Wrecking Crew

Slay and his Old Post Office plan allies knock down two rivals with hardball and humiliation

Heller says he first approached Geisman in January with his alternative, which focuses only on the Century and Syndicate buildings, not the Old Post Office itself. He says his plan is an attempt to address at least one neighborhood concern -- a bus-transfer station in the proposed garage for the Century site that some believed would kill foot traffic in the area and discourage the development of stores and shops.

But Geisman says Heller was making both a power play and a pitch to bypass the city's normal channels, including the request-for-proposal process: "They [Heller and McGowan] promised to make the opposition go away if we would let them develop the Syndicate. Their proposal clearly showed them taking advantage of the benefits of the Century garage. To me, it appeared they wanted the Syndicate without going through an RFP process, and at a bargain price."

The city's assault against Heller and McGowan crossed state lines and involved players who are no longer part of the St. Louis establishment, sources say.

The former president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, Bob Bedell, recently took a similar post in Indianapolis, which happens to be the headquarters of Mansur Real Estate Services Inc., a partner with Heller and McGowan in their plan for the Century.

Sources say Bedell, who couldn't be reached for comment and didn't start his new job until last week, was busy playing St. Louis politics from two states away. They say he was asked to go over the head of Bob Bates, Mansur's director of historic development, and deliver this message to his corporate superiors: Your company's name is being sullied by this deal, and it would be in your best interest to back off.

Heller and McGowan also got hit with a media blitz.

In a March 1 St. Louis Business Journal story, Geisman questioned Heller's ability to redevelop the old City Hospital site. Heller was selected as developer of the site in 1999, but the city has been slow to sign an agreement on this plan. The deal includes lots of residential and retail space, and Mansur was supposed to be a key player.

In the Business Journalarticle, Geisman says: "We're taking a real hard look at that situation. When somebody wants to take on a major development, we want to look at what else they've got on their plate and how they're doing with it."

This thinly veiled public threat coincided with two events: Heller and McGowan's release of the preliminary financial numbers for their alternative plan and the pitch of that plan to a legislative committee. Stogel and Gwen Knight, president of DESCO, the other development outfit working on the mayor's preferred plan, also attended this hearing.

Geisman says the city can't turn back. Stogel's and Knight's companies have already spent $750,000 in architectural studies, parking assessments and renderings of what has been described as a "really beautiful garage." Plus, the mayor's reputation is at stake.

"How credible would the city be if we shifted gears and courted every developer with an 11th-hour plan?" Geisman asks. "A plan was on the table, and we were keeping our word and going with that."

Although no one expected the developers to have a big group hug and start working toward the betterment of downtown, McGowan and Heller's abrupt capitulation came as a shock. In a March 9 press release, the two developers announced that they were spiking their plan, citing four economic reasons for doing so, including the high cost of removing asbestos from the Century and a failure to meet the requirements for federal and state tax credits.

But a shovelful of humble pie was also served up in the release:

"It is our conclusion that our proposal is not consistent with the wider public purpose articulated by Mayor Francis Slay of revitalizing all of the Old Post Office Square.... We have always supported, without reservation, the plan for the Old Post Office proposed by DESCO and DFC."

The last line reads like a confession secured at gunpoint: "We make these endorsements without asking for, or being offered, any concessions from DESCO/DFC, the City of St. Louis, or any other entity or person on any other project."

A payoff to make Heller and McGowan go away was never discussed, sources say, and the point of the press release was total capitulation, not concession.

Truth is, sources say, Heller and McGowan didn't even write the press release that bears their names -- it was a collaborative work by Stogel, Geisman, Tom Reeves of Downtown Now! and Richard Callow, a public-relations consultant who swims in all sorts of political ponds.

Callow, who is Geisman's live-in boyfriend, says he was merely keeping an eye on the interests of his client Downtown Now! But sources say it was Callow who insisted on the most humiliating language of the release signed by Heller and McGowan.

Stogel seems anxious to put distance between himself and the public flogging.

"Richard Callow did do a draft a version of the press release," Stogel says. "DESCO/DFC then released our own press release."

Sources say the joint release by Stogel's and Knight's companies was meant to ease the sting of the document Heller and McGowan were forced to sign.

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