A Mayor Runs Through It

With the determination of a Missouri mule, Mayor Mike Swoboda drags a $40 million development into the heart of Kirkwood

The memory of Tom Noonan's expression lingers long after the night's political ruckus concludes: the boyish city councilman looking foolish and forlorn, not unlike Charlie Brown after yet another line drive has knocked him from the pitcher's mound. "You blockhead, Tom Noonan!"

Kirkwood City Councilman Noonan would vote for a lead smelter next door to the Magic House if the town's hard-driving mayor, Mike Swoboda, gave him the nod. Noonan has been dutifully serving his role all night. What the mayor is for, Noonan is for. What the mayor is against, Noonan is against. It sure helps streamline the affairs of the City Council this night, as it does most of the time in Kirkwood. Noonan, fellow councilmen Tim Griffin and Art McDonnell, and Mayor Swoboda maintain a solid one-vote majority, with Swoboda pulling the strings. Noonan, Griffin and McDonnell rarely engage their opponents in debate. They keep their mouths shut and vote in lockstep.

This night, the main issue is a $40 million mixed-use development, right across the street from City Hall. Station Plaza will fill the empty lot Target vacated two years ago with 206 apartments, condos and townhomes, along with trendy restaurants and boutiques. MLP Investments, based in Frontenac, paid box-store giant Desco $6 million for an option on the site and has been lobbying the council and making presentations to citizens' groups since the summer of 2001. After paying $1 million per acre, they need all the support they can get, and Mayor Swoboda has given it to them.

Jennifer Silverberg
MLP project manager Chris Ho on the Station Plaza site. When he employs a phrase such as "new urbanism," some Kirkwoodians look at him as if he were selling shares in Enron.
Jennifer Silverberg
MLP project manager Chris Ho on the Station Plaza site. When he employs a phrase such as "new urbanism," some Kirkwoodians look at him as if he were selling shares in Enron.

It's not as if lofts and townhomes and an open-air plaza wouldn't be a positive addition to downtown Kirkwood, unless you believe, as many in attendance do, that with the completion of Station Plaza, beloved Kirkwood will be on its way to becoming wretched Clayton.

But even those councilmen questioning the proposal -- Paul Ward, Joe Godi and Mike Lynch -- think it a good project for Kirkwood. It's the speed and determination with which it is being passed, seen through with the stubborn tunnel vision of a blindered mule, that they fear.

The Missouri mule is Mayor Swoboda. The mule is his favorite animal. He pulls the legislators along with him all night despite the presence of a rancorous group of citizens, despite an amendment proposed by his principal antagonist, Lynch. Swoboda votes bills in a hurry, and Noonan keeps up with his yeas and nays in the mayor's quartet. The foursome raise their hands as if they were children with mittens tied together.

But even though Station Plaza is a done deal, the evening wears on to the point that exhaustion, frustration and audible anger -- "hiss, hiss" -- depress the civic atmosphere. In search of relief, the pugnacious Godi asks the mayor, "What are we talking about this for anymore? You've got the votes."

One issue tied to the proposed development refuses to go away, however. Kirkwoodians, as they call themselves, complain about traffic, and they mostly complain about traffic on Kirkwood Road. Those 206 apartments, condos and townhomes will generate more traffic jams, but to what extent nobody's sure.

The fact that MLP promises to do a traffic study is good enough for Swoboda, but not for Ward. When McDonnell, one of the mayor's allies, proposes his own amendment -- that the city study traffic patterns around Kirkwood -- Ward improvises an amendment of his own. He argues that Kirkwood's study needs to match MLP's study -- and if it doesn't, MLP must change its plans.

And with that resolution, Chris Ho, MLP's project manager, is on his feet. Swoboda is snarling. McDonnell looks sheepish. Griffin and Noonan look confused. The citizens, here to participate in the great experiment called democracy, are on the edges of their seats.

As he has done all night, Swoboda quickly calls for the yes vote on Ward's amendment. Four hands rise. Noonan turns his head to either side and, to his horror, finds he has voted with the wrong bloc.

"Oh, Tom!" says Swoboda, as if admonishing a foolish son.

The image of Noonan remains, an image no politician up for re-election wants in the mind of the electorate: His expression withers pathetically as he audibly sighs, "Oh no."

Noonan fails at follow-the-leader.

After the meeting is adjourned and most in attendance have exited, Lynch wryly suggests to some hangers-on that Swoboda provide nose rings to better keep his voting bloc in line.

Kirkwood prides itself on being a pleasant town with good schools and good city services. Kirkwood has quality of life: a slower pace, well-kept homes with yards that children play in safely, parks and trails, and none of the urban hassles of St. Louis or Clayton. But Kirkwood will change drastically with Station Plaza as its civic center, and many of those changes will be beneficial. The developers behind it appear as decent as developers can be. The best interests of Kirkwood are foremost in the minds of its legislators, but the definition of those best interests is why we have city councils and public hearings and, for that matter, democracy.

And democracy isn't an attractive system, even in Kirkwood. Like those who love sausage, those who love democracy often prefer not to see the process.

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