Pay No Attention, Kmart Shoppers

City residents' bold stand against retailer strikes a hopeful chord

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Here's the good news for South St. Louis:

After eight long years of nothingness at the site of the dear, departed Southtown Famous-Barr, a prime-time developer has come forward with a viable proposal to build a spanking-new 101,000-square-foot Kmart where now there is a hole. They'll do it without a dime of tax incentives, they'll conform to the city's architectural ideas and they'll do it now.

Here's the better news: The residents want something more.

A coalition of at least 20 neighborhood, business and church groups is fighting ferociously to prevent the South Side's busiest intersection from becoming the home of blue-light specials. Not a single such group supports the Kmart project.

Opponents say they want a higher-end shopping center at the corner of Kingshighway and Chippewa, one with the likes of Circuit City, T.J. Maxx and Old Navy and a sit-down restaurant such as the St. Louis Bread Co. They want Kmart to expand at its current site, a mile away, in Gravois Plaza.

City planning commissioner John Koch is scheduled to make a recommendation next week to the Board of Public Service on whether to grant a zoning permit for the Kmart plan to Developers Diversified Realty Corp. (DDR) of Cleveland and its local partner, the Sansone Group. No matter what he suggests, however, the battle can be expected to rage on indefinitely.

As development decisions go, it's not clear that it's such a great idea for the city to look a gift Kmart in the awning. It isn't as if retailers and developers are swarming City Hall with proposals to flee their suburban malls.

But in the bigger picture, it's heartening that city residents are raising the fuss. At least someone isn't buying into the notion that the city is trapped in a hopeless spiral of economic decline.

Opponents of the Kmart proposal say they've found a developer -- Jeffrey Anderson Real Estate Co. of Cincinnati -- that is willing and able to create the sort of place they envision. They also claim that the owners of Gravois Plaza have made a generous offer to renovate the existing Kmart.

Kmart recently announced that it's leaving the Gravois Plaza site no matter what, prompting angry opponents to charge that the company is trying to pressure the city into giving it the prime Southtown site. But that, along with a rash of claims and counterclaims about the parties' good faith, or lack thereof, is secondary.

The key question is what could work at Southtown. Sansone and DDR say their opponents are dreaming.

"Kmart has come forward with a viable proposal that offers jobs in the community and requires no public financing of any kind," says Scott Anderson, spokesman for the developers. "The property has remained vacant for quite a few years, and no one else has shown interest in it. (Sansone and DDR) have shopped this property to some of the same developers as this for several years."

The argument goes back and forth.

DDR, a large real-estate trust that manages 189 centers totaling 45.2 million square feet in 38 states (according to its Web site), was founded in 1965 specifically to develop Kmart projects and did so almost exclusively through 1977. The retailer remains among its largest clients.

Ald. Stephen Gregali, a leading Kmart opponent, argues that the developer "has made absolutely no effort to consider alternatives to Kmart." Aldermanic President Francis Slay agrees and recently came out against the project.

But why wouldn't experienced developers like DDR and Sansone be open to alternatives if they really existed? Doesn't their insistence on Kmart represent the view of the marketplace?

Not necessarily. The neighborhood has the demographics to support a midlevel shopping center (almost $41,000 average household income within a mile of the project and more than $49,000 within five miles, according to DDR). It's more likely a case of a developer accommodating the needs of a key customer, which hardly makes them evil, rather than thinking of the best interests of the neighborhood.

"They're a big-box developer, and to ask them to do something like this is like asking someone who builds trucks to build a car," Phil Klevorn, president of the Southhampton Neighborhood Association, another key opponent, says. "They've got a prime piece of real estate for one of their customers, so they just want to get it done, make their money and get out of here.

"But the ideal solution is for DDR to come to the table and sell the property to Jeffrey Anderson. He wants to buy it and wants to develop it in a manner consistent with the desires of our neighborhood."

This is where the urban equivalent of school spirit comes in.

"This is really the economic mecca of our neighborhood, and how we develop it from a commercial point of view will have long-term implications for South St. Louis and the city in general," Klevorn says. "It's a very strategic and prime location that presents an opportunity to bring in stores that don't operate in the city.

"We're tired of having to go to Crestwood Mall to do all our shopping."

Adds Gregali, "I think that this project is just as, if not more important than, the downtown convention hotel, and the administration should rethink this and approach it with the same zeal as they did with the hotel."

Ah, the administration. As is his custom, Mayor Clarence Harmon has slipped out the side door of a raucous debate, and his position on the most contentious development issue in his city is, for the moment, vacillating between "Don't know" and "No response."

The mayor had been critical of the project but, more recently, has been quoted in the Post-Dispatch as saying he wouldn't block it unless something better came along. He also is said to be waiting for more public input. "My God, does he have to wait for someone to hit him with a brick?" asks Gregali, ever so gently. "We've got 20-plus business and residential organizations and church groups that have given their leadership the authority to oppose this thing."

If it's any clue (which, incredibly, it might not be), Harmon's development chief, Mike Jones, says he favors the Kmart plan.

"This site has been on the market for two years, the owners of the property have a real retailer ready to go there, they've made the necessary changes in their plans and they're not asking for any assistance," Jones says. More important, he says, is the negative message sent by the Kmart controversy to other prospective businesses for the city.

"When you create these kinds of issues, it just makes it harder to get anything done," says Jones. "People with other options tend to go other places, because they don't want to be bothered with the confusion."

Jones has a good point, but here's a better one: If city residents are willing to play a little hard-to-get, raising issues and holding out for what they see as their best interests, that's sending developers a message as well: We're worth a little confusion. We're worth your trouble.

And that, in the parlance of Kmart, may be the best way to get their attention.

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