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.

Trammell Crow's project was described in a presentation by Mark Branstetter, who emphasized that the plan would be cohesive, including Kinloch's 175 acres and perhaps Ferguson's 30. The $400 million development, which would create 3,000-4,000 jobs, included 6 million square feet of office space, two hotels and retail space, as well as a municipal building for Berkeley that would likely include a recreation center.

Deinbo wasn't impressed by Branstetter's proposal: "He didn't have no plan. He brought a bunch of diagrams." Deinbo and McClendon were hellbent on picking TriStar.

According to minutes from the closed meeting, both men pushed for an immediate vote, even though Chapman had told them the city needed to establish a TIF commission before selecting a developer. Deinbo felt otherwise. "I thought we should make a decision while the presentations were fresh in our mind," he says. "I had seen everything I needed to see."

Buzz Westfall calls the proposed development "the best thing for North County, certainly in my 11 years [as county executive]."
RFT file photo
Buzz Westfall calls the proposed development "the best thing for North County, certainly in my 11 years [as county executive]."

Mathison expressed her hesitation about voting on a developer so quickly but went along anyway. The first vote narrowed the field to Trammell Crow and McEagle, eliminating TriStar and First Industrial. At McClendon's suggestion, according to the minutes, the vote was ignored, and all four developers were in the running for a second vote. Trammell Crow was selected on a 4-3 vote, with Bowser, Mathison, Keely and Jean Montgomery in favor. Deinbo, McClendon and Nina Schaefer were disappointed that TriStar lost out.

On Nov. 3, the council voted 4-3 again to name Trammell Crow developer of the 233 acres -- this time in a public session, says Mathison, to affirm their decision.

But Deinbo and McClendon weren't about to concede defeat.

Despite the votes, says Branstetter, Deinbo wouldn't sign the development agreement. "He kept saying he needed to find an attorney to draw up the paperwork but never found one," Branstetter says. "It was one thing after another."

Deinbo denies causing any delays. "He [Branstetter] didn't get anything started," he says. "Now he wants to blame me for stalling -- that is ridiculous."

Meanwhile, TriStar was working on its own plan to undo the selection of Trammell Crow. And Gwen Verges, a Berkeley resident who regularly attended council meetings, began working with TriStar and its supporters. McClendon sponsored a public meeting and invited all of the developers back for another presentation. Only TriStar showed up.

"We had already been selected as the developer by the council," Branstetter says. "I felt like this was a set-up."

Verges, who had been battling Bowser for several months, organized Berkeley Citizens for an Honest Government and began a petition drive to recall Bowser. Verges alleged that Bowser had used a city cell phone for sex calls and that he rarely attended council meetings. Bowser denies this and says the recall was payback for his support of Trammell Crow. The citizens' group also started a recall effort against Mathison.

According to records at the Missouri Ethics Commission, Berkeley Citizens for an Honest Government received $8,250, most of it from TriStar and its friends. Between April 14 and July 15 of this year, TriStar gave $5,000; Forum Studio, an architectural arm of TriStar, donated $1,000; and Martin O'Basuyi, brother of Patrick O'Basuyi, donated $750.

Chapman defends the recall effort, saying it was simply to "support the people who are most likely to make good decisions about the development process. Do I want people who honestly sit down and review the merits of TriStar? Absolutely. I want people who will sit down and absolutely say, 'I am not committed to this developer or that developer. What I will do is judge it on the absolute merits of the proposal in front of us.'"

Says Branstetter: "It seems the sole purpose of this organization appears to be a takeover of the council so one particular developer could be voted in."

Sure enough, that happened. Bowser resigned in February, and Verges was elected to his seat. Last month, with Mathison's recall pending, the City Council rescinded the decision naming Trammell Crow the developer. Verges insists that the Trammell Crow vote was illegal anyway because under state statute, a TIF commission must be in place before a developer can be named. Chapman agrees: "I told them from the beginning that the process was flawed. The state statute is very clear."

Others, however -- including Westfall -- don't believe the law requires this.

After Berkeley's Sept. 5 vote to rescind Trammell Crow's selection, its City Council established a TIF commission. It also slipped in a curious deal, approving a $35,000 contract to hire Centro Consulting Co. to help negotiate the purchase of the land with the city of St. Louis and the airport. Mathison, who had never heard of Centro, inquired about the company. According to the minutes, McClendon said: "I just really went down the phone book and just asked different people." When Mathison pressed McClendon about Centro's credentials and who referred the company, McClendon said: "A consulting group referred them to me, and I'd rather not give their name."

Centro was set up by J. Kim Tucci, co-owner of the Pasta House Co., former airport commissioner, longtime player in local Democratic politics -- and good friend of Luther Boykins. At the time of the vote, Centro was not registered with the state as a company. A week later, on Sept. 12, Centro sent a letter to Deinbo, thanking him for the business. Thirteen days after that, Centro registered with the state. Tucci was unavailable for comment.

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