by Michael R. Allen
Originally published by the St. Louis Independent Media Center, April 1, 2002.
The city of St. Louis has handed Mark Finney and his Conlon Group what is perhaps the biggest real estate windfall in city history: the opportunity to make nearly ten times the purchase price on two buildings that Finney exploited and blighted. Recently purchased by the city for $6.5 million, Syndicate Trust and Century buildings on Olive Street between 9th and 10th Streets were moderately occupied when the Conlon Group purchased them in 1993 for $625,000. Now, the buildings sit behind a plywood fence and house only a corner Walgreens — the result of willful neglect amid a nearly seven-year effort by Finney to demolish them.
Not only is the city handing the Conlon Group ten times what his building cost him, but it is doing so precisely to facilitate the demolition of the 1896 Century Building. Once the foe of Finney’s demolition, the city’s new plans call for renovation of the already Protected Old Post Office, which is being arranged by the state of Missouri and the DESCO Group. In doing so, the adjacent Century Building has become a plum site for a 1,050-car parking garage. Despite the fact that Loftworks LLC, McGowan Brothers Development and Mansur Real Estate Services unveiled an $81 million plan in February for the buildings that would provide needed parking and preserve the historic, stately Century Building, the plan was withdrawn because it received no support from a City Hall intent on proving that it can complete a major downtown development.
Never mind the other available sites for parking within a block from the Old Post Office — this site is the only one the state is considering. In fact, it is unlikely that the city would have even purchased the buildings at all if it were not for the Old Post Office redevelopment. After opposing Finney’s demolition plan and allowing him to let the buildings sit in disrepair, the city now has rewarded him for his stalwart insistence on leveling one of downtown’s most unique blocks. Neighboring buildings have lost tenants as the deteriorating Syndicate Trust and Century buildings have waited for a future. The cost to the neighborhood of the vacancy has been enormous. Why did the city give a multimillion dollar payoff to the developer who speculated on the buildings and then left them moribund when they cost too much?
Postcard view of the Century Building. Collection of the author.
In short, Finney’s speculation turned into a windfall aided by the city government, which had opposed him. Because of the intervention of a judge in Jefferson City, Finney was able to have the courts set a price for the buildings only the city could afford to pay–and that is exactly what happened. A preservationist would argue that if the city is willing to hand Finney his outrageous profit, at least such a payment should be for the preservation of these important buildings. The city has a responsibility to its citizens to respect its own preservation standards, which after all it insisted that Finney himself uphold. If the city allows the Century Building to be wrecked, the folly of Finney’s enormous profit will be topped by the irresponsibility of the demolition.
HISTORY OF THE BUILDINGS
When Finney bought the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings in 1993, the buildings had been through a nearly one hundred year progression from vitality to lethargic vacancy. The elegant Century Building, designed by Raeder, Coffin & Crocker of Chicago and built in 1896 across Ninth Street from the Old Post Office, incorporated the entrance to the defunct Century Theater and housed the local offices of the White Star Line — the agents for the R.M.S. Titanic–in the space now occupied by Walgreens. The elaborate Syndicate Trust Building, designed by Harry Roach, was constructed next door in 1906. The two buildings were joined in 1912 to become the headquarters for the Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney department store, which remained there until its closure in 1967.
After the department store’s close, the buildings fell from being a familiar downtown address to a difficult space to market. The floors housing the store had no interior natural lighting and were virtually unusable for office uses, although Southwestern Bell’s data division occupied some of the space briefly. With a total of 705,000 square feet, the buildings were a formidable challenge that few tenants wanted to take. Two renovation plans–one in 1968 and another in 1986–failed to revive the buildings. The owner prior to Finney, Allan Pullman, a Philadelphia dentist who had bought the buildings using an inflated appraisal, defaulted on his loan in 1988 and lost the buildings to the FDIC.
When the FDIC held an auction in 1993, there was only one bid for $625,000 — less than one dollar per square foot — from Mark Finney, head of the Conlon Group of Saint Louis. Although Pullman’s inflated appraisal held the buildings to be worth $41 million, the FDIC had determined that their worth was close to $16 million. Finney got a bargain–but a costly one.
He was also prepared to invest money in a $2.6 million renovation plan sponsored through a voluntary contract with the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Agency. This contract — which Finney later distorted–bound Finney to renovate the buildings and prevented their demolition, in exchange for financial and legal help from city agencies. This contract alone should have prevented the actions Finney would take over the next eight years.
With the designs of architect Richard Claybour, Finney planned to use most of the bottom six floors of the building — the department store space — for parking with office space above. He began gutting the buildings when an apparent insurmountable structural deficiency emerged.
Finney claims that a Bobcat loader broke through a floor of the Century Building. Claybour argues that a wheel got stuck in a weak spot on a floor section that was going to be removed for a garage ramp. Claybour told the Riverfront Times that “what really happened was that the owner lost interest in the project” Work stopped immediately, and never resumed.
Finney immediately sought a demolition permit — no surprise to some people involved in the project. The Heritage and Urban Design Commission twice rejected his application, citing the possibility of finishing the renovation. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the buildings, Finney and his brother, attorney Daniel P. Finney of Maplewood, took advantage of a strange possibility in state law: they filed an appeal in a court in Cole County, where the capital of Jefferson City is located.
The possibility panned out well — in March 1995 Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ordered the city to issue the demolition permit. The city filed an appeal in state court, and the resulting legal fight dragged on for months, costing both sides enough money to refurbish a floor or two of the buildings.
Meanwhile, all of the tenants were forced out except the Walgreens at Ninth and Olive, which had a 15-year lease that could not be legally terminated without consent of both parties. Walgreens refused to move out, even after Finney erected a wide fence on all four sides of the block, with scaffolding from the middle of Olive Street to the door of Walgreens.
Finney’s chain-link fence — built to protect pedestrians from “falling objects” from the buildings — blocked two lanes of traffic on all sides, causing a nuisance suit to be filed by neighboring building owners and shopkeepers. Instead of ordering Finney to make the same necessary repairs to his property required of even the poorest homeowners, the city Circuit Court simply ordered the fence taken down. Finney complied half-way: he built a new plywood fence on the sidewalks only.
That fence still stands, successfully impeding pedestrians for nearly five years now–despite its as illegality. Finney then sued the city in city courts for a staggering $14 million in damages, a vague figure never fully substantiated. He said the city was guilty of inverse condemnation, claiming that the city was preventing his rightful use of the property: demolition. Of course, the fight over Finney’s “rightful use” was possibly impairing neighboring buildings from retaining tenants. During the legal wrangling, the nearby renovated Paul Brown Building at 818 Olive Street closed and the Frisco Building at 906 Olive Street lost many of its tenants.
In December 1997, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Margaret Neil ordered the city of St. Louis to pay Finney $4.2 million for his buildings. The city refused, calling the price excessive. Although the city was legally bound to respect the decision of the Heritage and Urban Design Commission, its development agencies did not pursue developers for the buildings. If Finney’s combative style hadn’t run off potential buyers, his inflated asking price had.
The city did continue to mount legal challenges to Finney, and eventually won a victory. On September 1, 1998, the Missouri Appellate Court overturned Kinder’s ruling and Neil’s $4.2 million price. The reason behind the decision was very simple: Finney had breached his contract with the LCRA, and thus still owed the city renovation of the buildings. The meaning of the decision was not as simple, because neither Finney nor the city had a plan for the buildings. Finney could not even afford to demolish them, let alone renovate them. Neither could the city.
The city under mayor Clarence Harmon tried to broker a voluntary use of eminent domain in 1999, whereby the city would purchase the buildings. Not surprisingly, Finney would not budge from his price. Finney now demanded $9 million, and the city was willing to spend $2 million. The St. Louis Circuit Court appointed a three-member commission to hear the case, which decided that the fair compromise was $6.2 million. The city balked, and the buildings continued to sit empty–as well as stripped of many ornaments that Finney sold.
More of the same back-and-forth legal maneuvers happened throughout 2000, too. In September, city Circuit Judge Robert Dierker, Jr., declared the buildings a “public nuisance” and ordered their demolition. Then, developer John Steffen came forward with a proposal to renovate both buildings for residential uses. The hitch: he only could pay $5 million for the buildings, and Finney would not accept that amount. Steffen walked away and Finney blamed the business booster group Downtown Now — skeptical of the Steffen plan — for not coming up with financing for Steffen to pay full price.
Of course, had Steffen paid the full amount, he would most likely have been unable to finance any work on the buildings. In order for the damaged buildings to be renovated — or demolished for that matter — a party with nearly unlimited financing would have to buy the buildings.
That’s exactly what happened. After the state’s Missouri Development Finance Board announced plans to renovate the Old Post Office to house a state court and Webster University, the city offered to but the Syndicate Trust and Century buildings for adjacent parking — as long as the state agreed to reimburse the city. Plans call for demolishing the Century Building and selling the Syndicate Trust Building — hopefully at a non-Finney price — to a developer for renovation.
No one mentioned Finney’s contract with the LCRA, or the city’s earlier position in favor of preservation. Now that the state was calling the shots and mayor Francis Slay needed the publicity of a downtown redevelopment project, the profit was quickly arranged.
SAME DEMOLITION, NEW OWNER
In February of this year, the LCRA paid Finney a $3.5 million down payment on the buildings with the promise of delivering $3 million more to him later.
Meanwhile, a proposal to save the entire block for residential use and for 700 parking spaces — more than enough for the required spaces for Webster University and the court — was given no serious attention by city development agencies. Loftworks LLC, McGowan Brothers Development and Mansur Real Estate Services unveiled in February a $81 million plan for the buildings that would provide needed parking and preserve the historic, stately Century Building.
Mayoral spokesperson Ed Rhode called that plan an “11th hour proposal.”
On March 2, the Loftworks group withdrew its plan and oddly endorsed the plan to demolish the Century Building. One reason for the withdrawal was that the buildings are not eligible for much-needed state historic tax credits since they are not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In February the city’s Preservation Board rejected, 6-1, an application to place both buildings on the National Register. The majority say that they will approve listing the Syndicate Trust Building after the Century is demolished. [N.B. The heroic Melanie Fathman was the lone “nay” vote.]
One need not be a preservationist to remember the failure of a similar project completed by the City Treasurer’s office in 1998 at the Marquette Building, in which the less significant portion was demolished for an adjoining garage. Both the Marquette Building and the garage are largely unoccupied, and plans to restore the building fizzled within months of the garage’s opening.
The city has a responsibility to its citizens to respect its own preservation standards, which after all it insisted that Finney himself uphold. If the city allows the Century Building to be wrecked, the folly of the windfall profit will be topped by the irresponsibility of the demolition.