Busch Whack

The king of beers lords over a small Soulard enclave

Carolyn Toft is the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a nonprofit devoted to the preservation of historic structures. "Anheuser-Busch has been turning the district into a surface parking lot," Toft fumes. "Whether it's been a board bill or a simple matter of corporate persuasion, A-B has pretty much had its way in that portion of the historic district. It's become, unfortunately, a fact of life. They've been doing this for decades."

That said, Toft believes Bill 213, which awaits only Mayor Francis Slay's signature, is an improvement over "corporate persuasion." Says Toft: "It may be a more legitimate way to go after it, frankly."

Anheuser-Busch representatives declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a late-October meeting to explain the redevelopment plan and address the neighborhood's concerns, the company offered the brewery's rationale for seeking the ordinance, which came about after A-B failed to secure demolition permits for three buildings in St. Agatha, located at 3205 South Seventh Street and at 911 and 937 Withnell Avenue.

A brewery in the backyard:  St. Agatha resident Terri Khan
Jennifer Silverberg
A brewery in the backyard: St. Agatha resident Terri Khan

"What we've tried to do is just narrow our focus on what we think will be important for the brewery's long-term viability," explained Rod Forth, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of government affairs. One aspect of this focus, he told the twenty or so who had assembled, involved donating to the city three A-B-owned properties located in another part of the neighborhood. The city, in turn, handed over the buildings to the Soulard Housing Corporation, which will fix them up and put them on the market.

"Some of the properties we own need to come down, and we'd like to do that so that they're not a hazard and they're not an eyesore, and we keep that green space," Forth went on. The company intends to grow, he said, which will necessitate more space nearby. "It's only prudent for us to assemble that land over time," Forth concluded. (Indeed, A-B hasn't only been buying land around St. Agatha's. I-55 forms a barrier to the west, but the brewery has been gradually acquiring property north of Lynch Street; and looking eastward across Broadway, it recently purchased a large plot from Yellow Freight in an industrial zone that borders the Mississippi.)

Forth told residents that the brewery will entertain any homeowner's offer in the St. Agatha neighborhood. But, he added, offers will be based solely on the value of the land -- not of the building, which the brewery would demolish under the new law. "We're not interested in the house," Forth said. "We're interested in the property."

"We're going be sitting here like a little row of ducks, because we'll be surrounded by this industrial complex," predicts Terri Khan. "I venture to say that there's no one that will want to buy our homes. I could make this the most beautiful house in the world and no one will want to own it, because they'll have the brewery sitting in the backyard."

Khan and her neighbors wonder why the city doesn't just seek eminent domain, which would require that Anheuser-Busch buy property at fair market value rather than pick away at the neighborhood bit by bit, lowering property values as they go.

At the October meeting, the brewery's plant manager, Jeff Pitts, had an answer at the ready: Anheuser-Busch has no intention of buying the entire neighborhood, nor of demanding that residents sell. As evidence of the former, he pointed to A-B's recent goodwill gesture deeding three properties to the city for redevelopment. "If you don't ever want to sell to A-B," Pitts said, "we're cool with that. Our commitment is to be the best neighbor we can be. Whether it's landscaping, whether it's replacing fencing, whether it's doing whatever we have to do to make this as beautiful as we can."

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