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When Allan Pullman bought the building in 1986, things went from bad to worse. Pullman, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, was already under scrutiny for questionable real-estate deals in his home state. He bought the Syndicate Trust with a $26 million loan from the New Jersey-based Howard Savings Bank (whose chairman was Pullman's friend), based on an appraisal of $41 million. Pullman racked up delinquent property taxes and, in 1988, defaulted on the loan. That same year, the building was reappraised as being worth no more than $17 million. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. accused the bank's lawyer of approving the loan, even though he knew the 1986 appraisal was inflated. Steve Cousins, the attorney who handled the bankruptcy, says a three-year court battle ensued when Pullman attempted to file for bankruptcy to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the property. Howard Bank was declared insolvent in 1992, and the feds held two auctions to sell the building, but the bidders (including one who had bid $2 million) couldn't line up the financing.
In 1993, at a third auction, a 38-year-old real-estate speculator was the sole bidder on the property. Mark Finney,owner of the Conlon Group, bought the entire block in the heart of downtown for the bargain price of $625,000.
A wiry man with an abrasive edge, Finney knew that buying a 705,000-square foot building in a prime downtown location made financial sense. The bargain, however, came with a hidden price tag -- a legal battle that has pitted Finney against the city and its agencies for eight years. Nevertheless, Finney believes the Syndicate Trust has been worth the legal hassles. "I felt I paid what it was worth," he says. "The operating costs for the building were a couple million a year, so there was some exposure. But it was less than $1 a square foot, and I knew if I could get operating costs down, it could be a good buy. It turns out it has been, even with all the headaches." The headaches began when Finney announced he wanted to tear the Syndicate down and put up a parking garage, a position that has even the mildest-mannered preservationist pasting his image on dartboards.
"I find it absurd that anyone would allow it to be torn down for a parking lot," says Margie Newman, whose condo overlooks the Syndicate. "Downtown doesn't need more parking lots. It needs more housing that will draw people who will revitalize downtown."
Finney isn't concerned with revitalizing downtown. He simply cares about making a buck. "We are here to make money for our shareholders and for our corporation," he says. "It is not our job to save old buildings."
In 1994, Finney was willing to at least try preserving the façade of the building. In fact, in March of that year he signed an agreement with the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority to proceed with a $2.6 million plan to gut the first six floors of the building for a parking garage. In exchange, he got a 10-year tax abatement under the stipulation that any changes to the plan had to be approved by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. Finney hired architect Richard Claybour to oversee the project. Claybour had been involved with the renovation of the Syndicate in the mid-'80s and came highly recommended. It would prove to be a decision they both would regret.
Claybour still believes the Syndicate Trust can be converted into the "most beautiful and unique parking garage in the city. It has high ceilings and nice windows," Claybour says. "One of the advantages was that we could preserve the windows. It was a natural fit. Maybe it was not the most glamorous use, but it would have been useful and it would have saved the building."
The garage conversion never happened. Finney and Claybour disagreed on whether the building was structurally sound enough to host a parking garage.
"The weight of a Bobcat broke through a slab," says Finney, shaking his head in disgust. "That tells me the building is structurally inadequate for a parking garage. That tells me I don't want to park hundreds of cars in there." Finney says he brought in structural engineer Mike Falbe from Chicago. "He [Falbe] went back and did things that should have been done earlier," Finney says. "He found the building couldn't support a parking lot." To shore up the structure, Finney would have to invest an additional $1 million, something he wasn't willing to do. "Yes, I could have fixed it," Finney says. "You can fix anything. You could wrap it up in the space shuttle, shoot it up into orbit and save it forever. Most anything is possible, but that doesn't make it economically feasible."
Claybour says Finney made a crucial mistake by having the wooden floor ripped up over concerns about waterproofing. Tearing up the floor made it more difficult for the load to be distributed evenly throughout the building. Claybour also says Finney greatly exaggerated the extent of the structural flaws so he could justify tearing the building down. "What really happened is that the owner lost interest in the project, although he would never say that," Claybour says. "One wheel of the Bobcat sank 6 inches in a spot we knew was weak -- a spot that was going to be torn down for a ramp. When we worked on the building, we went through a whole series of investigations and lengthy structural analyses. All the information we kept getting just made the feasibility of the project stronger."
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