by Michael R. Allen
The fire-damaged Nord St. Louis Turnverein is just the most spectacular instance of the impact of Doug Hartmann’s real estate empire on the city of St. Louis. During Hartmann’s negligent ownership, the Turnverein went up in a huge blaze on July 6, 2006. Hartmann’s wild ride was already over, actually, and a sale of the property to developer Peter George was underway. George went on to close, and plans to rebuilt the landmark at great cost. If only Hartmann had been half as generous.
The Turnverein is an egregious example. Most of Hartmann’s nearly 150 properties in the city ended up like the corner storefront at the northeast corner of Wyoming and Arkansas avenues in Tower Grove East. Built in 1906, the building was shabby but occupied before Hartmann’s DHP Investments purchased it in 2006. Some work took place, including removal of the second floor windows. Then, everything stopped. Eventually, the building reverted to the city’s Land Reutilization through tax default. To this day, the weeds regularly grow waist high around the building, and a reuse timeline is not certain.
The building at Arkansas and Wyoming is like others that Hartmann accumulated to keep his Ponzi scheme afloat: occupied when purchased, and left a vacant nuisance. Hartmann’s grand plans of taking stable but not gut-rehabbed old buildings and turning them into top-dollar rehabs convinced many investors and banks to finance his fraudulent scheme. In retrospect, the buildings were better off as-is, and the whole mess was a symptom of a momentary development binge.
Last Thursday, Hartmann, of the 1300 block of Crooked Stick Drive in O’Fallon, Missouri, received the lenient sentence for which he had bargained with prosecutors: two years, plus $34 million in restitution that U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey admits will likely never be collected. (Have investigators checked for a Hartmann Swiss bank account?)
Acting United States Attorney Michael W. Reap ought to be ashamed for this pathetic sentence deal. The damage that Hartmann has done to city neighborhoods has taken more than two years to sort out, and much remains to be sorted. Hartmann could be a free man before the corner building at Arkansas and Wyoming is rehabbed.
The sad fact is that the drug runners who use Hartmann’s buildings for operations will face stiffer time in the slammer when they get locked up. If only these folks could meet Hartmann in prison! Of course, our white suburban fiend gets the justice that he does not deserve: a slap on the wrist in a cozy white-collar jail for bankrupting good people, cheating investors and leaving neighborhoods more vulnerable. Those who protest the inequity of our justice system are vindicated again. However, Hartmann will hardly be a free man upon return. We know his crimes too well now.