Their Ticket Out

Development plans could mean the end of Edmundson. Most residents are ready to go.

May 3, 2000 at 4:00 am
For a town at the entrance to the nation's 11th-busiest airport, Edmundson is a quiet place.

On a spring day in the small town, you can still hear birds and lawnmowers, despite hundreds of takeoffs and landings at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The airport touches Edmundson's northwestern border, but the whine of jet engines soon becomes background noise -- not exactly pounding surf but not the kind of racket towns at the ends of the runways must suffer through. Evelyn Rawson, who has lived here for 43 years, recalls taking her kids to watch the planes and passengers on weekends long ago. "We spent quite a few Sunday afternoons over there," she says. Not anymore. The airport has gotten so big, Rawson confesses, she recently couldn't figure out how to get home, so she had to ask someone. "I told him, 'I live right over there by those trees,'" Rawson recalls. "'Can you tell me how to get back there?' It used to be a really nice little place to live. I still like it here."

But Edmundson is among the smallest of St. Louis County's 91 municipalities, so it doesn't garner much notice or, for that matter, respect. Indeed, the state misspelled the town's name on a road sign denoting the main drag. With its population already down to about 1,000, Edmundson is the sort of blink-and-you'll-miss-it burb that becomes roadkill on the path of progress. Development pressure on the town has been increasing since the airport ordered all car-rental businesses to leave its property by the end of 1998 -- a decree that prompted rental-car companies to move into surrounding communities.

Now, nearly two-thirds of the town's homeowners have signed agreements to sell their property to make room for offices, hotels and, perhaps, a large parking lot, which would wipe out streets with names like Charm and Tanbark. The deal isn't done yet. Westin Group Commercial Real Estate, which is assembling the land package, is still looking for a developer. More than 80 percent of the 200 homeowners on the planned site have agreed to sell their homes since Westin started signing people up a year ago. Norm Henenberg, Westin vice president, says construction could begin within a year once a developer is found. Under the terms of the sales agreements, the company has another year to find a developer.

Westin envisions more than 1,000 hotel rooms, a half-million square feet of office space, shops, a car-rental lot and some restaurants for the project. The planned new runway at Lambert, which threatens hotel rooms in neighboring cities such as Bridgeton (the Henry VIII Hotel and Conference Center, for example, is expected to close) is helping drive the market. The Hilton at the airport is already adding more than 200 rooms. "There's going to be rooms taken out of the market that need to be made up for," Henenberg says. "Our understanding is, the occupancy rate at the nicer hotels around the airport is already fairly high."

If the plan goes through, about 100 homes would remain, raising doubts about Edmundson's future. In a townwide survey conducted by City Hall in April, residents were evenly split on whether Edmundson should remain a city or be annexed by the neighboring towns of St. Ann and Woodson Terrace should bulldozers take the west side targeted by Westin. "That's a decision that the citizens and voters in Edmundson have to make," Henenberg says. "I think, should this come to pass, that there the resident base would be so small that they couldn't actually staff a city." The mayor and three of four aldermen live in the Westin buyout area. Just 16 of the 176 residents who completed the survey said they'd be willing to participate in city government if development comes.

Town residents have grown used to encroaching airport-related businesses since the Marriott Hotel opened in 1974. Since then, Drury Inn, Park 'N Fly, Avis and other airport-related businesses have come to town, not always with the full approval of residents. A group of 29 homeowners has sued Avis and the town, alleging that a 1998 rezoning that allowed the rental-car lot was improper and has caused their property values to decrease. In spot interviews and on the survey, which will be used to help guide zoning decisions that could make way for the Westin project, residents often use the word "inevitable" when asked whether they think their neighborhoods will be torn down.

"This is too good of land not to develop," says Richard Schmid, 76, who bought his home in 1961. Back then, it seemed a palace: two bathrooms, a half-acre of land and monthly payments of $105. "This was my Walton's Mountain. I planned to die here -- I was never going to move. That airport looked like it was 100 miles away." But Schmid and his wife, Virginia, who so far haven't agreed to sell their house, have started looking for a new home.

Several residents who aren't inside the boundaries of the proposed Westin project say they're hoping a developer will buy them out. "I think it's time to go," says Lillian Fuller, who has lived in Edmundson for 47 years. She lives a stone's throw from the Avis lot and has twice been approached by developers wanting to buy her home -- in one case, she kept $500 in earnest money. But the deals fell through, and there's nothing on the table for her now. "It's noisy since they took all the trees and the houses for hotels and parking lots -- a lot noisier," she says. "My neighbors are going, and they're building up all around me. I was hoping they'd take me last time."

Airport-related development has been good for Edmundson, at least economically. With more than $500,000 in the bank, the town's coffers are healthy. Businesses keep tax burdens light for residents -- the city's personal- property and real-estate tax rates are lower today than they were 30 years ago, before the rental car companies and hotels came to town. There are no utility taxes. Garbage pickup is free. "People in this area, a lot of them don't understand how good their taxes are," says Delores McCombs, one of a handful of residents on the west side who hasn't agreed to sell her home to Westin. She's holding out for more money.

Like several other residents, McCombs says she's thought about making some home improvements, but it doesn't make sense to spend money on a house that might soon be bulldozed. Schmid, who is chairman of the city's Board of Adjustment, says the board, which reviews building proposals that require variances from city regulations, hasn't met in three or four years. "Nobody's making improvements," he says.

Despite the Westin project, it's business as usual at monthly aldermanic meetings. The town's streets have been repaved over the past year, and the Board of Aldermen recently approved plans for new bathrooms at City Hall and the town park that will be accessible to the disabled. Geneva Sanders, city clerk, says the town must carry on, because no one knows whether the Westin development will go through. "It's been close to a year now (since sales agreements were signed)," she says. "Some people are getting very anxious about it. Others are like me: If it happens, it happens. I'd like to see it happen, but I'm not going to get upset."

Ald. Joel Curtis -- who, like Sanders, has agreed to sell his home -- also says he won't lose sleep if the Westin project falls through. "I took this position on the assumption the town will be here forever," says Curtis, who has lived in Edmundson for 32 years. "If it doesn't happen, I'd be tickled to death to be carried out of here feet-first. This is a nice little place to live. In a city like this, you know just about everybody."

Edmundson got its start in 1941, when Vatterott Realty, then the largest builder in St. Louis County, converted 25 acres of farmland into a 156-home subdivision dubbed Edmundson Terrace. The name came from the Edmundson family, which originally owned the land and had roots in the area dating back to the Civil War. During World War II, land was cheap and "sprawl" wasn't a dirty word. Former servicemen flocked to the town after the war, lured by jobs at the airport, government home loans and the promise of suburban living. "The airport was kind of homespun then," says Frank Vatterott, city attorney, whose uncles built the town. "In the early days, it was mostly blue-collar and service-industry workers and family-type people -- it's just the same thing as it is now in St. Charles County. There was a heck of a lot of pollution in the city. A lot of people moved out just for their health."

Residents who wanted street lights, better road maintenance and improved police service voted to incorporate in 1948. By 1965, the town had a small shopping center, a restaurant and 2,500 residents -- more than twice the current population. The town retains its small-time feel. Every half-hour or so, a police car cruises down every street. McCombs, who once served on the Board of Trustees when Edmundson was still a village, about 10 years ago, says she can't remember the last burglary.

If Edmundson disappears, it would be the first disincorporation in St. Louis County since Peerless Park was dissolved in 1998. The erasure of Peerless Park, which had about 40 residents, was prompted by citizen complaints about a city government marked by lawsuits and allegations of conflicts of interest and nepotism. Things are much quieter in Edmundson.

"We've talked over the fence with our neighbors," McCombs says. "If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. Like I say, money talks. It makes people walk."