A Real-Estate History Lesson

This is the top city development official explaining why the city is so excited about its plan to raze the historic St. Louis Arena and renew its 26-acre site with a state-of-the-art commercial project:

"This proposal clearly offers greater benefits to the citizens of St. Louis," the official said. "In addition to a higher acquisition bid for the site, this proposal will generate more development dollars, more jobs and more tax revenue."

How much money is the plan worth to the city? Well, consider that the plan it beat out -- from a joint venture of two of the area's most respected developers -- promised $19 million to the city and all the attendant benefits of a $42 million shopping center.

Get rid of the Old Barn and you're sitting on an oil well. Pretty exciting, eh?

Well, it was pretty exciting back in 1989, anyway. That's when city officials (then it was the above-quoted Dennis Coleman, of the city's Economic Development Corp.) first started speaking wistfully of all the development dollars and the jobs and the tax revenues that would pour in once a headache ball set Oakland Avenue free for capitalism.

Yes, for 10 long years, city officials have been dreaming about big bucks from developers once the Arena is torn down. For 10 long years, they've failed to deliver the goods.

Or to look at it from the other side, the marketplace hasn't exactly beaten down the doors of City Hall to relocate at a vacated Arena site. I can't tell you why that's been the case, but I can tell you what didn't stand in the way: Preservation of the historic Arena.

The first public statements about razing the Arena were made by then-Blues chairman Mike Shanahan, who, along with real-estate developer Lewis Wolff, had the plan selected by Coleman and the city in 1989. That deal collapsed months later after Shanahan's famous feud with Mayor Vince Schoemehl, but what's relevant today about it is what wasn't relevant then: any mention of preservation.

The preservationist community barely uttered a peep about saving the Arena in 1989 because it was preoccupied with saving the historic Cupples warehouses downtown from being razed for -- of all things -- a replacement hockey arena. Our newspaper didn't complain at the time. Shanahan told me this week he doesn't recall it having been raised as an issue at all.

In 1990, a Post-Dispatch editorial bemoaned the fact that the architecturally unique Arena had been thus overlooked, but an archive check finds no other public concern about saving the Old Barn until five years later, when idealistic architect Ted Wofford first suggested turning it into a world-class aquarium.

Why this history lesson? Because today, a city administration bereft of a trace of creative energy or original thought has decided to try its hand at a little revisionism. Now, it turns out, this is all the preservationists' fault.

Listen to Mayor Clarence Harmon explaining last Friday why he shunned a gracious $600,000 gift from the philanthropic Gateway Foundation, one merely intended to buy the city a year's time to get its act together on the Arena:

"The whole issue is, where has everybody been for five years?" Harmon said Friday to the Post-Dispatch. "I'm not thrilled ... that we couldn't find an alternative idea for the Arena. But since we haven't, the reality I'm confronted with is simply that what makes the Arena property valuable is that the Arena wouldn't be there anymore."

In this revised history of the Arena, exasperated city officials tell all those silly sentimentalists that their time is up, that they've had long enough to make those crazy aquarium ideas and other grandiose schemes work. Now, the city has to get down to business.

There are a couple of problems with the logic here. One is that the more serious, businesslike, commercial solutions -- starting with the "mini-Clayton" idea approved 10 years ago -- have been failing for longer than the dynamic and dreamy ones that envision saving the Arena's historic shell.

The other -- and more significant one -- is that the city still doesn't have a clue, only a tenuous, contingency-laden, one-fifth-at-a-time buyout plan from a small local developer (Balke Properties) that hasn't publicly identified a single major tenant. Also, nothing is signed on the dotted line, although mayoral spokesman John Boul says an agreement "is expected to be signed any day now that the Arena demolition is certain."

The only certain "advantage" of allowing the city's hired demolition guns to implode the Arena next month is that, presumably, Balke then signs its development deal. But guess what? According to published reports, Balke has six months to back out (losing just $50,000 in earnest money) if it decides not to go forward.

Then the city would have no historic building and no developer. But at least it would not have to be bothered by idealists like Bob Cassilly, who, as an accomplished but unconventional entrepreneur with the City Museum, is a bit of an alien being to government officials.

As we report this week, Cassilly's personally carried, nonrefundable earnest-money check of $250,000 -- five times the amount asked of Balke -- wasn't good enough to get an audience with the mayor. Neither was his offer to match Balke's $9 million, since his ideas are predicated on saving a historic structure that city officials so passionately want to destroy.

Says Boul: "We've got the best chance with Balke. We're way down the road with Balke and we're not going to change directions now."

The last part of that statement is pretty believable, seeing as how the city hasn't changed directions (that would be south) over the past decade. Just listen to the city's top development official today, Mike Jones, sounding so much like his predecessor of 10 years ago and saying nothing that couldn't have been said at that time.

"There are no comparable building sites like this in the city," Jones said. "It's a large amount of ground with easy access to two major highways. It's five minutes from downtown. Ten minutes from Clayton ... in the middle of the metropolitan area in terms of labor pool.

"If it can't be developed within a reasonable time frame, and I think five years is reasonable, then I would say that the last one out of the city needs to turn off the lights."

If the history of the Arena project tells us anything, it's that Jones shouldn't be making gratuitous statements like that. And Harmon shouldn't be closing his mind to anyone's good ideas -- including those that would save the historic structure -- until he has more than the good intentions of a small developer in his hands.

The city should take the Gateway Foundation's gift and then take a deep breath. If Balke can produce some real-life major tenants for his deal before Cassilly, Wofford or other dreamers can get solid money behind theirs, maybe a case can be made for razing the Arena.

But tear down a landmark in excitement over an unproven development plan?
History is not on your side.

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