Wrecking Brawl

For eight years, the city has kept Mark Finney from replacing the historic Syndicate Trust Building with a parking garage. He says, "Buy it or get the hell out of the way." It's time to put up or shut up.

Finney and Claybour are both tight-lipped about the three-year court battle, which still has both seething. Claybour sued Finney for $17,000, money he says he was owed for his work. Finney countersued for $1.7 million, charging that Claybour was negligent and ruined his building. On Nov. 20, 1997, the case was settled out of court, and Finney was paid $158,022.

In any case, after the Bobcat incident, Finney stopped the renovation, triggering a murky saga of legal battles, this time with the city.

Mike Jones' solution: "Wait for the market to collapse. Then shoot the wounded and push everyone off the cliff."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike Jones' solution: "Wait for the market to collapse. Then shoot the wounded and push everyone off the cliff."

On the heels of the failed garage project, Finney tried to auction the building with its first six floors gutted. Not surprisingly, there were no bidders. Finney decided to demolish the building to build a surface lot. But demolishing an architecturally significant century-old building in a key part of downtown isn't easy. Finney needed the approval of the city's Heritage and Urban Design Commission. He was denied a demolition permit -- twice. "We had all the tests done," he says "We flew in structural engineers who testified before the commission that the building was unsound. They just didn't get it. They denied us, then they denied us again. I don't know what they expected us to do -- we couldn't get an occupancy permit because the building has no live load, and we couldn't get a demolition permit. We basically had a building we could not use."

Finney didn't give up. Assisted by his brother Dan Finney, a lawyer, he took the fight to court -- and away from St. Louis. A quirk in Missouri law allows anyone fighting the city to file an appeal in Cole County, the county seat of state capital Jefferson City. In March 1995, Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ordered St. Louis to issue the demolition permit. The city appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City. It wouldn't be the last time Finney scrapped with the city in court. At one point, Finney was fighting three different city entities in separate cases involving the Syndicate Trust in two counties.

While the city's appeal of Kinder's decision was pending, Finney sued the city for inverse condemnation, arguing that the city's refusal to issue a demolition permit was inhibiting his right to use his property. "I believe the highest and best use for this property is a parking garage," Finney says pointedly. "I don't believe in all that save-the-old-buildings crap, and I don't believe people are clamoring to come downtown to see old buildings. Now, maybe I'm wrong, but you know what? I own it, so I should get to do what I want with my property. If the city says, 'We don't want you to do that,' then you eminent-domain me and pay me the market rate."

On Dec. 12, 1997, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Margaret Neil agreed with Finney and ordered the city to pay him $4.2 million for the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings. Finney wasn't exactly pleased with the price but says he would have taken it. "Buy it or get the hell out of the way -- I've been saying that since August of 1994." he says. "The city could have bought this property for $625,000 when I did. So could any of these people who wanted to save it."

It wasn't the first time the city didn't put its money where its mouth was. And it wouldn't be the last.

"It is easy to see that it was a bargain now," says Stephen Kovac, the city attorney. "But then the city didn't have $4.2 million to buy it. I think they always understood it was a crucial part of development, but that doesn't mean it is worth that price."

"A commercial building that generates no income has no value," says Mike Jones, deputy mayor for development under then-Mayor Clarence Harmon at the time of Neil's ruling. "It may have sentimental value, it may have historical value, but it doesn't have commercial value. In retrospect, it turned out to be a good deal, but that wasn't the case in July of 1997. Back then, Finney was asking for $9 million -- now, that was insane for a raggedy old building. Four million wasn't crazy, but it wasn't reasonable, either."

While the court battles raged, the Syndicate grew more ragged. And Finney was hell-bent on demolishing it. After some cornice and a letter from a Walgreens sign fell off the building, Finney got approval from the city to erect a hideous fence, ostensibly to protect pedestrians from the fallout. The chain-link-and-plastic fence blocked sidewalks and two of four lanes of traffic all around the building, causing traffic jams and forcing pedestrians to step out on the street. Opponents saw it as the city helping solidify Finney's case that the building was structurally unsound.

The fence itself spurred yet another court fight.

"The Syndicate already had a blighting influence on the city," Claybour says. "When people think of downtown, they think of that building, and that huge fence hasn't helped. It was a small piece of masonry and the letters off a Walgreens sign that fell. It was a Chicken Little reaction. Instead of the fence, you could put scaffolding or, better yet, force him to fix the building."

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