Going Postal

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

"Mark Finney was the one who screwed it up so bad," insists artist and investor Bob Cassilly. "He did everything he could to destroy the building. Jackhammered a hole in the floor and pushed a Bobcat in there to show that the building wasn't strong. If there's a bad guy in this whole thing, it's Mark Finney, because he made it so that it could never be repaired."

The Century's last remaining tenant, Walgreens, bailed out in late 2002 at the city's request and, over a year later, the building continues its decay, surrounded by a plywood fence adorned with fading murals. Pigeons looking for a change of scenery from the Old Post Office leap next door to the dry-bones exterior of the Century, then to the Syndicate Trust. The inside has been gutted of every accoutrement, say those who have visited it, with walls and windows transformed into graffiti canvases.

For this reason, says preservation consultant Lynn Josse, the Century, constructed of Georgia marble and limestone, has been dismissed. Supporters of the Old Post Office plan "began with the view that the Century wasn't an important building and didn't add anything to the urban environment." Nonetheless, she adds, the Keeper of the National Register "states quite clearly that there are no other known buildings like this of these materials."

Carolyn Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis
Carolyn Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis

But the city argues that the landmark must come down precisely in order to preserve the downtown heritage. Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman explained the city's reasoning to the Post-Dispatch (Geisman declined comment for this story): "By doing this garage, I think we will be able to induce development of the Paul Brown and the Arcade-Wright [buildings], fill up the Frisco [Building] and start giving downtown some life again." Stogel offers the same logic: "The Century is going to come down to be the functional parking for this [the Old Post Office], the Syndicate, the Frisco, the Paul Brown, the Arcade/Wright and other neighborhood uses."

He also maintains that the proposed Ninth Street parking garage is necessary both for the security and convenience of the judges and their staff and for the Webster students, not to mention the future needs of the district. "It's unfortunate that the Century has to come down," he notes, "but it's the only logical place that allows the concurrent development of all the other buildings so that we do not stand alone. We stand at the center of something that works. We're not doing it piecemeal. We're doing it holistically. You're going to have a minimum of 600 and a maximum of 700 apartment units and 1000 people -- our vision -- living in the Old Post Office district, and what do they need? They need parking."

And with the Roberts Brothers' recent purchase of the American Theater, says chairman and CEO Mike Roberts, the square is looking at increased nighttime traffic. The developers own the Board of Education Building, which they've renamed the Roberts Lofts on the Plaza, as well as the Roberts Mayfair hotel, another Old Post Office neighbor. Roberts Brothers' loft and hotel parking needs are met, he says, but they want to use the new garage for the theater's needs. "We're going to feed the parking business with quite an array -- along with the programs, concerts, theater, banquets, and corporate events that will be at the American."

Carolyn Toft, the Landmarks Association's executive director, suggests that anyone simply look to see if any downtown parking garages are full at any time other than during a Rams game. "I'm looking out at an empty garage from my office -- and we're right there -- and there's another [garage] under construction that hasn't opened yet," she argues. "I mean, we've got more parking per capita than any other downtown in the United States." Plus, she says, foot traffic is necessary for the vibrancy and overall feeling among residents and visitors that the downtown area is safe. If they have to walk a couple of blocks to their destination, so much the better for local businesses.

And Lynn Josse adds that the downtown redevelopment trend is already taking place -- without the parking garage. "These developments are happening," she notes. "The garage has not happened and the developments are happening. It shows that it's not as necessary as everybody thought." The garage is not the trigger that people claim it is, she says. "It's not a catalyst because it didn't start all the other development."

"There's a way to do it all," says Toft. "There's just been this compete inability to have that kind of a conversation, from the moment I first heard of this proposal -- and it was presented not as a proposal, but as a fait accompli."

She hasn't given up hope that the city will reverse the demolition. In a prepared statement for Riverfront Times, she cites a recent change of heart by the St. Louis Board of Education: "Within the last few weeks, the Board of Education acknowledged the cultural importance and neighborhood development/stabilization potential of St. Louis' astonishing collection of historic school buildings. It then amended its public position in the sale of redundant properties to include historic significance when evaluating bids for purchase. This thoughtful, courageous action has reassured many of us that the Board does indeed have a commitment to the community-at-large. It is not too late for Mayor Slay to demonstrate the same sort of leadership and require an objective review of the ill-conceived, still-not-financed Old Post Office Square project."

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