Going Postal

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

Easier to bring in, no doubt, will be two institutional tenants who have already expressed an interest in the building: the Missouri Court of Appeals and Webster University. The court's 14 judges and their 40-plus staff members need more space than can now accommodate them in the old Wainwright Building, two blocks south. After touring the Old Post Office in 2001, the judges unanimously voted to move out of the Louis Sullivan-designed landmark and into their proposed roomier quarters. "They're the anchor tenant," says Stogel. "Their lease is 99.44 percent complete."

And it was the judges' decision to move, according to Royce Yeater, Midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that was the driving force behind the National Trust's acceptance of the Ninth Street Garage plan in January 2001, and that acceptance means the destruction of the Century Building.

"I had real concerns about what was going to happen to all those old courtrooms upstairs," says Yeater from his office in Chicago, "whether one was going to turn those into condos or rent them out as office space to some attorney. Once the state courts came along, it changed the rules a little bit." The courts, he notes, are "a perfect match" for the building.

Left to right: Steve Stogel of the DFC Group; Gwen Knight and Mark Schnuck of the DESCO Group
Left to right: Steve Stogel of the DFC Group; Gwen Knight and Mark Schnuck of the DESCO Group
Webster University professor Dan Hellinger has his doubts as to whether the school can afford to house its downtown campus in the Old Post Office
Jennifer Silverberg
Webster University professor Dan Hellinger has his doubts as to whether the school can afford to house its downtown campus in the Old Post Office

But for Yeater, it is equally important to have Webster University sign on. In fact, he included strict stipulations for the Century Building's razing, including an understanding that the National Trust's approval is off if Webster pulls out. And Webster may become a glitch; the school is no longer interested in occupying the two basement levels. Instead, it wants to lease space on the ground and second levels, which leaves the building's most unattractive areas without a prospective tenant.

The university, ironically, had designs on the Old Post Office even before DESCO and DFC started sniffing around. At one point in 1999, Webster even floated the idea of buying the building from the federal government, but the GSA wouldn't sell. Then the school, which maintains a downtown campus in the Lammert Building three blocks to the northwest, conducted "space studies" and concluded that the landmark was far too large for its needs. During any given semester, only a few hundred students are enrolled, and their impact is barely felt on the neighborhood.

Webster University president Richard Meyers wants to change that. "The university has grown to a remarkable size," he says. "It's funny to say this, but there are some areas where we are located in the U.S. and the world where we are considered a major player within those regions, and yet in St. Louis it's very difficult to get the kind of public recognition that the university gets in other places." In late September, Meyers told the St. Louis Business Journal that the number of students at the campus would start at 1,200 per semester when the redeveloped Old Post Office is complete and would, within four years, increase to 1,700. (Stogel, however, recently estimated that number at between 450 and 500.)

But Meyers has opponents within his own faculty who say the predicted enrollment numbers don't add up and that the Lammert Building has space available for expansion. Dan Hellinger, chairman of the History, Politics and Law department, has spoken publicly against a proposed move to the Old Post Office. "I think Dick's motives for going downtown, insofar as they are to participate in the revitalization of downtown St. Louis, are good ones," he says, "and I support them. However, I can say that a lot of us on the faculty, and, I know, many administrators are concerned about whether or not the financial commitment that the university may have to make is something we can afford to take on."

During the five-plus years Meyers has been promoting the idea of a move, he has changed his position from an outright purchase of the building to leasing 50,000 square feet -- and now he's cutting that number by a third. "We're looking at a reduction in the amount of square footage," he says, "in the 30,000-to-35,000 range, which would still double what we're doing now."

Meyers remains cautiously upbeat that Webster will end up in the Post Office, albeit in a diminished capacity: "I'm optimistic that something can be worked out," he says. "It's been over five and a half years now since we started this project. I still look at it as something that's going to happen. But negotiations are negotiations, and we'll just see what happens."

The Century Building and its attached-by-a-wall sister, the Syndicate Trust (which would be spared from demolition) both won designation on the National Register of Historic Places in February 2003, nearly two years after preservationists submitted the original application in the wake of the Century's demolition proposal. By the time the Century was awarded this status, however, the fate of the building seemed sealed. The mayor's office opposed the designation, but the National Register disagreed. Historic status, however, does not protect the building from the wrecking ball.

The Century is in far worse shape than the Old Post Office. The city purchased it, along with the Syndicate, from Mark Finney's Conlon Group in July 2001, and it was a shambles; Conlon had evicted the tenants and then left the building for dead, hoping to raze it for a parking lot. (The Syndicate, meanwhile, languishes, awaiting a development plan.)

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