later an Applebee's, a sit-down restaurant, was built. It has thrived. Gregali appears fixated on stopping the Kmart proposal.

"This is just as important as the downtown convention hotel. We're talking about stabilizing a neighborhood," says Gregali. "But the mayor doesn't have the enthusiasm for it. If he did, he would have had someone over there speaking for us." That the development of the site stayed adrift for all the years Sansone had the lease with HQ is a sign that the mayor's office didn't act, Gregali contends. And it's a bit late, Gregali says, for Harmon to worry that blocking the Kmart plan will make it look as if nothing is happening at the site.

"Shame on him for sitting back and not doing anything about it. If he's so worried about what the public is going to think if he didn't do anything, my answer to that is that he didn't do anything. To sit back and have some developer come and say, 'Well, this is as good as it gets,' and for him to accept it, that certainly doesn't show a sign of leadership," Gregali says.

"This thing on that corner is just as important as that damn hotel downtown," Gregali adds. "In fact, nobody who's going to reside in that hotel for a day at a time is going to vote for anybody downtown. I got 3,000 people in my neighborhood who are going to vote. They're the same people who brought this guy in and they can take him out. If he doesn't get on the right side of this issue, he will not be mayor in a year."

Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th) doesn't see what the difficulty is. At a Metropolis St. Louis-sponsored cleanup at the site on Saturday, Schmid said that for a politician, this issue should be a "no-brainer. You go with the people."

After Koch's recommendation, the Board of Public Service makes its ruling. Upon appeal, that decision would be reviewed by the Board of Adjustment. An appeal of that decision would put the issue before a circuit judge, so the process could take months. If Kmart prevails and does what it says it will, the Gravois Plaza store will be closed and the few stores remaining at that site will suffer. If Kmart fails, it could abandon the city altogether, except for its troubled store at St. Louis Marketplace near McCausland and Manchester. The stakes in the decision, both symbolic and real, are high.

"This is the biggest economic decision that has been made in South St. Louis in the last 20 years," says Klevorn. "If we don't develop this wisely and smartly, then we have told the whole St. Louis metropolitan area that the best South St. Louis can do is a Kmart. If that's the best we can do, then the word is out that we're a declining community."

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