Food Fight

Dogtown residents say the noisy Restaurant Depot has ruined their once tranquil neighborhood.

As far as junkyards go, residents of Dogtown say the auto salvage lot at 6455 Manchester was a decent-enough neighbor. It occupied the same twelve acres of land for four decades, making it one of the area's most stable tenants. A fence surrounding the property obscured most of its junked cars from public view, and a forest of trees and overgrowth along the lot's perimeter lent the blue-collar neighborhood an almost idyllic feel. Moreover — say nearby homeowners — the junkyard was quiet.

The same cannot be said of the property's current owner: Restaurant Depot. Residents of southern Dogtown claim the massive retailer has ruined their once peaceful neighborhood. Tractor-trailers arrive at all hours of the day, using the residential streets of Dale and Mitchell avenues to access the store's loading docks. Once there, the trucks often spend hours idling their engines as they wait to offload merchandise.

"It's like living next to a truck stop," gripes Rich Brucker, a construction worker whose tidy ranch home abuts the back parking lot of Restaurant Depot. "Only it's a truck stop without any facilities. I've seen drivers get out of their cabs, walk over to my property and take a piss. It's incredible."

Since Restaurant Depot opened in June, Brucker says he's called the police at least four times to complain about trucks waking his family up in the middle of the night. "Not only do the trucks not turn off their engines," he says, "but their air brakes also discharge every five minutes. If we have the windows open to the house, we get diesel exhaust blowing through the curtains all night."

His neighbor on Sanford Avenue, Gabe Deichmann, says he, too, has called the cops to report trucks arriving as early as 1 a.m. — even though Restaurant Depot's loading dock doesn't open until 6 a.m. "Finally, the police told me that because it was private property, there's nothing they can do," recalls Deichmann.

Similar complaints about Restaurant Depot have fallen on deaf ears, say neighbors. Brucker estimates he's met with the store's manager on at least eight occasions to demand the store do something about the trucks. He's also requested that trees be planted to muffle the din created by the store's condenser units, which refrigerate almost one-third of the retailer's 56,000-square-foot warehouse.

"They did plant some pine trees," acknowledges Brucker. "But they're what you might call Charlie Brown Christmas trees. They've got maybe seven branches and don't do a thing to cut down on the constant drone."

Restaurant Depot provides restaurants with bulk and industrial food items, such as 87-pound wheels of Parmesan cheese, 160-quart stock pots and 5-gallon buckets of pickles. The company operates 57 stores in the United States. David Glarner, a local business consultant who represents New York-based Restaurant Depot, says company executives have only recently become aware of the neighbors' complaints.

"We are diligently working to get some fencing or shrubbery to mitigate the concerns," says Glarner. "We're also going to analyze our delivery schedule. Hopefully, we'll find something that's a win-win for all parties."

Still, Glarner says he can't help but scratch his head at the public outcry. Prior to hosting an auto salvage lot, the site where Restaurant Depot now sits was a dumping ground for a nearby metal company. "We took a dump — with a junkyard on top of it — and made a $10 million investment to improve the city," comments Glarner. "We also created nearly 50 jobs. You'd think people would appreciate that a little."

Neighbors, meanwhile, contend that taxpayers also funded part of that investment. As upset as they are with Restaurant Depot, Brucker and Deichmann reserve even more indignation for 24th Ward Alderman Bill Waterhouse. Last year the alderman helped secure Restaurant Depot a $1.8 million tax abatement to locate in the city.

"It's the typical mob rule in the City of St. Louis," claims Deichmann. "If you can bring a business into the city, politicians don't care what impact it may have on residents."

Brucker says when he complained to Waterhouse about the noise, he was shocked when the alderman suggested that he pay for half the cost of a sound barrier. "I'm not the one making the noise!" responds a livid Brucker.

Earlier this month the two neighbors circulated a petition throughout the neighborhood demanding that Waterhouse, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed take action. In addition to a sound barrier, the 34 residents who signed the petition want the city to prohibit Restaurant Depot's trucks from traveling residential streets and limit the time the tractor-trailers can enter the property.

Waterhouse says he doesn't recall asking Brucker to pay half the cost for a sound barrier, but the alderman concedes the neighbors have a legitimate complaint concerning the trucks. Restaurant Depot uses Dale Avenue, explains Waterhouse, because if a driver heading east down Manchester passes the store's parking lot, there's nowhere for a tractor-trailer to turn around for several blocks.

"As for the odd hours trucks arrive," says Waterhouse, "the problem is that these trucks are coming from all over the country. If they arrive in the middle of the night, where else are they going to go?"

Waterhouse originally wanted Restaurant Depot to locate in St. Louis Marketplace, the floundering shopping center on Manchester Avenue that has — until recently — sat nearly empty. "But they needed a higher ceiling than what the marketplace was able to accommodate," he says. "They weren't willing to go along with it."

The alderman then suggested the auto salvage lot. Waterhouse says his predecessor — former alderman Tom Bauer, who was ousted from office in a 2005 recall vote — blighted the junkyard with the intent of turning it into a residential development. Those plans backfired when a soil sample revealed pollution on the site. Waterhouse says the property is zoned industrial.

"You'd have to remove the first 27 feet of soil in order to build homes there," says Waterhouse. "Non-residential use — on the other hand — required that just five feet of soil be removed. The $1.8 million grant we offered was to pay the costs to remediate the soil and pour a foundation on what remains very unstable ground."

More recently Restaurant Depot raised the ire of neighbors when it bulldozed a vacant lot it owns on Dale Avenue, immediately adjacent to the store. When weeds on the lot grew ankle-deep this August, next-door neighbor Tom Garrighan says he called the city to complain. The forestry department mowed the property and sent Garrighan a bill for more than $600. Garrighan eventually settled the bill with the city, but now wishes he never called in the first place. When weeds began to reappear last month, Restaurant Depot brought in a front-loader and striped the lot clean of all vegetation.

"They left us living next to a dirt patch," laments Garrighan, whose house backs into the giant condenser units used to refrigerate the store. "It's one of those things that leaves you wondering: 'How did it get this far?'"

Most puzzling to Garrighan is why the city didn't demand Restaurant Depot address the concerns of residents before handing it a $1.8 million tax subsidy. Part of that money, he reasons, should have gone to erecting a fence along Restaurant Depot's property and installing sound barriers to mute the refrigeration units that keep him awake at night. Unlike his wife, Garrighan says he was willing to give Restaurant Depot a few months to rectify the problems. Those days are over.

"They're just a bad neighbor," opines Garrighan. "What else can I say?"