by Michael R. Allen
This morning, in an unusual step, the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen held a spirited and divided discussion on a seemingly-routine redevelopment ordinance: Board Bills 118 and 199, pertaining to the ongoing redevelopment of Council Plaza by developers Rick Yackey and Bill Bruce. Board Bill 118 enabled a redevelopment plan approved by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority that would entail demolition of the mid-century awesome former Phillips 66 gas station now used as a Del Taco restaurant. Board Bill 119 makes changes to the Council Plaza tax increment financing (TIF) that would allow TIF funds to cover demolition costs. Both passed, but Board Bill 118 made it out with only on a 5-2 vote.
I write that it was “only” a 5-2 vote because the split truly is unusual for the committee. Bigger fish have been fried by consensus or with minimal dissent. The CORTEX redevelopment ordinance that is responsible for the current demolition (without preservation review) of the bakery complex at Vandeventer and Forest Park? Passed by a unanimous vote in 2006. The enormous and contested Northside Regeneration project’s ordinance, now invalidated by a circuit court ruling? Passed with only one “nay” — Alderman Terry Kennedy — in 2009.
Hence, this morning’s debate was a welcome change of pace for the committee that has often approved bills that remove basic preservation review without more than a ten-minute consideration. Aldermen Jennifer Florida and Lyda Krewson asked many pointed questions of Yackey and bill sponsor Alderwoman Marlene Davis, including what efforts have actually been made to lease the building after Del Taco leaves. (The ailing franchise will be shut down soon.) Aldermen Shane Cohn and Scott Ogilvie, who are not on the committee, joined in the discussion with articulate and strong points of disagreement. Ogilvie addressed flaws in the TIF structure and its use for creating retail space that spoke to larger, citywide policy concerns. Rick Yackey himself even addressed a policy concern, stating that he agreed to retaining preservation review of a demolition application for the flying saucer building. (Whether the bill’s language gives that review actual power is uncertain, however.)
In the end, Florida and Chairman Fred Wessels went so far as to vote against Board Bill 118 following Davis’ strident call for the rule of “aldermanic courtesy” (Krewson had to leave before the vote). Potentially, there are already five “nay” votes. In comparison, the final passage of the Northside Regeneration bill was 25-2. Are we seeing the end of aldermanic courtesy’s stranglehold on considering the actual policy considerations at play in the countless redevelopment bills that go before the Board of Aldermen?
On Friday, Board Bills 118 and 119 will get their second reading, and the following Friday will get third reading and perfection. There are at least two more opportunities for aldermen to debate, amend or defeat the bills. Waiting down the hall is Mayor Francis Slay, who has made clear that he opposes these bills if they thwart preservation review and if they allow TIF funds to be used for demolition. If the bills make it to his desk, will he veto them? As opposition at the Board of Aldermen grows, it’s unclear whether there will be votes enough to override a mayoral veto.
One of the city’s most few remaining Googie icons, and the work of the great firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen, may be spared. Perhaps aldermanic courtesy will be demolished instead.