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

"People see a 60-foot building and they'd think they were in St. Louis or Clayton," one citizen reasons without having to explain why that association would be so awful.

The propriety of a city council's amending its zoning codes for a single developer is the more serious issue at hand, especially with one developer suing the city for its "capricious" zoning regulations in Meramec Highlands. But height, parking and traffic are the surface complaints that have the chamber buzzing before all join for the Pledge of Allegiance.

With the floor opened for citizen comments, the anti-Station Plaza barrage ensues: "The project is too big. We should not be held hostage to height." "Too high, too dense." "Kirkwood is being inundated by developers." "It's too high. It's too elaborate." "This is not a turn-of-the-century town square but high-density." "Every developer who said it can't be done came back. Developers know what our codes are, and we should enforce them. Sixty feet is too high." And so on.

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.

Seated in the front row of every meeting has been a small contingent from MLP, with Ho as the main representative. The affable, well-spoken Ho comes to the meetings in tailored suits. When he first presented drawings of the plan to the City Council, emphasizing the public plaza that would be central to the site and to downtown, one Kirkwoodian quipped, "Everybody's favorite place is where there are no buildings."

Ho employs phrases such as "New Urbanism" and "the principle of old neighborhoods" and speaks of future Kirkwoodians living in Station Plaza as "hipsters of all ages." Some members of the audience visibly bristle at Ho's phraseology. He might as well be selling shares in Enron.

More citizens rise from the audience, adding variations on the theme. "There are ramifications we haven't even considered. We might have to turn to parking meters!" -- spoken with the passion of "Give me liberty or give me death!" "We are on the precipice of changing downtown Kirkwood." "One benefit of the plan," a woman notes wryly, "is that we won't be able to find a parking space to come to these meetings."

As the citizens take their best shots at the MLP plan, Swoboda appears enlivened. "Kirkwood will become another Clayton with tall buildings and high density." "Sixty feet seems monolithic compared to what we have." One woman implores the councilmen, "Consider before you leap off this cliff, taking unwilling citizens with you."

With the monolith, or precipice, or New Urbanism, in sight, Swoboda begins to push through Bill 9272. He asks the chief administrative officer, Mike Brown, about fire safety, and Brown, on cue, reports that the building will be safe. Swoboda asks the city attorney, John Hessel, whether a dangerous precedent is being set with regard to rezoning. Hessel says no precedent is being set.

Councilman Ward has his head in his hands. He twists in his chair. He's been visibly troubled all night. He presses Hessel. Pitman Place, a residential area to the south of the proposed Station Plaza, was zoned mixed-use until the owners requested otherwise, Ward tells Hessel. If a developer came with money in hand, couldn't the property owners ask to be rezoned again, sell their homes at substantial profit, move and leave an opening for another development with more traffic, more 60-foot buildings?

Ward doesn't add, although he knows this, that the mayor owns property on Pitman Place.

"Do we open ourselves to a legal challenge?" Ward asks the city attorney. Hessel's aura of certainty is not so convincing the second time around. Hessel believes the city could win against such a challenge, but, he doesn't add, someone willing to invest $40 million is also willing to spend the money to get his way in the courts, bleeding a city treasury dry.

Ward asks, "If this is approved, is there something we should do to assure citizens that we will have control?" He was lobbied hard by the mayor this afternoon, but he's still undecided. Ward thinks this is a good project, the best Kirkwood has seen for the site since Target went south. But no one can erase all of his uncertainties.

Ward is faced with what the mayor has forced him to confront: yes or no.

Councilman Lynch begins to speak at an even, deliberate pace. The council chamber grows quiet.

"Imagine 7 acres of prime commercial real estate," he tells them, "located in the heart of downtown Kirkwood alongside South Kirkwood Road. The site is vacant; revenue is nonexistent; an aura of quiet desperation pervades City Hall."

He asks the audience to imagine a developer appearing like a "new guardian angel," proposing a retail site that will attract out-of-town customers. The developer just needs a few small amendments to the zoning codes, which the enchanted City Council awards him.

"A year passes, and the development continues to be the talk of Kirkwood," Lynch continues, but it's not happy talk. Retail and office workers from the development are parking in residential neighborhoods because of the lack of parking. "Auto accidents increase over 100 percent."

Lynch asks the audience to imagine "an old man standing next to his broken-down PT Cruiser, smoke pouring from the hood, as he waits for a tow truck, swearing that he'll never again drive on Kirkwood Road during rush hour.

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