Going Postal

Maybe itís time to revisit Steve Stogelís redevelopment plan for the Old Post Office downtown

It wasn't always called the Old Post Office. When it was completed in 1884, the storied downtown landmark at 815 Olive Street was known by residents of the tony neighborhood around it as simply the Post Office. By the thousands, people passed through its revolving doors to do business with the U.S. government -- to pick up their mail, perhaps, or make their way to one of the grand third-floor courtrooms. They came to meet with federal bankers and IRS officials, to consult with U.S. Army engineers or lighthouse and steamboat inspectors.

But by the mid-1960s, the U.S. Post Office and Custom House, designed by famed architect Alfred Bult Mullett in the proud, rigid French Second Empire style, was already a "useless pile of wretched architecture," according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which sided with City Hall, the chamber of commerce and real estate agents in a campaign to demolish the structure and build a plaza and a modern office tower in its place. Pitted against these groups were the Landmarks Association, a St. Louis architectural heritage watchdog group; the Post-Dispatch; and a phalanx of area preservationists. Heritage won out, and in 1968 the Old Post Office was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has stood nearly empty ever since, one of the most majestic pigeon roosts in the country. It's too exquisite to destroy, say developers who have eyed the site for years, but too colossal to survive -- unless it's given room to breathe.

For the past three years, the city has backed a $73 million redevelopment plan for the Old Post Office, the brainchild of developer Steve Stogel, co-founder of the DFC Group, and Mark Schnuck, president of the DESCO Group, the real estate arm of the Schnuck family's grocery-store empire. (Mark Schnuck declined to be interviewed for this article.) That plan would resurrect the Old Post Office and restore it to a place of primacy in downtown St. Louis. Within a few months, "late this quarter or early next," predicts Stogel, if there are no hitches, the two developers, along with two banks, will hold a 99-year lease on the building, which would be elevated to national monument status. The Old Post Office's 50,000 square feet of usable space would house not only the Missouri Court of Appeals but perhaps a new campus for Webster University, plus stores, restaurants and coffee shops, and possibly brokerage and legal firms. The renovated structure would, the developers say, turn the city block on which it sits -- and the blocks radiating from it -- into an upscale urban oasis for convention visitors and sports fans and lure residents back to downtown. It's part of a comprehensive plan, says Stogel, to revive the entire district.

But there are hitches: protests from downtown residents and area preservationists, accusations of strong-arm tactics against business rivals and political quid pro quo, and a lawsuit that has intensified public scrutiny of the deal.

Across the street from the Old Post Office sits the Century Building, another relic from the city's architectural heyday -- a ruin now, but significant and unique enough to also earn a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The Century Building, built in 1896, must come down, according to the developers and financiers (and their backers in city and state government), or their key tenants won't sign on and the whole deal will collapse. The square, they maintain, needs a parking garage. The developers themselves need parking right next to the Old Post Office for 1,050 vehicles, as stated in the plan they introduced three years ago that features a nine-story Ninth Street parking facility. They also want to add more street-level retail to the ground floor of the Old Post Office.

But while the developers' plan hasn't changed in the past three years, the downtown district has evolved. The district is teeming with available properties that could house a parking garage, say critics of the plan, and, equally important, downtown is already well on the road to revitalization. It's not too late to reconsider the Century Building's demolition, they argue: The assumptions of 2001 no longer apply, many nearby buildings have changed hands in recent years, and long-rumored developments are actively under way. Some of the area's most prominent developers -- the Roberts Brothers, Pyramid Construction and Amos Harris -- are renovating properties around the Old Post Office. Redevelopment is inching its way eastward from loft central (Washington Avenue west of Tucker), to the successful Merchandise Mart, to developer Craig Heller's Tenth Street Lofts. Many of the downtown developers counter that these residential developments are a bellwether and that their new tenants will need goods and services. They're in agreement with Stogel: The district can't succeed without the Ninth Street parking garage.

The Landmarks Association nonetheless continues its fight to preserve a piece of architectural history. It supports an alternative recommendation, put forth by the city itself in 1999, two years before the introduction of Stogel's plan. At that time, the city called for restoration -- not demolition -- of the Century Building, which it owns, and urged that planners maintain the district's character by looking for above-ground parking in areas that did not directly front the Old Post Office.

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