Barn Razing

Sparing an angelic intervention or an infusion of cash, the Arena is not long for this world

Dec 9, 1998 at 4:00 am
One by one, the obstacles to the demolition of the Arena disappear. The latest to fade is aldermanic concern, which apparently has evaporated as 20 aldermen are expected to support suspending the rules Friday so that the demolition of the 69-year-old building on Oakland Avenue is left in Mayor Clarence Harmon's hands.

Left in those hands, the structure is expected to be leveled to make way for an office park. That prospect infuriates the Arena Angels, a group of area residents who want to save the Arena from demolition so that it can be transformed into an aquarium. From at least one alderman's perspective, the outrage is limited.

"If there were a real outcry among the public to save the Arena, I don't think I'd be standing there with 20 commitments to suspend the rules. I think the outcry has been very narrow and limited," says Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th), who sponsored the bill that is clearing the way for the mayor's office to do what it planned for the site.

Technically, the aldermanic bill only leaves the fate up to Harmon. If there is an 11th-hour proposal -- with solid financing -- to salvage the Arena there is a possibility the mayor's office would respond. But based on recent history, that's highly unlikely. "My ordinance only amends the redevelopment plan so they can demolish the Arena if they find it necessary to develop the site," says Shrewsbury. "So if tomorrow the Arena Angels come up with financing, the city can still consider it."

The city bought the Arena in 1986 to prevent, in theory at least, the St. Louis Blues hockey team from leaving St. Louis. The city is paying $50,000 a month in interest on the $15 million loan it acquired to buy the site. Then, as part of the deal that built Kiel Center and provided $35 million in city funds for the project, the city guaranteed Kiel Center Partners that no admission fee would be charged for events at the Arena, regardless of its use.

That deed restriction was intended to eliminate the Arena as a competitor for Kiel Center, thereby bolstering the odds of Kiel Center making a profit. It is arguable whether reusing the Arena as an aquarium would violate that agreement, or whether that agreement would have held up to a court challenge. Either way, that agreement with Kiel Center Partners severely limited options for the Arena.

Aldermanic President Francis Slay says he liked the idea of an aquarium on the site but that somebody had to come up with the money.

"The presentation was given to me three years ago by the same group," says Slay. "I just thought it was an outstanding presentation, I was impressed by it; it makes a lot of sense. But when I called up St. Louis Development Corp. they said, 'They don't have the money.' And they haven't been able to get the money.

"This group does not have the financing -- that is absolutely certain," continues Slay. "They don't have it. I know they want more time, but they don't have it." Slay says he's spoken with in-town and out-of-town parties who had been mentioned as possible investors. "It's not that they didn't have the pieces together -- they didn't have enough pieces."

So the City Hall reality is that the more-than-three-year-old aquarium dream died for a lack of cash and credit to support it. The dueling reality to that is held by Patti Teper Sherman, self-described "archangel" of the Arena Angels, who disputes that obtaining financing is a significant obstacle.

"There have been financial offers but both Mayors Bosley and Harmon have refused to meet with these people. The offers came from the East Coast," says Sherman. "There's always been major interest in this plan. Both mayors have refused to discuss it. The business about the financing is terribly misleading. They like to use that as an excuse, but it's never been true."

John Boul, spokesman for Harmon, says the mayor granted two extensions to the aquarium group and that the latest financial proposal required an "upfront financial commitment from the city," one thing City Hall is not willing to do.

Sherman hopes the mayor's office will still "do what's best for the city in the long run" and give the aquarium more time to arrange financing. "Once they see the city is open to this proposal, there will be people coming forward," says Sherman. But on the basis of what she has seen thus far, Sherman is not exactly optimistic. "The conduct by the city has been so irrational (as) to be suspect," says Sherman, hinting that some sort of fix is in for the office park.

Two aldermanic committee meetings last week resulted in five hours of testimony and a 10-0 vote to clear the way for taking down the Arena. Aldermen seemed to be swayed by the appeal of drawing the regional office of Safeco Insurance Co. from St. Louis County and the 600-700 jobs it would entail. If Safeco would back out, aldermen believe other tenants are interested.

Both Slay and Shrewsbury say the city shouldn't get trapped into another nostalgia nightmare like the Admiral, the former river-cruise boat that is now a riverfront casino.

"What I wanted to save was the Admiral I grew up riding on, the one I went on twice a summer, not the contraption that's sitting there today," says Shrewsbury. "The private sector realized they could not make a profit by investing in it. The city, with good intentions, tried to save the project. The city did it several times. The end result is we sunk a ton of money, no pun intended, and to this day we don't have what the people wanted."

In the case of Union Station, an abandoned railroad station was transformed into a shopping mall, funded in large part by an Urban Development Action Grant, a federal program that no longer exists.

In the case of the Arena site, if Safeco transfers its office there from Sunset Hills, officials believe the city stands to gain from earnings tax, payroll tax and the spin-off economic activity from increased use of the land.

As it turns out, Harmon's attempt to develop the site his way quickly only resulted in a delay, not a different outcome.

"They tried to skirt the Board of Aldermen," says Shrewsbury. "I could see down the road where aldermanic intent to limit or change something is ignored and you don't want to make a habit of that. You have to give the administration and the development agencies leeway to do business and make policy, at the same time you can't let them flagrantly ignore you. If they had come to us in the beginning, this would have been done six months ago.