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Balling Half the Night 

Downtown life gets a new soundtrack

When Jan Atkinson moved into the 10th Street Lofts four years ago, downtown posed an intriguing paradox: commercial epicenter by day, the city's quaintest neighborhood by night. But recently, Stacy Hastie's giant, crane-tethered wrecking balls have changed all that.

"I had no idea they were so rude and thoughtless," Atkinson says of Hastie's demolition crew. "I'm moving to the Railway Lofts on 16th and Washington on December 29 -- so I can sleep."

Hastie's wrecking gang, now at work ripping down the historic Century Building at the behest of developer the Desco Development Group, has caused many a sleepless night for Bell Lofts resident Tom Byers, as well as approximately 100 other residents in his and two other loft spaces (10th Street and the 315 Lofts) near the crumbling Locust Street edifice. "I think the worst was when I was woken up at 2 a.m. and they kept going all night long," says Byers, whose flat sits atop the new City Grocers market at 10th and Olive. "I didn't get back to sleep until the next night."

Hastie is the CEO of Environmental Operations, Inc., the subcontractor Desco hired to demolish the building to make way for a parking garage. The destruction detail began in October, after the schedule was approved by Alderman Phyllis Young and Downtown St. Louis Partnership executive director Jim Cloar. Atkinson and Byers say they were given no notice, nor were they asked to provide input as to what the work schedule -- which at one time permitted Hastie's crews to swing their wrecking ball until 2:30 a.m. (the curfew has since been amended to 11:30 p.m.) -- should look like.

Cutting back the demolition hours has pushed the completion date back from February 14 to March 7.

"I absolutely sympathize with [concerned residents], but it's very difficult for us to start balling that building during work hours, because you have all the pedestrian traffic," says Hastie. "Just for safety reasons, we do not like balling before 6 p.m. If you try to stop by 10 p.m. or 10:30, you're only getting four or five hours of work time. It more than doubles your schedule, because you have to quit an hour or an hour and a half before you quit the balling operation.

"At one time I had one business -- City Grocers -- asking me not to start work until 9 p.m.," Hastie continues, "and Bell Lofts residents asking me to stop at 10 p.m."

City Grocers co-owner and Bell Lofts developer Craig Heller denies that such a request was ever made.

Per the city's noise ordinance -- introduced and sponsored into law by Young herself -- the only recourse Atkinson and company have is to appeal to the city's health department, which is authorized to mete out stiff fines if noise exceeds 80 decibels (roughly the level of a full-throttle electric lawnmower) for any prolonged period of time.

At the residents' request, the health department dispatched a monitor to the Century Building area at 8 p.m., and again at 10:30 p.m., on November 8 and November 10.

"There was no decibel evidence to support the complaints we received," says department spokesman Mark Ritter. "[The inspector] said it didn't come anywhere near 80 on his meter. And to the naked ear, he said it wasn't going anywhere near that."

Byers doesn't buy it.

"Just because you live downtown, I don't think it means you should expect people to be jackhammering at all hours," says Byers, who moved with his wife to Bell Lofts from suburban St. Charles in September. "I expect certain noise, like traffic and people hollering. But if they want people to move downtown, they should make some compromises with things like that."

Young and Cloar say the current demolition timetable balances competing interests, and they're unified in their opinion that such disturbances, unpleasant as they may be, are part of the fabric of burgeoning downtown residential life.

"The reality here is that the building has to come down and public safety has to be taken into account, and you can't have debris flying during the day when there are pedestrians on the street," says Young. "I'm sympathetic to their concerns, but I learned a long time ago that you can't make everybody happy. I think the people who live in Soulard would say you don't always get a good night's sleep when the bars let out. It happens. This is the city."

Adds Cloar: "As downtown changes its character, it's a tough adjustment. It would have been cool if this could have been done even a year ago, before City Grocers opened and people were living in the Bell Lofts. We wouldn't have had as many residents being adversely impacted. If there's a silver lining, it's that it'll be over soon, and then there will be more services and more residents.

"From my standpoint, I love living close to Barnes-Jewish and the Chase and all those things," continues Cloar, who lives in a Central West End co-op. "But part and parcel to that is that it's a rare night when I don't hear sirens and helicopters going around."

Cloar's comparison doesn't pass muster for Landmarks Association director Carolyn Toft, also a Central West End resident.

"There's a difference between street noise and that," says Toft, whose organization vehemently opposed the demolition of the Century Building. "The best situation clearly was to save the Century Building."

Toft considers wrecking-ball demolitions to be relics of the past, the practice having largely given way to nanosecond-fast implosions. But because the Century Building was conjoined to the historic Syndicate Trust Building -- and because it sits so close to other nationally registered landmark structures -- the brick-by-brick tedium is a necessity. And one that downtown's 9,519 residents (3,424 of whom live east of Tucker between Chouteau and Cass Avenues, according to a September 2004 quarterly Partnership report) had better become accustomed to, even if it means purchasing a solid pair of earplugs and letting political battle scars heal without undue fuss, says Todd Swanstrom, a Saint Louis University professor who specializes in urban policy and demographics.

"People have a standard here that is pretty high in terms of quietness," says Swanstrom. "We may be less used to this [than residents of other cities]. The thing about successful cities is they have all sorts of hassles attached to them. Parking is expensive, traffic is congested -- but all of this is actually a sign of success.

"This one is a bit tinged, with the destruction of a historic aspect," Swanstrom adds, alluding to the failed grassroots effort to preserve the Century Building. "But there's always room for more negotiation and compromise down there. A lot of this has to do as much with perception of fairness as with reality itself."

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