Planning Commission Votes to Demolish Pevely Complex, Smokestack and All

by Lindsey Derrington

To start: no matter what the result of last night’s Planning Commission meeting, public input counts. If any historic building under threat of demolition is to have a fighting chance in this city, your emails, testimony, and public demonstrations are essential. Tonight, in the case of the Pevely complex, when the long-standing ordinance forbidding its demolition was hardly addressed and when new public testimony was not allowed, prior community support for its preservation was noted numerous times. This support ultimately failed to tip the scales in favor of Pevely, but it was certainly better than having the record state that “there were no emails, there was no one who cared enough to stand up for these buildings.”

Pevely Dairy Plant photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

That said, the meeting resulted in the overturning of every facet of the Preservation Board’s December 20th decision to deny demolition of the Pevely corner building and smokestack, and of its prior decision to grant demolitions of the milk plant and garage on the condition that St. Louis University apply for a building permit for its new facility first. Instead, the Planning Commission voted almost unanimously to allow the demolition of all four structures. The small measure of “compromise” struck was that the corner office building cannot be demolished until the university applies for a building permit. Only one commissioner, Patrick R. Brown from the office of Mayor Francis Slay, voted against the motions.

The two-hour long meeting was convened at SLU’s behest, for under the city’s preservation ordinance property owners denied demolition permits may appeal that decision to the Planning Commission, which ostensibly judges the “correctness” of the other body’s ruling under city law. Only Cultural Resources Office Director Besty Bradley was permitted to testify in support of the Pevely buildings, while SLU’s attorney, school president Father Lawrence Biondi, and architect Steve Smith of the Lawrence Group argued in favor of demolition. SLU’s representatives repeated many of their earlier arguments from the Preservation Board meeting.

Pevely Dairy Plant photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

Hyperbolic statements ruled the evening: if SLU doesn’t build this building on this site, it will lose competitiveness, doctors will flee, the university will close its medical school and move to the suburbs. Barnes, its only urban counterpart, has no green space, but SLU needs green space surrounding its new building for walkability and patient use, despite the fact that SLU’s current lawn around the Doisy Center across the street is wholly barren and that similar open green space fronting Grand would be undesirable for medical patients undergoing treatment. The corner Pevely building, currently slated for that green space, would cost too much too rehabilitate, although such rehabilitation would be a mere fraction of the $80 million SLU has for new facilities on the site. When asked by the commission why it rebuffed conditions mandating that it present concrete building plans prior to receiving demolition permits — a seemingly reasonable compromise — SLU’s attorney responded that it was a “psychological issue,” that the university felt it deserved the flexibility. Despite earlier statements to the contrary, SLU now says that the historic smokestack is a hazard, making it clear that it never intended to retain it.

Only fleeting mention was made of the massive lot directly north of the Pevely site on northwest corner of Grand and Chouteau, owned and recently cleared by SLU, a site which would be ideal for the new ambulatory care facility but for which the university has not released plans. None of the discussion focused on whether the Preservation Board had correctly upheld the city’s preservation ordinance, which clearly states that sound National Register-listed buildings such as those in the Pevely complex should not be demolished.

In the end, community members who sought to preserve the Pevely did what they could within the system that we have. Renderings showing how the building could be reused, generated during the design charrette co-sponsored by the Preservation Research Office and the Landmarks Association, were given to the Planning Commission prior to the meeting, as were all emails sent to the Cultural Resources Office and the transcript of public testimony recorded at the Preservation Board meeting. Convincing the Preservation Board was something of a first. We can only build on that experience for the future.

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  • Adam

    But what good is it to convince the preservation board when the planning commission can simply overturn their rulings without so much as a pretense, much less a justification? We can only win if our opponents have to follow the same rules that we do.

  • Douglas Duckworth

    If the Preservation Research Office threatens a move to Clayton will the City offer it a tax break to remain?  

  • Martin M

    Aside from the cornice, the building is unremarkable.  Since SLU owns is, let them raze it.  It’s a shame about the smokestack, though.

  • Jon

    Cities find a way to do what they want to do, most of the time. There almost always is another board, or an executive decision, that can overturn earlier rulings. Unless preservation has a positive commercial outcome, it always seems to loose in the end. I’ve fought the good fight elsewhere and lost myself, just like this. It is frustrating to watch.

  • samizdat

    The ironically entitled Planning Commission…

    I’ve already stated how much I hate SLU, and of course, by extension, the “Reverend” Biondi. These are the depths to which my Catholic Church has sunk…Thanks, Roman Catholic Church, for putting me on the path to non-theism/atheism!

  • samizdat

     It is an entirely attractive and well-proportioned structure, as is the Missouri Belting building just south of it. With a little tune-up, it would have made a fine building for SLU to showcase. Sadly, this institution has faltered due to poor leadership, and the propensity of a corrupt City department to rubber-stamp the schemes of the well-connected and influential.

    Frankly, I’m somewhat baffled by this behavior: what is in it for the Planning Commission? Why approve something which is so very unpopular, unless there is some reward waiting, in some form, later down the road? Leads me to suspect that the Commission members are going along to get along, in the hopes that they will be compensated in the private sector. Pathetic. Cowardly and boorish actors all, with the only exception being Mr. Slay’s representative. Congratulations, Commission members, for you have shown yourselves to be nothing more than ineffectual, superfluous rubber-stampers. But your service will look good on your resume, I suppose. And what a lovely sense of entitlement SLU has with regards to its actions: ‘SLU’s attorney responded that it was a “psychological issue,” that the university felt it deserved the flexibility’. Classy.

    The cynicism present in the actions of a significant number of public officials is both appalling and disheartening.

  • AD

    Someone thought it was remarkable building since it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just saying.

  • Adam

     Jon, preservation has already proven itself to have a positive commercial outcome all over the city. Take a look at Washington Ave, or downtown in general over the last decade. Notice how the healthiest neighborhoods in STL are those that have preserved the majority of their dense, historic architecture (e.g. CWE, Soulard, Lafayette Square).

  • Adam

     i think that people must not realize that this building is missing a lot of its windows, which would be replaced if it were rehabbed. that’s the only explanation that i can come up with for people claiming this building is ugly or unremarkable. most of the buildings along Wash. Ave. are equally “unremarkable”. perhaps we should have just razed all of them as well.

  • http://poetriesofplace.com/ Michael Brickey

    If I recall correctly, it was Commissioner Ted Spaid who first called the building permit condition a compromise. The Pevely office building is “the last vestige of urbanism” at that intersection Spaid said, and he had “full faith” that Steve Smith would properly design something that contributes to the urban fabric. But I find it impossible to see how any new structure will reproduce the urbanism that the Pevely office building offers when Biondi stated that the university hopes the new site will provide a “park-like setting” for future patients, physicians and staff. The Doisy Center site should give us a clue as to the style that Smith and SLU are striving for; impersonal steel and glass facádes atop a decidedly anti-urban manicured landscape.

  • Jon

    I agree, but perhaps the failure here was that the economic good suggested by SLU from tearing down the complex was viewed as greater than that which would have come from leaving it be.  I’m suggesting that in the end, dollar signs always seem to win. I’m very supportive of saving the historic context of our city. I’m just pessimistic about it from experience.

  • Jon

    Sounds like SLU bullied them in to thinking that they would take their bat and ball and go home to Chesterfield if the city did not give in. Pardon my language, but they made the city their bitch.  SLU more or less admitted this was a “psychological issue”, as in they needed to establish their dominance over that area of the city.  They will not stop until they have a completely contiguous mid city campus.  Churches ( and church led organizations) make for bad neighbors in historic areas.  They always seem to need to “expand” by building parking lots or they threaten to leave. 

  • samizdat

    Bullying…too true. The strange thing about your theory though is this (and I agree that your argument has merit): what moron in their right mind would believe the SLU would not only have the will, but the BILLIONS-USD to relocate to another part of the region. Seriously, reproducing the campus proper, not to mention the medical complex, would cost upwards of 2-3 Billion USD. And try to borrow that kind of scratch these days…in the Midwest…in St. Louis. They’d be laughed out of every bank on the planet.

    Which leads one to the sad and inescapable conclusion that the Commission members, and anyone else with the same belief, are complete and total idiots–or fools. The same thing goes for those who give BJC every street for “vacancy”, and viable and serviceable structures for the what, six, eight parking garages already there. “But, but, if we don’t do this, the City’s largest employer will LEEEEEEEAVE! NOOOOOOOOOES!” If it all wasn’t so frustrating, I’d get a good lawf out of it.

  • ron

    Is this a totally done deal, or is there anything else that can be done to keep the Pevely building from being razed?