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

Lynch is up-front about his conflicts with Swoboda: "If you talk to people in the community, they'll tell you that the mayor and I butt heads more often than any other council member, and it's invariably over development."

The mayor shows deference to developers at the expense of the community, Lynch says. His ongoing feud with the mayor can be traced to that one issue.

To provide a shield to single-family homes, Lynch proposed a bill requiring a buffer zone between neighboring structures -- a 30-foot building would need a 15-foot buffer, for example.

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.

"The mayor had a meeting -- which I wasn't invited to -- to find out what the developers' feelings were about my proposal," Lynch says. "The developers were against it." This came as no surprise to the councilman. "Everybody cries that they can't afford to do something. Any developer has a perceived threat that if they don't get what they want, they'll pick up their marbles and go away. When I developed property, I made that threat."

But Swoboda, says Lynch, listened to those cries and implied threats and, in response, exerted his significant influence on the majority of the council. Before the vote on Lynch's proposal, he says, "Swoboda stood in front of the chamber and whispered in my ear, 'I have enough votes to defeat this.' And he was right."

That Swoboda had the votes wasn't the issue with Lynch; it was the mayor's need to rub his face in it: "That's been the burr under my saddle. Once there's been friction on one issue, there's more friction in other types of issues."

Some of that friction came from the loss of Kirkwood's popular musical-theater company, Stages St. Louis. "The mayor and I butted heads on this as well," Lynch says.

Stages had designs on the site before MLP made its $6 million bid, twice what Stages could offer. Lynch considered Stages an enormous economic benefit to the city, bringing 250,000 people into Kirkwood each year. But the mayor and his voting bloc opposed Lynch's proposal for an entertainment-tax district.

Stages now is looking to leave Kirkwood, and Lynch thinks Swoboda needs Station Plaza to pass, in part, because he doesn't want people reminded, as he puts it, "We lost Stages."

Lynch isn't opposed to MLP's project, but he'd like to slow Swoboda's charge to permit further study: "You get so close to a project, you lose objectivity. You don't pay attention to all the danger signs that pop up." In the interest of protecting quality of life, Lynch has proposed an impact study and shared-parking analysis by an engineer selected by the City Council. Swoboda, however, wants the council to accept a study prepared by the engineer MLP selects.

Lynch takes a dim view of Swoboda's trust in a profit-motivated builder. "A developer will hire a traffic engineer, and basically that engineer will ask the developer 'What do you want to get out of it?' I know they're going to get the traffic study they want," he says.

The Wednesday morning before the Station Plaza vote, the mayor is not his gregarious, jovial self. The usually grinning city booster wears a stern demeanor. "Do you know how many people have told me they're against this project?" he asks. He holds up three fingers. "Remarkable, absolutely remarkable," he says incredulously.

"The support has been overwhelming."

He expects the final vote on Station Plaza to come Thursday night, and he doesn't want to hear any more "I love the project, but ..." from the council.

"How much can you 'love a project, but ...' before you kill it?" Swoboda asks. "I hope tomorrow night we're going to vote. You can't have political double-speak on this vote. Either this is a good investment, yes, or this is a bad investment, no. 'I love it, but ...' is not acceptable.

"Is this good, yes; is this bad, no. I'm trying to frame this vote without ifs, ands or buts."

A comment of Ward's gains more relevance as the mayor contemplates Thursday night's vote. "He's got to win," Ward observes. "After he's wrapped his mind around an issue, he's either in or out -- and he's done."

The City Hall meeting room buzzes anxiously 10 minutes before Swoboda calls the assembly to order. Those who regularly attend council meetings are engaged in last-minute conversations. They arrive in jeans, sweaters and sweatshirts. One woman proudly displays a logo on her shirt that reads, "Paris. London. Rome. Kirkwood."

Kathy Paulsen hands out copies of the proposed ordinance that would greenlight Station Plaza. Paulsen shows up for every meeting and has spoken in opposition to the development. Tonight, as she hands out the photocopied pages, her eyes betray her nervousness. "This is our last chance," she says fretfully.

The ordinance contains the usual legislative rigamarole, the unreadable language that can spell a community's downfall or its progress. Underlined is the passage that troubles most of the citizens present, an amendment to the city's zoning code that allows MLP to build higher than 40 feet and allows any mixed-use development of more than 5 acres to be built up to 60 feet.

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