Going Postal

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

No one can tell by looking at it, but the Old Post Office was built atop quicksand. As the building was being constructed in 1873, workers setting its foundation struck an enormous pit of quicksand, and 800 men struggled to stem the flow. Ultimately they succeeded, but not before, the story goes, tossing in 500 bales of cotton, driving huge pine support beams deep into the bedrock and covering it all with granite slabs.

"They don't make them like this any more," declares 55-year-old Steve Stogel as he tours the building, "and with good reason." He's walking through a vast corridor, his footsteps echoing off of the intricately patterned floor tile, still in pristine shape after 120 years of use. "This building has received love and attention," he says, explaining the frustrations of filling the massive structure with tenants. It's not the most cost-effective space: Some ceilings soar to 35 feet high, and the spacious corridors will be expensive to heat and cool. "It was designed to be a government building," he notes, counting off the Old Post Office's previous tenants -- the U.S. Postal Service, the Treasury Department, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the District Court. "That's what this thing was built for. Take that and adapt it to a 21st-century office building, and find good tenants that are compatible." He pauses. "It's hard. It's a hard, hard deal. It takes the commitment of a whole town to save a building like this." The key, he explains, is to once more fill the monolith with institutional tenants, those who will commit to occupying the building for a long time.

In the 1990s, the city of St. Louis fought to save the Century Building; in 2001, the city bought it, then advocated demolishing it
Jennifer Silverberg
In the 1990s, the city of St. Louis fought to save the Century Building; in 2001, the city bought it, then advocated demolishing it
As the Old Post Office was being built in 1873, workers setting its foundation struck a vast pit of quicksand
As the Old Post Office was being built in 1873, workers setting its foundation struck a vast pit of quicksand

The Old Post Office Square district, Stogel likes to say, is "the living room of downtown," and the block he wants to renovate is the most important development project in the city right now: Its success will boost more than just the surrounding area. "St. Louis will have a much more vibrant downtown, and the place will feel better when the conventioneers come out of the hotels and walk to the ballpark. You'll see more pedestrian traffic everywhere. It'll feel better, and I'm looking forward to it -- because we'll no longer have a shabby living room."

Nearly a quarter of the city's vacancies -- some 2 million square feet, according to Stogel -- "are in the living room of downtown," he says. "What do you do to make the living room not shabby? You have to lease it to a vibrant community. So we came up with a plan for the whole district." Likening the Old Post Office to the center of a doughnut, he states, "You have to fix the core of it before you can fix the other stuff. Because I don't believe you can fill the edges of a doughnut before you fill the center of a doughnut."

Meaning, of course, that the Century Building must go: "If you're going to lease the rest of this building, you can't lease it looking into vacant, pigeon-filled, broken glass windows."

Stogel, who got his start in the mid-'70s with area developer McCormack Baron and bought half-interest in the company in 1981, credits his experience there with his mastery of the intricacies of public-private development partnerships. He traveled around the country -- to Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, New York, Connecticut -- putting together such deals. "We basically found a way to meld different sources of public and private financing to complete complicated projects," he says. He left McCormack Baron in 1990 to head the St. Louis Technical Assistance Corporation, or TAC, which was created by Civic Progress, a nonprofit service organization of chief executives from local corporations whose purpose was "to help then-troubled projects and 'stuck' projects that then-Mayor [Vincent] Schoemehl was interested in." Through TAC, Stogel worked as a financial advisor in the deal that ultimately created the Renaissance Grand Hotel on Washington Avenue and its accompanying parking lot and the Gateway Mall project. TAC also helped finance the ArtLofts, the first Washington Avenue loft development. In 1994, he founded the DFC Group with partner Chuck Eveker. "It stands for Don't Fool Chuck," laughs Stogel, explaining that it's a reference to his partner's accounting acumen.

Artist and Washington Avenue investor Bob Cassilly, owner of the popular City Museum, has had his share of tangles with Stogel (who is a former museum board member) but admires his drive. "He's brilliant when he starts putting things together. You can see him when he's making deals and stuff -- his feet start tapping on the floor and his mind's working, and he comes in with these wild associations."

Cassilly recalls the first time he and Stogel met: "I was doing these lions for the Gateway Mall, and I had all these downtown people come into my studio to find out if they really wanted to put them in the mall," he says. "Steve walked in -- the first time I ever met him, and before he even saw them -- and said, 'I want to tell you up-front that I'm going to do everything in my power to block these things.'" Despite his opposition to Cassilly's sculptures, which were ultimately approved, Stogel didn't mince words. "I was always impressed with how up-front he was. And he can get in your face and apparently will make people cry and things like that."

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