Busch Whack

The king of beers lords over a small Soulard enclave

It was another banner year for the Anheuser-Busch corporation, the brewer of fine beers that for the past 150 years has called St. Louis its home. The company is consistently recording double-digit profit increases -- twenty fiscal quarters in a row now -- keeps expanding its international operations, continues to snatch chunks of the domestic market share from lesser brewers. In fact, in the third quarter of 2003 the Soulard-based company crossed an impressive threshold: More than half of all beer consumed in the United States is now brewed by A-B, much of it at the Soulard headquarters. People like drinking their beer, and the more they drink, the busier it gets in the 63118 zip code.

Terri Khan has a pretty good idea how busy it is over there; she can see the activity from the front stoop of her home on South Ninth Street, where she lives with her husband and son in the area known officially as South Soulard but called the St. Agatha neighborhood by those who live here, after its most distinguishing feature, the St. Agatha Church complex. Since moving here from Colorado eighteen years ago, Khan has become attached to this little corner of Soulard. She knows many residents by name and can tell you the history of a lot of the buildings. Over the years, she says, that history has increasingly come to involve Anheuser-Busch, as the brewery has gradually purchased homes, boarded them up and allowed them to deteriorate until they're deemed hazards. Then they knock them down.

On Friday, December 12, St. Agatha's residents lost a battle that had brought some of them to tears, as the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed Board Bill 213. Introduced by Ninth Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann, who represents the area, the bill proposes a redevelopment plan that would allow Anheuser-Busch to demolish any building it now owns, and any others that it may purchase in the future, in a two-block expanse tagged the Wyoming/Withnell/S. 9th Redevelopment Area. The blocks, part of the Soulard Historic District, currently require the approval of the city's Cultural Resources Office in order for demolition to take place. In order to tear down a property, the owner must state his case to the Cultural Resources Office, which has the power to grant demolition permits for any protected structure. The new bill grants A-B an exception to the law.

St. Agatha's perches on a hill, its buildings standard south-city stock: sturdy structures built for brewery workers. The brewery insulates the area's northern border, Interstate 55 cuts it off from the Benton Park enclave to the west and South Broadway separates it from the Mississippi. Living in the shadow of the brewery has its perks, the best being the Anheuser-Busch security team, which patrols the neighborhood, adding a level of protection most other areas have to hire.

"They've been excellent neighbors," sums up Kirk Fortune, who, like the Khans, moved into St. Agatha when the first wave of urban pioneers was discovering the beauty and potential of the Soulard neighborhood and this sleepy little gem. "Except for the underlying philosophy, which is: 'We're going to destroy this neighborhood.'"

Fortune and his wife Cathy bought their home on Ninth Street 23 years ago. Back then, theirs was one in a long line of buildings lining the block. Now they live in the only permanent structure standing on the east side of the 3200 block -- the brewery installed "temporary" construction trailers ten years ago, Kirk Fortune complains. "They buy one house," Cathy Fortune says. "They board it up, it starts to fall down, they tear it down and everybody breathes a sigh of relief: 'Oh, good, that eyesore's gone.' Then they buy another one, and we start the cycle all over again. The street behind us is kind of like one of those toothless grins.

"It's almost like water leaking out of a bucket," she goes on. "You don't notice that it's dripping, but eventually you wake up and say, 'You know what? I must have a hole in this bucket, because everything's leaking out.'"

Terri Khan says when she and her husband decided to buy in St. Agatha, they knew nothing of the neighborhood power grid. "I really and truly thought it was all going to be fixed up. You'd go over to the market and look at the rest of Soulard, and it was happening. I didn't know anything about Anheuser-Busch. I didn't know any local politics. They were obviously a huge company, but I didn't realize coming from Colorado that Anheuser-Busch was literally synonymous and equal to the city of St. Louis."

Adds Kirk Fortune: "What happens is, [Anheuser-Busch] says, 'We need an emergency permit to tear this building down because it's a public hazard.' And the historic district and everything just goes out the window because it's more important -- which is true -- for the public safety than it is for preserving a pile of bricks. Of course, they're the owner of the property and they've been waiting for the building to do this."

Dan Knight sees it differently. Knight, who has owned and operated Dan's Auto Body on Withnell for 32 years, has little sympathy for the homeowners. By his estimate the brewery has purchased and torn down a dozen-odd buildings in St. Agatha's, most of them dilapidated, over the past twenty years. Knight prefers empty lots to deteriorating buildings. (In fact, in 2001 he razed a building on his property without the consent of the Cultural Resources Office and spent the next two years fighting the office in court.) "When [the Fortunes] bought that place," he argues, "they were looking down on trashy, falling-down houses with nothing but white trash living there, and drunken parties, guys burning rubber with their cars all night. That's what they had to look at when they bought this."

Carolyn Toft is the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a nonprofit devoted to the preservation of historic structures. "Anheuser-Busch has been turning the district into a surface parking lot," Toft fumes. "Whether it's been a board bill or a simple matter of corporate persuasion, A-B has pretty much had its way in that portion of the historic district. It's become, unfortunately, a fact of life. They've been doing this for decades."

That said, Toft believes Bill 213, which awaits only Mayor Francis Slay's signature, is an improvement over "corporate persuasion." Says Toft: "It may be a more legitimate way to go after it, frankly."

Anheuser-Busch representatives declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a late-October meeting to explain the redevelopment plan and address the neighborhood's concerns, the company offered the brewery's rationale for seeking the ordinance, which came about after A-B failed to secure demolition permits for three buildings in St. Agatha, located at 3205 South Seventh Street and at 911 and 937 Withnell Avenue.

"What we've tried to do is just narrow our focus on what we think will be important for the brewery's long-term viability," explained Rod Forth, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of government affairs. One aspect of this focus, he told the twenty or so who had assembled, involved donating to the city three A-B-owned properties located in another part of the neighborhood. The city, in turn, handed over the buildings to the Soulard Housing Corporation, which will fix them up and put them on the market.

"Some of the properties we own need to come down, and we'd like to do that so that they're not a hazard and they're not an eyesore, and we keep that green space," Forth went on. The company intends to grow, he said, which will necessitate more space nearby. "It's only prudent for us to assemble that land over time," Forth concluded. (Indeed, A-B hasn't only been buying land around St. Agatha's. I-55 forms a barrier to the west, but the brewery has been gradually acquiring property north of Lynch Street; and looking eastward across Broadway, it recently purchased a large plot from Yellow Freight in an industrial zone that borders the Mississippi.)

Forth told residents that the brewery will entertain any homeowner's offer in the St. Agatha neighborhood. But, he added, offers will be based solely on the value of the land -- not of the building, which the brewery would demolish under the new law. "We're not interested in the house," Forth said. "We're interested in the property."

"We're going be sitting here like a little row of ducks, because we'll be surrounded by this industrial complex," predicts Terri Khan. "I venture to say that there's no one that will want to buy our homes. I could make this the most beautiful house in the world and no one will want to own it, because they'll have the brewery sitting in the backyard."

Khan and her neighbors wonder why the city doesn't just seek eminent domain, which would require that Anheuser-Busch buy property at fair market value rather than pick away at the neighborhood bit by bit, lowering property values as they go.

At the October meeting, the brewery's plant manager, Jeff Pitts, had an answer at the ready: Anheuser-Busch has no intention of buying the entire neighborhood, nor of demanding that residents sell. As evidence of the former, he pointed to A-B's recent goodwill gesture deeding three properties to the city for redevelopment. "If you don't ever want to sell to A-B," Pitts said, "we're cool with that. Our commitment is to be the best neighbor we can be. Whether it's landscaping, whether it's replacing fencing, whether it's doing whatever we have to do to make this as beautiful as we can."

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