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

New homes are indeed going up. Swoboda points out "infill" and "fix-ups." "Look down here," he says, gesturing down another Meacham Park street. "Some old, some new -- isn't that great? People in Meacham Park are excited, positively excited."

A mayor who seeks to drive a $40 million development unscathed through the democratic process is more than an avuncular civic booster in a PT Cruiser, however. Back at his office after the Kirkwood tour, Swoboda reveals some of his political fire. Three photos hang near the mayor's desk: Swoboda's two favorite presidents, Harry S Truman and Theodore Roosevelt, and a Missouri mule, which has all the qualities the mayor admires: "hardworking, stubborn on quality."

On a conference table lie renderings of the Station Plaza development, an attractive set of drawings depicting buildings that would provide street-level restaurants and shops and upstairs residential-loft spaces. One four-story structure cleverly mirrors the design of the old Town Hall, with a wide European-style central plaza to provide space for outdoor dining as well as a community gathering place. A row of gabled condos stretches along one side of the property, three-story townhomes with second-floor terraces along another.

Councilman Joe Godi is a Spencer's Grill kind of guy: "Traffic, apartments, condos: They have their place, but it's not downtown Kirkwood."
Jennifer Silverberg
Councilman Joe Godi is a Spencer's Grill kind of guy: "Traffic, apartments, condos: They have their place, but it's not downtown Kirkwood."

In describing the project, Swoboda toys with a term he's been trying out on his wife. "A pulsating vibrancy -- only a bohemian would say that," says the former Monsanto manager. "This creates a town center where the auto is not the center of life. I feel it would give that vibrancy of human beings, people walking around 24/7 -- give us a great vibrancy."

The significance of democracy is found not in agreement but in argument. One mayor's pulsating vibrancy is a city councilman's urban pressure.

Joe Godi hasn't been persuaded by the mayor's or MLP's New Urbanism talk. "They call it a mixed-use development," he says. "It's not for downtown Kirkwood -- too much density, too-high structures. Traffic, apartments, condos: They have their place, but it's not downtown Kirkwood."

Godi twice thumps the tabletop at Howard Johnson's to punctuate his description of the mayor's hardball political tactics: "He's really belligerent, and I don't know why people don't stand up to him. On almost any decision, the council goes the mayor's way."

The squarely built retired groundskeeper has no problem standing up to the mayor. On a morning just days before the final vote on Station Plaza, Godi looks as if he's never had a hard time standing up to anybody. "I don't know where the mayor comes from," he says. "He pushes himself around on every issue. He shows up at something every day. If somebody's having a 50th wedding anniversary, he shows up. But he doesn't have the personality to go with it. He walked into the Republican women's club -- 'Hi. Hi. Hi.' -- and you just don't walk in on a group just because you're mayor."

What downtown Kirkwood is or isn't, or what it should or shouldn't be, is the debate surrounding Station Plaza. Paul Ward, the sole African-American on the Kirkwood City Council, is troubled by the manner in which Swoboda has championed the project. "He embraced it whole," says Ward, sitting in Einstein's Bagels one afternoon. "It made me a little bit uncomfortable how energetic he was about it. That made me uneasy."

Ward is a third-generation Kirkwoodian. His grandfather moved here to escape the congestion and pollution of St. Louis. His father was a minister, Ward is sure to tell you, and the son carries on the oratorical tradition. He pontificates at times and cuts a charismatic figure with his broad shoulders and shaved head.

"You shouldn't be the cheerleader," he says. "We should be asking the hard questions, whether we be pro or con. We should be perceived that we're not just there to rubber-stamp."

Yet Ward accepts, for the most part, that Station Plaza would be good for Kirkwood. "I remember when downtown Kirkwood was dead," he says. "We all know of the continued western expansion. CityCorp is going out to St. Charles." If Kirkwood does not continue to grow and maintain its quality of life, Ward worries, "we could be Maplewood," another municipality within the I-270 ring that pays its residents to leave, replacing them with Costco and Home Depot Expo.

"The enthusiasm of MLP is genuine," Ward says, but he does not want the approval process to be short-circuited. Across the street from Einstein's is Pioneer Place, a retail strip that includes Taco Bell, Quizno's, Starbucks, the Blue Water Grill, a Crown Optical store and the post office. Inconspicuous to the outsider, Pioneer Place is the stretch of development Kirkwoodians curse the most. Traffic and parking are murder. Ward wants to be assured that Station Plaza, with its New Urbanism, won't wreak further havoc on Kirkwood Road.

"You'll see Thursday where we're going to fall on that," says Ward.

The man who hopes to impede the Missouri mule on Thursday night is Councilman Mike Lynch.

On the Tuesday morning before the vote, Lynch arrives at City Hall to discuss the mayor and Station Plaza. He's a few minutes late, then explains more about the complications of his computer printer than anyone would ever want to know. Lynch has the look of the mild-mannered policy wonk -- pale white, bald, white shirt, tie, eyeglasses. He can talk the details of zoning regulations until his listener is glassy-eyed, but he's been involved in development himself and knows what lies in those details. For 21 years he was a banker, at Boatmen's locally and the Bank of Ireland during a stint in Boston. He's not the guy interested in the external design of a building: "I look at the infrastructure that nobody else looks at." He knows how to read a design plan but doubts that some of his fellow councilmen can do so.

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