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Bad Buzz: King Bee building residents have turned on downtown St. Louis developers Sam Glasser and Dave Jump 

Six years ago, downtown developer Sam Glasser introduced Jill Holtrop to the King Bee building, a turn-of-the-century millinery warehouse on the western edge of the Washington Avenue loft district.

Holtrop, a saleswoman who was living in Chesterfield, eyed the King Bee's maple flooring and thick, curvy support columns. Her interest was piqued. "I had never considered living downtown," recalls Holtrop, a 57-year-old woman with finely arched eyebrows and a pouf of blond hair. "I just thought it would be an adventure."

Holtrop and her future husband, Jim, sold their respective suburban homes, and for $260,000 bought a 3,100-square-foot loft with a row of south-facing windows. On May 1, 2003, their grown children gathered in the light-filled living area to see Jim and Jill exchange wedding vows.

Six years ago, downtown developer Sam Glasser introduced Jill Holtrop to the King Bee building, a turn-of-the-century millinery warehouse on the western edge of the Washington Avenue loft district.

Holtrop, a saleswoman who was living in Chesterfield, eyed the King Bee's maple flooring and thick, curvy support columns. Her interest was piqued. "I had never considered living downtown," recalls Holtrop, a 57-year-old woman with finely arched eyebrows and a pouf of blonde hair. "I just thought it would be an adventure."

Holtrop and her future husband, Jim, sold their respective suburban homes, and for $260,000 bought a 3,100-square-foot loft with a row of south-facing windows. On May 1, 2003, their grown children gathered in the light-filled living area to see Jim and Jill exchange wedding vows.

Three years later, the Holtrops' urban adventure went awry. Alerted by contractors they hired to replace their heating and cooling system, they began to suspect that the building at 1709 Washington Avenue was rife with code violations.

In 2006 building and fire inspectors confirmed several problems: a furnace system without proper ventilation; a four-story staircase with several air conditioners stored on landings, also improperly ventilated; and untested sprinkler and alarm systems.

St. Louis' acting building commissioner Frank Oswald calls the violations at the King Bee "major," but says none of them are severe enough to warrant condemnation. What's unusual to Oswald is the way they arose in the first place.

"Usually when somebody else is [violating code]," says Oswald, "they're doing it on their property, and they haven't sold it as a condominium."

The fundamental issue, adds Oswald, is that the developer failed to alert the St. Louis Building Division before converting the warehouse to residences. He explains that most developers begin by filing a plan, which kicks off a series of reviews and inspections, before anyone moves in. "It clearly was not done appropriately," Oswald says.

Deputy Fire Marshal Baron Ross agrees. "The life-safety requirements for a warehouse or factory are quite different from where people are going to be sleeping," he explains.

The Holtrops and the owners of eight other condos claim Glasser and his partner Dave Jump have sold them substandard housing. On March 19 the condo owners filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court alleging breach of contract.

Elkin Kistner, the disgruntled owners' attorney, says Glasser and Jump should have brought the building up to code before they started selling condos. "You had a developer who was selling units not in compliance with the law in multiple respects," Kistner says. "The unit owners were deceived as to what they were buying." Jump and Glasser's attorney, Paul Puricelli, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The King Bee Nine, so to speak, aren't the first denizens of Washington Avenue to butt heads with the duo. After buying the Knickerbocker building, Glasser and Jump raised the rent on the Downtown Children's Center, nearly forcing out the nonprofit daycare. Then in 2001, Knickerbocker residents sued — and eventually settled — over a promised parking garage.

This latest lawsuit caps two years of skirmishes between King Bee residents and Glasser, the more visible of two partners. Glasser keeps a sixth-floor office on Washington Avenue for his general contracting firm, Samuel & Co. He lives on Lindell Boulevard in a home that belongs to his girlfriend, real estate agent Eileen Cervantes.

When a reporter arrived at the manicured brick home late last month, Glasser ordered her off the property. "I have no interest in speaking with you," he said from behind a wrought-iron gate. Clad in a Polo golf shirt and his signature tortoiseshell glasses, he added, "Careful what you say."

In 1999 Glasser and Jump, a major downtown landholder, bought the nine-story warehouse with the scrollwork façade, built in 1911 for the King-Brinsmade Mercantile Company. According to their application for state historic tax credits, they paid $1.25 million.

At the time, a number of artists worked in the building, and some of them lived there under the radar. "That building's been active for a lot of years," says artist Keith Buchholz, who used the King Bee for his performance art in the 1980s.

It was obvious the building came together piece by piece, says Peter MacKeith, a Washington University architecture professor who rented a loft from Glasser in 1999. "There were whole floors or half-floors that were as yet unrenovated." (MacKeith still lives at the King Bee and says he's done so "quite peaceably.")

In 2003 Glasser and Jump had the building divided into 33 condominiums. As realtors brought in prospective buyers, Glasser would sometimes get involved in negotiations. His construction crew could help customize the interiors, one of the King Bee's main selling points.

A couple in their thirties, Scott and Amanda Pozzo, had many ideas for the top-floor loft with a view of the Arch, and Glasser fueled their enthusiasm. "He's a dynamic personality," says Amanda Pozzo. "He gets you going."

Jill Holtrop agrees. "Sam can be very charming, very charming — and generous," she says. "He'll do this for you. He'll do that for you. Nothing is ever a problem."

But that all changed, Holtrop says, when she and her husband began to find fault with the building. "Sam and Jim and I got along very well for years — until we asked Sam to make good on his promises."

With residents calling city inspectors, while at the same time questioning Glasser's management, the King Bee became engulfed in Washington Avenue's own War of the Roses.

One of the first fights erupted over air conditioners. In May 2006 city inspector Walter Murphy responded to a call from Michael McVeigh, a fourth-floor resident who complained about noise and heat coming through the wall of his loft. Opening a door that led to the old staircase, Murphy saw the cooling units weren't ventilating.

The code was being violated on two fronts, Murphy says. First, the staircase wasn't being used as it was intended — as a way to exit the building. Second, it was packed with clutter that could fuel a rapidly spreading fire. "That condition, we felt, was really detrimental to the safety of the building," he says. "It was used for something it shouldn't have been used for."

So Murphy and other inspectors met with Glasser in what he calls, dryly, "The Great Sidewalk Meeting." Glasser agreed to move the air conditioners to the parking lot. Murphy took him at his word and moved on.

When Murphy didn't issue a formal violation letter, some residents suspected he was cozy with Glasser. A lanky, tanned man who grows irritated at the mention of the King Bee, Murphy says he was more concerned with getting results than creating a paper trail. "Knowing Sam, if you send him a violation letter, he's just going to set his lawyers on it," he says.

Later that same month, Jim Holtrop sent a three-page e-mail to Oswald, the building commissioner. Holtrop, an engineer who runs a consulting firm from his loft, criticized everything from the furnace ventilation to cracked paint. Meanwhile, Jill Holtrop was contacting the fire marshal's office, which dispatched a city inspector on August 8, 2006. He found 40 violations.

Glasser didn't take kindly to the meddling couple. In a letter to Murphy on August 25, which intended to bring the inspector up to date on progress at the King Bee, he wrote: "But I can't help enclose [sic] some articles from local newspapers regarding Jim Holtrop and his wife Jill Meyerhardt (residents of 1709 Washington Avenue who have probably created as much grief for you and [sic] they have for us.)"

The Post-Dispatch had written in 2004 and 2005 about a scheme in which the Holtrops participated to defraud a state tax-credit program. Cooperating with investigators, they pleaded guilty to felony stealing on February 19, 2004, and agreed to repay $300,000.

Glasser concluded in his letter: "I only hope these two will one day meet the fate which they richly deserve."

On the evening of May 25, 2004, Jim Holtrop heard fire trucks pull up outside the King Bee. He went down to the lobby and found paramedics carrying one rotund man after another out on a stretcher. Nine people had piled into the elevator that, according to a fire department incident report, fell from the first floor to the basement. Most of the passengers were hip-hop artists, bound for Jupiter Studios on the seventh floor.

Scott and Amanda Pozzo had moved onto the ninth floor just a few weeks before the crash. It was an inconvenience, but the Pozzos say they didn't give it much thought because soon everyone received a reassuring memo from "management." The unsigned June 17 memo read: "The cost of the elevator work — which is nearly $200,000 — is being paid for by the King Bee Building LLC. None of you will be charged a penny for this work..."

Repairs would take a year, the memo continued, and in the meantime operators would be on hand to run the remaining manual elevator. In the end, it took sixteen months to fix the elevator. All that time, the condo association paid the attendants' wages, which amounted to more than $68,000. When the bills came to light in 2006, they touched off a power struggle that continues to this day.

Clerks at Jump's company, American Milling, had handled the condo association's finances until 2006. Pozzo and Michael McVeigh, another member of the King Bee Nine, discovered the questionable elevator bills after they took over the bookkeeping. "I was very surprised," Pozzo says. "Everyone in the association was under the impression the temporary staffing of the elevator was being paid for by King Bee Building LLC."

The five-person executive board split into two camps. Pozzo and McVeigh were adamant that Glasser and Jump's partnership reimburse the condo association. Pozzo says that two other members, Traci Roth and Bob Bauer, didn't seem to want to push Glasser, the fifth (and self-appointed) board member. "They were representing his interest more than the association's interest," Pozzo says.

Roth is the Pozzos' next-door neighbor, but Bauer doesn't live in the building. He is the co-owner of a photography studio on the eighth floor and, the Pozzos found out later, had a business relationship with Glasser.

Bauer is in the apartment-management business, and says that after he met Glasser he worked a stint as director of operations for his firm, Samuel & Co. Bauer declined to go into further detail. "That's stuff I'm not going to comment on until the litigation's over," he says. Roth also declined to comment on the feud.

Residents hoped to oust Roth and Bauer from the board during a special meeting on April 20, 2006, but Glasser thwarted the effort. Everyone was assembled on folding chairs in the King Bee's plush, carpeted lobby.

Scott Pozzo says Glasser began by questioning whether the bylaws allowed for a recall vote. Then, Pozzo recalls, Glasser declared as creator of the condo association: "As of this moment, I'm firing everybody. There is no board." Pozzo says, "He proceeded to reappoint himself, Bob and Traci." Amanda Pozzo adds, "Jaws just dropped in the room. No one knew what to say to that."

There was more turmoil to come. The shakeup left two open seats, and Jim Holtrop wanted to run for one of them. Around that time, Holtrop says he began receiving anonymous faxes of news articles about his tax-credit fraud conviction. So the Holtrops sent an e-mail, coming clean with their neighbors.

Once elected, Holtrop wasn't going to let the $68,000 tab slide. Last August, the board sent a letter to King Bee Building LLC asking for reimbursement. Glasser and Jump didn't respond, so at a meeting in September, Holtrop pointed out that under the bylaws, anyone who owes money to the association cannot vote.

Then Holtrop moved to declare that King Bee Building was not in "good standing." Glasser didn't attend the meeting, and Holtrop's motion was approved.

Six weeks later, King Bee Building turned to a St. Louis Circuit Court judge to stop Holtrop and his allies from running the association. The petition, filed November 7, 2007, alleges that seven residents formed a subgroup "dominated by the will and influence of Defendant Jim Holtrop..."

Puricelli says Glasser and Jump have a right to vote because they didn't owe the $68,000 in the first place. The oft-cited memo, he notes, promised only that King Bee Building would pay for repairs. "It did not say they would take the additional step of paying for the staffing," he says.

St. Louis Judge Edward Sweeney is expected to settle the dispute after a hearing June 10. Says Puricelli, "I'm just trying to get them reinstated as a member, so they can move on with the governing of the condominium."

Patty Morrow keeps copious notes about the King Bee in round, girlish handwriting. A 32-year-old nurse, she bought her 1,200-square-foot condo for $153,000 in April 2007, after living with her sister for a year to save money. "This is my investment that I worked really hard to purchase," she says. "And I had it inspected, so I thought it was OK."

Morrow learned of the code violations last fall when she applied for a permit to install central air conditioning and found out there was a moratorium on permits at 1709 Washington Avenue.

Dismayed, she spent half a day at city hall trying to understand what was going on. She talked to a mechanical inspector who told her the heating system wasn't up to code because several furnaces shared a common flue. This, he said, could allow the spread of carbon monoxide.

"At that point, my heart just sank," she says. "I had a lot of sleepless nights because I was scared. I put all this time and money into this place."

Frank Oswald believes the King Bee slipped through a crack in the system. In what the city calls a "Housing Conservation District," no building or apartment can accept a new occupant without the proper inspection. But downtown, like several other neighborhoods, does not fall into one of these districts.

If it weren't for that gap, Oswald says, "I don't think we would've had anybody moving in, because a real estate agent wouldn't have closed without an occupancy permit." (Oswald notes that Mayor Francis Slay recently signed an ordinance requiring occupancy permits throughout the city starting next year.)

Oswald says his inspectors didn't realize how much work was going on at the King Bee. "We're not going to see it [while] walking down the street."

But it's not as though the work was clandestine. King Bee Building, LLC has received several permits since 2000, some of them to create offices and apartments. The city also awarded the King Bee with tax abatement in 2005, keeping property taxes on the condos frozen in place for the next ten years.

St. Louis Development Corporation, the agency that signed off on the tax benefit, has an agreement, signed by Jump, that says the developers would "obtain any and all permits and licenses required by the City," and "conform to all rules, regulations, codes and ordinances of the City."

The sticklers, it seems, reside in the fire marshal's office on Jefferson Avenue, and even breaking bread with an inspector didn't help Sam Glasser get past them.

On May 2, 2007, fire inspector Robert A. Jones went to lunch at Maggie O'Brien's on Market Street with a city parking supervisor named Barry Koenig. Jones apparently didn't expect to see Glasser, Cervantes or Bauer there.

"Prior to this meeting, I was unaware that members of the business community would be present," Jones wrote to Koenig the next day, copying the letter to his supervisors in the fire marshal's office.

Glasser and Bauer "voiced concerns about their inability to gain occupancy permits" for the King Bee, Jones wrote. Noting that he was not the inspector assigned to the case, Jones concluded, "I think it would best serve everyone if Samuel M. Glasser and his associates continued to work together with Inspector Joe Simon."

Deputy Fire Marshal Baron Ross says his office indeed tried to halt work on the King Bee, and for good reason. Ross says there was no proof that the antiquated sprinkler system was powerful enough to serve a residential building.

As recently as April, an inspector found that the sprinkler system was still untested. He also found a fresh violation: A new office tenant had moved into the ground floor — without the fire marshal's OK. Ross concludes, "They've done quite a bit of work, but they have quite a way to go."

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