By Sam Levin
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In June 1997, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Joan M. Burger ordered the fence taken down. Harmon promised to remove the fence as soon as possible -- only he didn't. He had it moved a few feet in from the street. Then it was adorned with urban art -- loud, garish images in bold yellow, green and black. The fence still stands, having outlasted the mayor who promised to take it down.
On Sept. 1, 1998, the Missouri appellate court overturned Judge Kinder's ruling ordering the city to issue a demolition permit and also negated the $4.2 million price that Judge Neil set for the building. The decision was based on the fact that Finney had voluntarily signed an agreement with the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and had received tax abatement on the property as part of that agreement. Demolition of the building would be a breach of the redevelopment contract. It was a hollow win for everybody, effectively sending the city and Finney back to square one.
In 1999, the city changed its strategy. Weary of fighting in court, the city, with Finney's approval, decided to exercise its power of eminent domain and buy the building. The only issue to be hashed out was the price. The Harmon administration went for broke and hired one of the top condemnation attorneys in St. Louis, Gerald Carmody of the Bryan Cave law firm, to argue the case before St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Calvin.
"It was supposed to be a way to put all the bad feelings aside and try to work within the system to get a solution," says Carmody. "There was a lot of hope going into it that this would bring it to closure. Unfortunately, it didn't happen."
Instead, it backfired. The city failed in its effort to have a jury hear the case, and Finney prevailed in getting a hearing before a three-person commission. Calvin appointed two real-estate attorneys and a real-estate agent to determine the price. It didn't take long for the acrimony that had tainted the process to resurface. "The condemnation hearing was a wild event," recalls Kovac, cringing. "There was lots of screaming and shouting about 'conspiracy' from Finney. Things got rather loud. It was kind of like a barroom brawl without the liquor."
"I'm not concerned if anybody likes me or not," Finney counters. "This is a business proposition -- it is not a personality contest. The problem with the city is that they want to make me out to be the bad guy. Hell, I'm the good guy, no doubt about that. I'm just the guy who wants to do what I want with my property. If you don't want me to do that, then pay me what it's worth. It is no different than if I came to your home and said, 'I know you only paid $60,000 for it, but we're putting Highway 40 next to it and now it's worth $400,000, but we're only going to pay you $60,000 because that is what you paid for it.' You would be mad, and so am I. I wanted to make my position very clear at that commissioners' hearing."
The commissioners split the difference. Finney wanted $9 million, and the city wanted to pay $2 million. The commissioners decided on a price of $6.2 million.
"I thought it was kind of funny," Finney says. "Mike Garvin [another city attorney] and Steve Kovac get a $4.2 million award from the judge, so the city brings in the big guns and hires Carmody from Bryan Cave, and they got their butt kicked and I got $2 million more."
Not really. The city walked away from the deal.
Jones says the building wasn't worth that much money, and even though he didn't appeal the decision, he doesn't agree with it. "They [the commissioners] were just like everyone else who has the mistaken notion that because people are talking about redevelopment downtown there is a pot of money to buy raggedy buildings you haven't done anything with," he says.
Finney's tenacious stance on the value of his property was solidified by the commissioners' ruling. Since then he has refused to budge from a minimum price of $6.5 million, 10 times what he paid in '93.
"He is a smart businessman, but he is irrational when it comes to that particular building," Jones says. "I had a couple of arrangements where developers would have purchased the Syndicate Trust for $3 million. They would have bought it three or four years ago. I had put together the financing that would have permitted that. Finney wouldn't even consider it. The more you pay for the building, the deeper hole you are digging for yourself. If someone gave the Syndicate Trust to a developer for free, there would still be no way to rehab it for reuse without a public subsidy."
Finney doesn't dispute this but adds: "We don't need tax dollars spent on preserving old buildings. I believe we can spend our money on much better things, like the schools. Other people believe we should spend money on old buildings. That's fine. You all get together and pony up the money, then you can do it."
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