Frontenac's Rights Are Being Trampled — Even if it's an Unlikely Victim

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Join me, dear readers, as we rise now as one in defense of our brothers and sisters, the oppressed peoples of Frontenac!

Now there's something I never thought I'd write.

Most of us have come to stereotype the residents of Frontenac as rather well-heeled individuals, seemingly in the top one percent of the top one percent. There's nothing wrong with that, but those concerned with victimization of one sort or another don't typically regard the suburb as ground zero for their operations.

There are pockets of the city not so wealthy: famously the Daniel Boone Mobile Home Park, which only recently was given the boot after a seven-decade run that preceded the city's very existence. That was sad.

This is the sort of story to which we in the media gravitate, fairly or not, so when the news first broke last February in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Frontenac was being bullied, it seemed a bit counterintuitive. Throw in the surreal notion that the alleged bully was the much-respected St. Louis County Library system — are you kidding me? — and this just couldn't be a thing. Could it?

Well, it turns out it is. If all goes according to plan, the county library will be wedging an 82,000-square-foot, not-at-all-residential facility into a six-acre site on a residentially zoned piece of land on a two-lane (not expandable) street at the corner of Clayton and Spoede roads. It will also serve as home base and fueling site for the library's four large bookmobiles.

It's a really bad idea, not mitigated by the fact that it is foisted upon Frontenac by a really good institution. The county library system is widely respected and performs wonderful service for hundreds of thousands of county residents, especially children.

Its marquee purpose here is unassailable: to open a genealogy center, featuring wonderful collections of African American, Jewish and other historic content. But that's just a tiny part of a giant structure that will serve as office space for 175 library employees and apparently provide some sort of storage or other physical functions related to the bookmobiles.

Generations of journalists have learned not to mess with the genealogy people. But that doesn't mean this is a good idea, because it isn't. And it doesn't mean there aren't some broader issues of real concern to county taxpayers writ large, because there are.

The headline from the February 11 Post-Dispatch pretty well sums up the largest issue, which is accountability of the largely insulated, five-member library board of trustees: "County library paid $6.1 million for 6 acres in Frontenac — and didn't get an appraisal first."

Through this good journalism and some more that has followed, it's become clear the library trustees, well-intended souls, have made some awful collective judgments. And when cornered — as they have been by Frontenac, which is fighting against their project in court — they've doubled down defensively and made things worse.

As the Post-Dispatch has reported, the four houses involved were valued by the county assessor at a total of $1.95 million. That's more than $4 million less than what the library shelled out, which included paying $2.4 million for the house of a Frontenac alderman who had paid $400,000 for it in 2008. None of this looks good, and recent attempts by the library to produce appraisals claiming that the sum of these overpaid parts is now magically a great investment worth more than it paid really stretch credulity. If it is, sell.

There's also a bit of an arrogance factor here. A little-known fact of life is that state or county institutions such as the library — or school districts — are largely unbound by the local zoning ordinances and rules of the cities they occupy. But the board of trustees has at times appeared gleeful in repeatedly asserting that point.

Personally, I think we should be talking more about the old facility, the current headquarters library at 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard, which the library plans to raze and replace with a new branch featuring dramatically enhanced event and meeting space in a few years. All of the functions of the proposed new space are housed now at the headquarters (albeit with the genealogy materials being stashed rather than featured).

As someone who has been going there pretty much since it opened with much fanfare in 1960, I'd like to ask one question that no one seems to be raising: Why not renovate the building, rather than tear it down? Does it not have some historic value? If it does, it's generally the case that renovating old structures is less costly than razing and replacing them. And maybe if that happened, the physical plant nature of the bookmobile parking and servicing could stay put.

If all the library was doing was opening a 10,000-to-15,000-square-foot genealogy center at Clayton and Spoede, I'd say fine, although it could be better used as a small county park. But this is a strange place for what is essentially office space and parking for 175 employees and an even stranger one for storing bookmobiles.

One argument from the library side is that there's an imperative to have a central location accessible to major highways for the bookmobiles. Enter Google maps.

If you draw a line from the northernmost county library (Jamestown Bluffs Branch) to the southernmost (Cliff Cave Branch), the truly central location is somewhere around Page and Olive boulevards, both of which are lined with industrial facilities far better suited to bookmobile servicing and which meet those highway access criteria far more logically than a tiny intersection of two-lane roads in Frontenac.

I'm about the last person qualified to weigh in on commercial real estate matters — believe me — but I do question the entire premise that the distinctive functions of a genealogy center, office space for 175 employees and servicing bookmobiles all need to fall under the same 82,000-square-foot roof. I say go back to the drawing board. That would undoubtedly require that County Executive Sam Page replace five library board members — all of who serve on expired terms — as county Councilman Tim Fitch has suggested.

Otherwise, don't expect some grand compromise to emerge here. One of the distinctive features of this controversy — a bit comical, frankly, from afar — is that the two sides have hurled invective at one another that one would not expect from a quiet community like Frontenac and the even quieter world of librarians, who usually whisper even when they're admonishing you to shut up.

This is a knife fight on the streets by the standards of such genteel combatants. So while I remain an admirer and patron of the library — and a bit of a cynic when it comes to the one percenters — I find myself in a strange position.

I'm rooting for the rich guys.

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