Doubting Thomas

Alderman Tom Bauer's stealth schemes are raising eyebrows

With consistently high rates of home ownership and occupancy, the 24th Ward has long been a steady, if not spectacular, residential utopia relative to the rest of St. Louis. The ward's stability allows its public servants, if they choose, to rest on their laurels.

But complacency just isn't 24th Ward Alderman Tom Bauer's bag of bullion. Instead, the alderman appears determined to capitalize on the city's current construction and redevelopment renaissance, and he's got his eye on two townhouse developments proposed for Clifton Heights and Dogtown. Bauer views the projects as prime opportunities to attract affluent residents and bring tax dollars to his southwesterly ward.

"We're the absolute success story of the south side," claims the second-term alderman and former state representative. "That's the benefit of having a proactive alderman, because he can guarantee that the people's interest is well-served."

Ellendale Neighborhood Association president Jan Kuhl isn't so sure. She maintains that Bauer has only looked out for himself since his re-election in 2003. "Everything's always been a little underhanded and sneaky," Kuhl says. "He pushes stuff through so quickly. I've never been real thrilled with his way of doing things."

So nonplussed is Kuhl, in fact, that she and two other 24th Ward neighborhood association presidents -- Lorie Cavin of Clifton Heights and Patricia Verde of Clayton-Tamm -- are circulating a petition to have Bauer recalled. To get the measure on the ballot, they'll need to collect 1,705 valid signatures, or 20 percent of the number of registered voters in the ward during the 2003 mayoral election. Upon certification, a recall measure will be placed on a special ballot (or added to the April 5 ballot, if organizers hustle) as a straight up-or-down vote on whether to boot Bauer.

The alderman first rankled the likes of Kuhl last winter when he tried to invoke eminent domain in order to displace half a dozen Manchester Avenue business owners to make way for a QuikTrip station and mini-mart (see Mike Seely's "Passing Gas," March 24, 2004). Bauer points to the widening of nearby roads as evidence of the project's public good, but Kuhl and other residents see it as a strong-arm maneuver designed only to benefit an unnecessary 24-hour gas station. (The project has stalled, owing in part to an impending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on suitable eminent-domain usage.)

Now, because of his role in the proposed redevelopment of the Clifton Heights and Dogtown properties, Bauer finds himself in similarly hot water with neighborhood-association presidents Cavin and Verde. One of the properties is a historic Presbyterian church; the other, the private residence of James Adler, a wealthy, recently deceased architectural engineer.

Both properties were sold to Clayton-based developer Western Continental LLC and are slated to become townhouse developments of six and four units, respectively. The individual townhomes will be sold for approximately $300,000 apiece. Both sales were finalized January 24, with Western Continental paying $120,000 for the Clifton Heights church and $95,000 for the block-wide Adler residence that fronts both Nashville and Wade avenues.

Western Continental emerged the winning bidder on the church site despite a rival bid from a buyer hoping to use the building as a wedding chapel. Bauer claims this decision occurred because the Clifton Heights Neighborhood Association opposed the chapel plan.

Not true, insists Lorie Cavin.

"The association was never presented with a formal request for the wedding-chapel project," she says. "When we discussed it informally, there were some Elvis and Vegas quips. But we didn't vote or anything."

Meanwhile, a January 5 letter from Western Continental consultant Larry Wurm to the city's Planning & Urban Design Commission (PUD) portrayed the neighborhood association as expressing "overwhelming support" for the townhouse redevelopment.

Cavin claims this is a gross misrepresentation.

"The [association's] board did not approve their plans," she says. "If [Bauer] really felt we were all for it, why didn't he have me write a letter to PUD? Instead, he had Larry Wurm write a letter."

Furthermore, had the church's seller had its way, it might never have been slated for demolition.

"The group that wanted to make a wedding chapel out of it pleased us, but that wasn't feasible, apparently," says Bev McCormick, business manager for the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, which put the church up for sale because of a dwindling congregation. "My understanding is that when you sell a property, you have to have [Bauer's] approval."

Bauer initially denied speaking to the presbytery's realtor about the church property, then corrected himself when informed that an agent said she'd contacted him. He adds that he spoke with those who proposed the wedding chapel, and also with a buyer who wanted to use the structure as a Montessori school. The alderman thought both were inappropriate uses for what he believed to be property zoned for single-family housing.

Problem is, the church property is actually zoned for commercial use.

"That's fascinating," says Bauer. "I always assumed it was residential."

Legislation permitting the church's demolition and redevelopment cleared the Board of Aldermen on February 9. In addition, Bauer gained passage of a companion bill that rewrote the boundaries for the city's 1999 preservation-review ordinance but, in the process, exempted his ward from preservation-review standards altogether. Bauer claims he did it because of bureaucratic gridlock in the city's Department of Cultural Resources.

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