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.

Carmody says Finney is exaggerating the value of the building.

"If everything is as rosy as he says it is," Carmody counters, "we wouldn't be in this situation. If the property is worth what he is asking, why isn't someone in the private sector buying? I can say my house is worth a million dollars, but if I don't have anyone paying that price, it doesn't matter what I think it's worth. You just can't get mad at the city because no one is buying your overpriced property. It is not the kind of a situation were we have boom times in downtown St. Louis."

Finney says he doesn't really care whether anybody buys his property. He now has enough money to finance a parking garage and is more than willing to proceed. "Everybody is complaining about parking. We said we would put in a 2,000- to 3,000-car parking garage. We will develop it. We just won't develop it the way they want it developed. That is really what this is all about. People are upset because they are not getting their way. It just doesn't make sense. Go save another building or buy mine."


While the court battles continued, Finney let the Syndicate Trust deteriorate. He also stripped many of its architectural features -- the balcony railings, the granite in the lobby of the Century and the doors -- and sold them. "He has scavenged the building," Claybour says. "I can't believe all the beautiful features that have just been stripped away piece by piece."

Last year, Finney sued again to get a demolition permit. In September, Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker called the Syndicate "a deteriorating, dangerous hulk squatting in the heart of the downtown St. Louis which constitutes a public nuisance as a whole." Dierker added that "repairing the building, only to have it continue to sit vacant and unused for years to come, leading inevitably to recrudescent deterioration, is not the answer -- especially as the probable cost of repair would be equal to the probable cost of demolition." Dierker then ordered the city to issue the demolition permit and for the building to be torn down as a public nuisance. But at the 11th hour, the building was granted a stay of execution.

John Steffen of Pyramid Construction was putting together a deal to convert the building into a residential and commercial space. Steffen recognized that the value of the building lay in securing the area around Old Post Office Square. To do this, he needed to lock down three buildings: the Paul Brown Building, at 818 Olive St.; the Frisco Building, at 900 Olive St.; and the Syndicate Trust. For two months, Steffen negotiated with the owners, including Finney.

"I respected the guy," says Finney. "He seemed to be the only one with sense that came to speak to me about the building in years." Nevertheless, Finney was firm in his price. He wanted $6.5 million, and not a penny less.

Steffen went to Downtown Now to solicit support but was met with skepticism. Many, including Jones, and even some of Steffen's own employees, believed he was in over his head. Steffen says Downtown Now steered him toward the Spinnaker Cos., a real-estate development and management company based in Stamford, Conn. Steffen put in millions of his own money, first buying the Paul Brown Building for $2.3 million, then putting in $300,000 in earnest money on the Syndicate. Spinnaker put in an additional $100,000.

In January, Spinnaker and Pyramid Construction announced plans to redevelop the buildings. "The intent was to redevelop the buildings for a mixture of residential, office and retail," says Amos Harris, head of Spinnaker St. Louis LLC. "But first we had to spend a couple of months understanding what's the best use for each building and working on an arrangement with the city to build a garage."

With the clock ticking toward a March 1 deadline, Steffen, already strapped from putting up the earnest money and buying the Paul Brown Building, waited while Spinnaker tried to put together the financing. Meanwhile, his business started to suffer; employees' paychecks started bouncing, their health insurance was canceled with no notification and there were layoffs.

Finney was getting impatient. "I was ready to sell." he says. "I was ready to be done with it." On Feb. 15, Finney received a letter that surprised him. Harris wrote: "Spinnaker, St. Louis would agree to an additional deposit of $400,000, non-refundable on terms acceptable to you for an extension of the closing date to April 24, 2001; a reduction in the purchase price to $5,000,000, all cash; and an assignment of the sales contract to a subsidiary of the Spinnaker Companies."

Finney was outraged: "I had been calling them for weeks, asking for the sales contract. Now, seven days before the closing deadline, I get this, a 'We are interested but we will only give you $5 million' on a piece of stationery. It is not a sales contract. It is a piece of stationery with no check attached to it. Now, in seven days I get to keep the $400,000. Why in God's name would I sell it for $5 million? It was a silly offer, and I didn't even consider it."

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