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


Kirkwood Road bisects the town north-south, but it's called Lindbergh Road everywhere else. Entering Kirkwood from I-44, you pass a retail stretch, where the Target has moved. You cross one set of railroad tracks, then pass by the Magic House, a popular destination for families, and into downtown, with the busy Pioneer Place on one side of the street and the soon-to-be-foreclosed-on Characters and Company children's theater, formerly the Kirkwood Cinema, on the other. The abandoned lot that Desco sold to MLP sits adjacent to another set of railroad tracks. The Kirkwood train station, on the National Register of Historic Places, still functions as a passenger stop for Amtrak. Traffic through Kirkwood halts as the train takes its sweet time passing through, unloading and taking on passengers.

Kirkwoodians may grouse about the train as they sit and wait and lose a good 10 minutes of their lives, but a train stopping traffic reflects on the old-timey, Mayberry kind of town many citizens like to think Kirkwood still is and still needs to be.

Councilman Paul Ward in front of the Kirkwood train depot: Although Kirkwood doesn't want to be Clayton, Ward doesn't want it to be Maplewood, either.
Jennifer Silverberg
Councilman Paul Ward in front of the Kirkwood train depot: Although Kirkwood doesn't want to be Clayton, Ward doesn't want it to be Maplewood, either.
Mayor Swoboda's principal antagonist, Councilman Mike Lynch, in Kirkwood City Hall: "You get so close to a project, you lose objectivity. You don't pay attention to all the danger signs that pop up."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Swoboda's principal antagonist, Councilman Mike Lynch, in Kirkwood City Hall: "You get so close to a project, you lose objectivity. You don't pay attention to all the danger signs that pop up."

Kirkwood even has its own Chatter Box Café: Spencer's Grill, where at 10 a.m. on a Monday during football season, a guy coming in to talk about the Rams with the cook finds a willing participant, although he's talked about nothing else between the fried eggs and bacon since before dawn. The waitresses are solid diner-type beauties who keep the coffee flowing and are always asking How is everything, darling, sweetie, hon? The folks who spend their days glued to computer screens scrunch into booths and onto stools next to those who swing hammers or pour concrete or are retired from it all.

There's nothing retro about Spencer's. It just never changed, which is how some in Kirkwood want things. But Spencer's sits right across from where those 206 high-end apartments, condos and townhomes are going to be built. Spencer's Grill represents unassuming small-town values: bacon and eggs. Station Plaza is trendy urban chic: low-cholesterol diets.

For Station Plaza to be approved, Kirkwood's zoning laws must be amended to allow MLP to build four stories, 20 feet above the current code. Four stories doesn't sound like much in Clayton or St. Louis, but for some Kirkwoodians it is the harbinger of an urban skyline, obscuring views of trees and steeples in their peaceful little town.

Kirkwood doesn't want to be Clayton.


"Keep your coat on. I'll take you for a ride," says Mayor Swoboda a few weeks before the final Station Plaza vote.

Swoboda has thinning white hair and a wisecracking grin. Like many a politician, he employs a swift, firm handshake. He likes to move at a brisk tempo.

Swoboda's silver PT Cruiser is parked behind City Hall. "I love it," he says, shifting into reverse. "It's the best car I've ever owned." The mayor has lived in Kirkwood 32 years, which makes him a carpetbagger to some in town. A few years ago, Swoboda retired from Monsanto, where he worked for 27 years in information systems and computer applications, and at age 63, he still plays a vigorous game of tennis. In 2000, after more than two decades on the Kirkwood City Council, he was elected mayor on his second run for the office.

"I don't accept we have a big battle," Swoboda contends, steering the PT Cruiser from downtown to the far ends of Kirkwood and back. Swoboda talks up the "nationally recognized" Clay Bridge as he drives over its iron-girded form. On historic Argonne Drive, he proudly points out a row of 19th-century shops owned by him and his wife, Sue, as well as Sue's Folly, a caboose -- now transformed into a boutique -- that was brought here all the way from central Illinois. "It's one thing to talk about historic preservation," the mayor affirms, "but the Swobodas put their money where their mouth is. You gotta make a commitment."

He points out the nationally registered train depot, the nationally registered Eliot Chapel, the old feed store, the farmers' market. "Isn't this neat? Isn't this exciting?" Swoboda repeats at every landmark.

He drives by his own home, built by one Jacob Bach in the mid-1870s. "When you talk historic preservation, the Swobodas live it," the mayor reiterates, in case the message hadn't gotten through before.

Meramec Highlands, where in the early 20th century the wealthy of St. Louis rode by train to their cool summer "cottages," stands gingerbread-pretty. The cottages are large two-story homes, in better repair than the old Highlands train station, which has caused a legal battle over the city's "capricious" zoning. The developer, who owns the station, wants as many housing sites per acre as the district bordering his property. "I don't know if the station is savable, but I'd like to try," Swoboda says earnestly, although he acknowledges that "the judge's decision will determine the fate of the train station."

He tours Meacham Park, the most controversial development in Kirkwood before Station Plaza started making waves. A historically African-American district, the area was annexed by Kirkwood in 1992, after which the city moved people out to make way for Kirkwood Commons, a retail mall featuring Target and Lowe's. The city negotiated for tax-increment financing to rebuild Meacham Park with better homes at market rate. "This is the rebirth of Meacham Park," says Swoboda. "This is city government keeping its promises."

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