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.”
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.
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.