Feeding Frenzy

Two developers, three cities, the airport and the county are engaged in a dogfight over 438 acres of prime North County land. And there's plenty of sleaze to go around.

Even as things were looking bleak for Kinloch, all hell was breaking loose in Berkeley.

Unlike Trammell Crow, a Dallas-based, publicly traded company, TriStar is a locally owned company, founded in 1996 and known for its developments in Earth City, Park 370 in Hazelwood and the Gateway Commerce Center in Illinois. The company owns and controls 2,500 acres in the St. Louis area, more than any other developer, and it had been tracking the airport buyout area all through the 1980s and '90s. "We were watching from the sidelines, keeping tabs on what was going on," says Chapman. "This is what we do every day. We make our living watching real estate."

Col. Leonard L. Griggs Jr.: "We will not, as long as I'm director, entertain any proposal that does not pass the light of day."
RFT file photo
Col. Leonard L. Griggs Jr.: "We will not, as long as I'm director, entertain any proposal that does not pass the light of day."
Eighty-five percent of Kinloch's property-tax base has been lost as a result of the airport buyout program.
Jennifer Silverberg
Eighty-five percent of Kinloch's property-tax base has been lost as a result of the airport buyout program.

At the same time Tri-Star was trying to negotiate a deal with Mayor Bernard Turner in Kinloch, the company was also making a play for neighboring Berkeley, a town of about 10,000 that is 76 percent African-American. Berkeley, which has a history of hardball politics, was first approached by TriStar in early 1999. At the time, City Hall was mired in accusations of corruption and the entire City Council was the subject of a recall effort.

Ever since, TriStar has not only pitched its plan to Berkeley officials but gotten down and dirty in local politics. In April 2000, TriStar invited all City Council members to a dinner presentation at Lombardo's, a restaurant on Natural Bridge Road. Boykins was present, as was his former employee, Doris Jackson, who happened to be Berkeley's city clerk at the time. "Luther was there to help us get a handle on who was who," Chapman says. "At the time, things were changing so fast up there because of all the recalls." While newly elected Mayor Babatunde Deinbo and the council members dined on steak, TriStar proposed developing a facility for FedEx on an 11-acre tract of the 233 acres of land, which was owned by the airport and would soon revert back to Berkeley. But, by all accounts, TriStar was fishing for the entire 233-acre catch.

When the company offered to develop a master plan for all 233 acres for free, Alderman Louis Bowser chimed in. "I mumbled something about how nothing is ever really free," he says. "Luther immediately jumped up and started talking about what a good company TriStar was."

Chapman says the dinner presentation was just good business. "I'm in the business to sell a product," he says. "To do that, I have to find out what people are looking for. I don't do anything different than all the rest of the developers out there."

That included making campaign contributions. Deinbo, who took office as mayor on April 15, 2000, received two checks, each for $275, from TriStar in June. Bowser, who had supported Deinbo's run (the two have since parted ways over the development), says he got a call from Patrick O'Basuyi, co-owner of FPX, a company with ties to TriStar, telling him he had a campaign donation for Deinbo. Bowser says he went to TriStar's office in Earth City and that O'Basuyi handed him a check for $1,500. "I told him I couldn't take it because the most an individual can give to a campaign is $275," Bowser says. "So I came back later and picked up several smaller checks."

Deinbo accuses Bowser of pocketing some of the money, a charge Bowser denies. That same month, O'Basuyi hosted a "victory party" for Deinbo. Chapman was one of the main speakers. Deinbo and Chapman deny any link between the money and the proposed development. "I can get contributions from anybody, as long as they are not over $275," Deinbo says. "I can do that and still make a fair decision on who the best developer is for the city of Berkeley."

"I didn't write the [campaign-finance] law; the law is the law," says Chapman. "This goes on everywhere, every single day. I just follow the law."

Three weeks after the party, the Berkeley City Council voted 6-0 (Bowser was absent) to approve TriStar's proposal to develop the 11 acres for FedEx. But Ken Bacchus, a consultant hired by the city, advised the council against approval. He noted that the city's master plan -- which itself cost $40,000 -- called for a single developer for all 233 acres. Moreover, he said, the council had failed to send out formal RFPs, "requests for proposals."

The council rescinded the TriStar plan at a later meeting and sent out an RFP, asking for a development under the state's tax-increment financing statute. Meanwhile, some council members who had initially embraced TriStar's proposal were becoming less than enthusiastic. "I started getting uncomfortable with TriStar's involvement with others on the council," says Councilman Louvenia Mathison. "At the meeting at Lombardo's, [Councilman] Kenny [McClendon] was chiming in on every sentence like he had been briefed before. Then Chapman spoke at the mayor's victory celebration. I started having second thoughts."

So did Councilwoman Aloha Keely. In a complaint to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Keely charges that even before reviewing the proposals, McClendon offered to pay her $3,000 if she would vote in favor of TriStar. McClendon denies the allegation.

Four companies -- Trammell Crow, TriStar, McEagle Corp. and First Industrial -- responded to the RFP and made presentations at the Oct. 26, 2000, Berkeley City Council meeting. TriStar's proposal included a combination of light-industrial development with a commercial hub, including hotels and retail closer to the highway. TriStar also promised a new City Hall and community center, as well as cosmetic improvements to two other corridors, Airport and Natural Bridge roads. "We told them we wanted to invest in the whole community and make it, overall, a better place to go," says Chapman.

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