Going Postal

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

The partnership required to renovate the Old Post Office has already brought out Stogel's skill at finessing a deal and his steamroller style. The $73 million price tag ($43 million if one excludes the cost of the proposed garage) calls for the federal government's real estate arm, the General Services Administration, to deed the property to the state. The state would then lease the building for 99 years to DFC, DESCO, the Bank of America and U.S. Bank. In return, the developers would be obligated to restore, lease and manage the building until 2103. DFC and DESCO would be responsible for financing the deal; they expect to obtain funding through tax credits, debt, housing grants and donations from Civic Progress and the Danforth Foundation, a private, independent foundation with a goal of revitalizing the St. Louis region.

But critics cite concerns about Stogel's friendship with Governor Bob Holden. Stogel is a major contributor to the Democratic Party and counts U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt among his close friends. He also personally guaranteed a $250,000 loan for the governor's inauguration in 2001, a fact that detractors are quick to point out when they predict that he stands to make a hefty profit from the state of Missouri.

Moreover, detractors say they can't make sense of the city's actions with respect to the Century Building. Throughout the '90s, when the building was in private hands, its owner, developer Mark Finney, pursued demolition permits that the city repeatedly denied. But in 2001, the city bought the building and paid Finney ten times his original purchase price of $625,000 and began advocating the very thing he requested: the Century Building's demolition.

The buildings surrounding Old Post Office Square.   

Click here to see an enlarged version (72kb).
photos by Jennifer Silverberg
The buildings surrounding Old Post Office Square. Click here to see an enlarged version (72kb).
Attorney Matt Ghio says that the decision to demolish the Century was made without public input
Jennifer Silverberg
Attorney Matt Ghio says that the decision to demolish the Century was made without public input

What's more, critics allege, the proposal arrived as a fait accompli, despite the city's 1999 opposition to demolition while the Century belonged to Finney. One of the most outspoken opponents is attorney Matt Ghio of the Clayton law firm Van Amburg, Chackes, Carlson & Spritzer. Ghio represents Marcia Behrendt, a downtown resident who filed suit against the city, the state, the developers and others to halt the Century's razing. Ghio maintains that the Old Post Office proposal works in direct opposition to the downtown master plan created by Downtown Now!, a partnership of private- and public-sector interests dedicated to revitalizing downtown.

When the city gave the go-ahead to renovate the Post Office at the expense of the Century, Ghio alleges, the announcement suggested that meetings had taken place about issues of "public planning, public process" -- but without public knowledge. Although Ghio says such meetings were not illegal, he complains that the developers "had been working with the General Services Administration, with the state, with the alderman, with Gephardt, with [U.S. Senator Kit] Bond, with [former U.S. Senator John] Danforth, [city booster organization St. Louis] 2004 and Downtown Now!. They were having all these meetings and not letting anybody in the community know that this was going on, and that's what I think angered a lot of people. This is a very prominent block in a very prominent square. And then they decide unilaterally to change [the city redevelopment plan] without trying to get any community input."

In February 2002, two other downtown developers, Craig Heller and Kevin McGowan -- both of whom have a portfolio of impressive downtown residential and retail projects -- proposed an alternate plan that would save the Century. They recommended that the building be converted into a combination of retail space and residential lofts, with parking inside the building. But the city and Stogel swiftly and vehemently opposed the idea, and within a matter of weeks, amid rumors and retaliatory threats, Heller and McGowan withdrew it. (For more, see Elizabeth Vega's "Wrecking Crew" in the March 20, 2002, issue of the Riverfront Times.)

Gwen Knight is the vice president of DESCO charged with transforming 20,000 square feet on the ground and second floors of the Old Post Office into retail and office space. As she walks through the Old Post Office's main floor, Knight points out the original, ornate post-office boxes that line one wall. "They're fabulous," she says. But she also knows the challenges ahead. Retailers will be faced with enormous utility bills for the beautiful but cavernous spaces, and they must conform to the restrictions that come with occupying a national landmark: Signs on the building would be prohibited, and any new construction work would face close scrutiny.

One challenge, Knight says, is to transform the building's exterior and make it more inviting from the street; to this end, the plan calls for trees to surround the structure, along with faux historic planters and streetlamps. "We wanted to create this really people-friendly building," she says. "That was very important to us. If we do that, we think there's a really good chance you can put some retail tenants in there. We've designed that [northwest] corner outside so you can put a nice restaurant in here and have outdoor eating. It can really be a terrific-looking building." A Starbucks or a Saint Louis Bread Co., she adds, would do well too.

When Stogel considers the neighborhood's retail character, he envisions "the kinds of things that you'll see in any major city -- financial services, coffee shops, a travel agency, a rental car company." Fast food, he adds, and a Hallmark store. A health-and-fitness center. A flower shop. "It's not going to be the art galleries like you find in Paris, and it's not going to be Madison Avenue between 72nd and 79th in New York -- Yves St. Laurent and all the fashion districts." He isn't worried about filling the two floors, even though they account for a full third of the usable space. "As the building fills up," he says, "we'll have the flexibility of going office or retail. It may end up as an all-office building, or it may end up with some retail."

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