A Run on the Bank

The South Side National Bank Building, an Art Deco icon at Grand and Gravois, could be rehabbed into apartments or replaced by just another Walgreens. The struggle is about to start.

For 70 years, the South Side National Bank at Grand and Gravois had the peculiar distinction of never having been robbed. One of the big reasons for the lucky streak is that its tellers are on the second floor. All those stairs, or the prospect of waiting for an elevator, apparently deterred aspiring stickup artists. That ended last October with a bank robbery, a fairly common event for most savings and lending institutions.

Around the same time, a more unusual nuisance had also emerged -- the 71-year-old, nine-story bank building at one of the city's busiest intersections was attracting attention. By the count of the city's street division, 48,042 cars pass the bank every weekday. Sure, they see the imposing structure, but many probably don't know what's in it. To most, it's an isolated landmark. Across Grand, the Schweig-Engel outlet is empty, though the closing of the furniture-and-appliance business that calls itself the "King of Credit" could be argued as a good sign for the block. But there are other empty storefronts; even Pizza A-Go-Go has gone. On the upside, across Gravois Avenue, White Castle bothered to rebuild, this time with two drive-throughs.

A bit farther north on Grand Boulevard, numerous ethnic restaurants, coffeehouses and shops had sprung up, creating a buzz of positive PR about the possibilities of city living in the South Grand district. A few blocks to the south, the long-empty Sears Building had been demolished for new houses, many pre-sold for upwards of $140,000. In December, the International Institute had moved into its remodeled headquarters nearby, providing a focus for the estimated 35,000 new immigrants who live in the city. But between the two beehives of boom, the South Side National Bank Building lay quiet, somewhat neglected.

South Side National Bank
Mark Gilliland
South Side National Bank

But then Walgreens, the drugstore company that has seldom seen a street corner it didn't like, came onto the scene. Interest expressed by Walgreens, through a developer, woke up the neighborhood. Under the proposal, Walgreens would build a new store on the corner of Grand and Gravois, and the bank would open a new branch, once the current building was demolished. South Side National Bank president Tom Teschner insists nothing was ever put in writing and that "technically" there never has been an offer involving Walgreens "on the table."

What's on the table now is a feasibility study prompted by last fall's controversy over Walgreens' replacing the nine-story landmark. Ald. Marge Vining (D-15th) funneled $15,000 of federal block-grant money to a study to see what could be done with the bank building. The study, performed by the Siedlund Co., recommends that the seven-story tower of the building be renovated into apartments with rents ranging from $850-$1,000 for 1,063-square-foot units. Putting offices back in the tower also is proposed, but the study states that most offices want more space than each floor has. The study presents five options, each with financial analysis, each with the need for "gap financing." There's the rub.

After accounting for investment from the developer and monies from state and federal tax credits, it looks as if the "gap" must be made up from some governmental source, most likely City Hall. Depending on the option, the gaps range from $543,140 to $1.8 million. South Side National Bank could partner with a developer and facilitate the financing. Vining thinks it's time for the bank's Teschner to look at the study and see what the bank is willing to do.

"The ball is in his court," says Vining. "We've done the feasibility study. He has to look it over, talk to his board, and they have to come back and say what they're going to do."

Teschner sees it a bit differently. He thinks the next move is City Hall's.

"What I'm waiting for is to see what the interest level is of the city to provide gap financing," says Teschner. "If the interest level of the city is not to do that, then they've pretty much signed off that this doesn't work financially." A spokesman for Mayor Clarence Harmon says the mayor's office is looking into the feasibility study.

If the city doesn't help close that gap, then Teschner plans to go ahead with the developer's plan for a shiny new Walgreens and a new, much smaller and less noticeable bank building at the corner. "It would only make sense to move forward with doing a plan that brings two new buildings to the city," Teschner says. "I would think we would get the cooperation of the city to make that happen, if that's the general plan we want to do."

If the numbers don't add in favor of renovating the bank building, Vining says, Teschner will have a hard time getting the tower demolished. If the bank's request for demolition were turned down by the preservation board, then it would face the planning commission. If the commission said no, the case would move on to the courts. "No administration is going to give him a demolition permit, especially now that the community wants to keep the bank," says Vining. That's not to say that, after much maneuvering and suing, the building wouldn't come down. Vining, and those in the area who pushed the alderwoman to block the demolition, want to save the building.

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