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.

The seven days passed, and Spinnaker was out $100,000. Steffen, however, lost $300,000.

Sitting in his office, Steffen looks worn but resolved. "I went into contract and put up the earnest-money deposit. I always knew I was going to give Spinnaker the option, and time ran out," Steffen says. "It was up to Spinnaker to get the financing, and we allowed ourselves to cooperate. We had some faith they could make it happen. Unfortunately, they could not. It was a tough deal and a matter of timing. The timing just wasn't working."

But was it just timing? Finney believes Downtown Now sabotaged the deal. Sources concur that this may be the case. The theory goes something like this: Downtown Now, recognizing the importance of the Syndicate to the western corridor, had always wanted to buy it. In fact, says Finney, several developers told him that influential members of Downtown Now's board had discouraged them from looking at the building because they were working on a deal to buy it. Then Steffen, in less than two months, managed to pull it together. Moreover, Steffen didn't want to use the expensive lawyers or consultants connected with Downtown Now -- especially the people who made out on the convention-center-hotel deal. Egos were bruised. And so, the theory goes, Downtown Now and Spinnaker colluded. They got Steffen to assign Spinnaker the options to the Frisco and Syndicate buildings. Eventually Spinnaker bought the Frisco Building and Steffen lost his shirt on the Syndicate deal.

Jennifer Silverberg

The notion may have been spurred in part by the fact that Tom Reeves, director of Downtown Now, and Harris are good friends and even purchased the United Missouri Bank Building, 312 N. Eighth St., together at the same time the Syndicate deal was being negotiated.

Both Reeves and Harris adamantly deny any collusion. Harris says there "is no formal affiliation between Spinnaker and Downtown Now. The only relationship is that Tom Reeves and I are personal friends. It is absolutely not true that we did anything to undermine that deal. The only thing that happened with that deal was that we offered the owner $5 million and he didn't accept it. We thought it was a fair price. Once we dug into everything involved, a $6.5 million purchase price didn't make any sense."

Reeves calls the allegations "outrageous and not worth commenting about." Asked who he thought was at fault for the Syndicate's current condition, Reeves says, "I'm not going there. I'm done with this."

Steffen says he hopes the theory isn't true, but he doesn't want to discuss it, either. "I really don't want to discuss it anymore," he says. "I am done with the Syndicate. I hope it can be developed, but I am focusing on my business."

On March 1, on the heels of the failed Spinnaker deal, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Dierker reinstated his order allowing the demolition of the Syndicate. The same month, Francis Slay won the Democratic primary, effectively making him mayor, and Dierker had a change of heart. In an attempt at a last-hour deal, he appointed Shulamith Simon, a veteran real-estate and municipal lawyer, as special master with power to mediate between Finney and the city. His message was clear: If the city couldn't agree on a price to buy the Syndicate Trust, he would allow Finney to demolish it.

Simon, an attorney for well over 40 years, had never been assigned such a task. She was not familiar with the details of the case when she was appointed. "It was a case of 'Ignorance is bliss,'" she says. "Had I known what was involved, I probably would have declined." Simon describes the initial meeting between Finney and city officials as tense but won't elaborate. "Things are much calmer and very professional," she says. Dierker has basically placed a gag order on the parties. Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development, refuses to comment on what the city is seeking or to even say whether the city wants to preserve the building. Slay declines comment as well. And the mayor's spokesman refuses to comment on what sources say is the city's position: They'll buy it for $5 million or $6 million, demolish the Century for a parking garage and preserve the Syndicate.

Finney won't say much, either: "Let me put it to you this way. The Slay administration has been more responsive than the last two mayoral administrations combined." Simon was to report back to Dierker on May 22 but has been granted an extension.

At the heart of the negotiations is a recurring issue. It isn't whether the Syndicate can be rehabbed -- it clearly can. The question is whether the rehab makes financial sense for Finney or any other developer the city might find to buy it at Finney's asking price of $6.5 million. And that may depend on just how much cash or tax subsidies the city is willing to place on the table.

For the city, the task is to put a price on preservation -- not just of the Syndicate but of the surrounding blocks.

Preservationists believe the value of the property runs deeper than its price tag. "Buildings like the Syndicate Trust are a testament to the past and a statement of faith in the future," says Martha Frisch of the National Regional Trust. "The building has a lot to teach us in terms of how we look at our lives and how we can see things from the past and integrate them into our lives."

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