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.

"You mean to tell me there's not a damn thing in the 24th Ward worth preserving?" fumes Cavin. "He didn't do anything to help the neighborhood understand what he was going to do. The politics of this blows my doors off."

The Nashville-Wade redevelopment poses a different set of challenges for Bauer, who is listed on James Adler's will as the attorney of record for the deceased's personal representative, Richard Torack. Torack is a close friend of Bauer and head of the Franz Park Neighborhood Association.

Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury sees a potential red flag in this arrangement.

"I would not act on both sides of the transaction," elaborates Shrewsbury, a probate attorney. "I have told Tom that I believe that is wrong. I believe it is a conflict of interest to be the attorney for an estate that has real estate in your ward and, at the same time, as an alderman, sponsor legislation doing some governmental action on [the] property. The conflict is easily resolved: You simply withdraw as the attorney for the estate."

Counters Bauer: "I don't think it rises to a conflict level. I won't be taking any action as an alderman pertaining to any legislation that may be introduced."

But this potential conflict of interest isn't what concerns Rob McKendry, who lives next door to the Adler property. It's the density. Four townhouses is two too many, McKendry says, and he was willing to buy the property himself for up to $125,000, or $30,000 more than Western Continental paid.

"I talked to Tom about it after Mr. Adler died," McKendry recalls. (Adler left the vast bulk of his $7 million estate to charities and churches, including St. James the Greater Catholic Church in Dogtown.) "Tom said he was probably going to sell it for $125,000. That was a little more than I wanted to pay for it, but I probably would have anyway -- just to build two houses on that land instead of four. I asked him to give me a call when it went up for sale, and the next thing I know [Bauer's] at my house asking what I think about four houses going in. They never asked me if I wanted to put a bid on it."

Bauer denies speaking with McKendry about the sale.

The Nashville-Wade site falls within the jurisdiction of the Clayton-Tamm Community Association, which has taken two non-binding votes on the project. After voting 47-2 to oppose the townhouses in January, the CTCA's February meeting drew a younger crowd, which resulted in a favorable 31-28 tally. A third, binding vote will be held in March.

Bauer feels opposition to the project is motivated by the personal politics of CTCA president Patricia Verde, a Republican who was trounced by Democrat Rachel Storch in her 2004 bid for state representative in Missouri's 64th legislative district.

"She's using her office to try to organize the ward for a possible Republican candidacy for alderman," says Bauer. "We've got some people who've become active in neighborhood associations just to create a political base."

Bauer adds that many of his constituents just don't get it.

"They see all this change and are reacting to it, while not understanding that it's helping them financially by raising property values," the alderman says. "And it's helping the city enormously by strengthening the tax base."

Whether Bauer will have time to bring skeptics around to this point of view depends upon the success of the recall petition. Should the recall efforts fail, Ellendale president Jan Kuhl has a plan B for 2007, when Bauer will be up for re-election.

"When in doubt, I always write in Porky Pig," says Kuhl, who voted for the animated swine instead of Bauer in 2003. "I grew up with the old 24th Ward politicians who didn't have to take credit for everything. Just watching what Bauer's done, everything has to have his name on it."

Clifton Heights' Lorie Cavin concurs.

"It's always too late for us," she says, "because he's maneuvered it to where we have no access until everything's already done. The citizenry is awake now, and boy, are we ready to not ever have this happen to us again."

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