Competing nominations bring high-pressure politics to the Century Building -- again

In a brief biographical sketch Callow submitted at the time he was named to the preservation board by Slay in September 2001, he notes that his public-relations firm, Public Eye, is a corporate member of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and that he is a partner in a corporation spending more than $3 million on the renovation of a historic building on Washington Avenue. Geisman is also a partner in that project, a position that earned her a soft rebuke from the Federal Highway Administration, which asked her to step down from day-to-day supervision of the Washington Avenue streetscape project because of a perceived conflict with her ownership of property that could benefit from federally funded improvements to the street.

"There was an appearance that decisions made by her could be seen as being made for her benefit. To avoid that, just don't have anything to do with the project," said Mary Ridgeway, a transportation engineer in the Federal Highway Administration's Missouri division, the office overseeing the Washington Avenue project. "We've asked her not to be involved in any of the decision-making. If there's a meeting and it comes up, maybe she should leave the room."

Asked whether he considered recusing himself from consideration of Geisman's report because he is her live-in boyfriend, Callow shoots back: "Absolutely not, and I voted with a majority of the commission on the subject. The relationship is not only well known and long-standing, it and Barbara Geisman's job are expressly listed on my official disclosure form filed with the city register. That we agree with each other on a variety of matters and that we both agree with the mayor are, in fact, reasons I am happy to serve on the Commission."

Barb Geisman, deputy mayor for development
Jennifer Silverberg
Barb Geisman, deputy mayor for development

The high-profile importance of the Old Post Office project is reason enough for guys such as Bond, Gephardt, and former U.S. Senators Tom Eagleton and John "St. Jack" Danforth to flex their considerable political muscle. Even the National Register bureaucrats recognize a strong political undercurrent when they see one.

"We've heard from Senator Bond's office and Congressman Gephardt's office," says Blackwell, Missouri's deputy historic-preservation officer. "There is a high degree of political involvement because many feel that the redevelopment of the Old Post Office is critical to the redevelopment of downtown St. Louis. They feel like this is it, this is the chance to get it done. The politicians have weighed in on the side of 'Please help this move forward.'"

Blackwell and Alexis Abernathy, a spokeswoman for the National Register, make liberal use of the U-word:

"I can tell you it's highly unusual to have two nominations in hand at the same time," says Abernathy. "We handle 1,200 to 1,500 nominations a year. Normally we don't make a site visit. This is unusual -- extremely unusual."

Says Blackwell: "It is unusual to have a building nominated twice like this, but it isn't against the regulations."

Unusual or not, National Park Service bureaucrats were fêted at two dog-and-pony-show presentations on the Old Post Office plans and the vital need for the Century to be torn down so that a new garage can be built to spark development of the surrounding block -- present-day garages be damned.

Even though it's a crucial question, parking space falls outside the list of issues the National Register folks can take into consideration. Their sole question is whether the building is historic enough and architecturally significant enough to qualify for the list.

But that isn't the only consideration of some of the politicos weighing in on the issue.

"Our view is that there's a serious problem downtown with building blight," said Charlie Barnes, who runs Bond's St. Louis office. "We're willing to work with anybody wanting to address that issue. We're not wedded to any one plan, but you have a plan in place."

Bond is busy crowing about an important win for downtown St. Louis. He's also showing no shyness about claiming the credit.

Unusual, all right. But not unheard-of.

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