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Planning Commission Thwarts Efforts To Save Pevely Dairy Structures

file photo by Eva Connors (click for larger version)
February 29, 2012
The historic Pevely Dairy complex and its iconic smokestack will no longer be part of the city's skyline now that St. Louis University has been given permission to raze all of the structures.

Preservationists who have been working to save Pevely's buildings from being demolished lost the fight when the St. Louis Planning Commission recently gave the university approval to tear down the plant at the corner of Chouteau Avenue and South Grand and replace it with a multi-million dollar ambulatory care center.

The decision came at the planning commission's Feb. 22 meeting and essentially reversed the St. Louis Preservation Board's decision in December that denied SLU the demolition permits for the structures. The decision was based on the fact that the Pevely complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The preservation board not only denied the university's request to tear down the office building and the smokestack on the roughly 10-acre site, but also put a condition on the demolition permits for an old milk plant and a parking garage, saying they would only be issued after SLU applied for building permits to redevelop those structures.

The university then appealed those decisions to the planning commission – and got what it wanted when the commission gave the green light for razing all the structures, including the smokestack SLU initially promised to preserve.

"It's really disheartening," said Jeff Vines, a co-owner of STL-Style on Cherokee Street, who was one of the many individuals behind the efforts to save the Pevely Dairy complex. "It just reinforces the unfortunate reality that if you have a lot of influence in the city, then you don't have to play by the rules. The Preservation Board rules according to the ordinances and clearly the city just disregarded their own ordinances they put in place to protect these buildings."

Planning Commission Member Fred Wessels doesn't see it that way.

"There's a reason that the actions of the Preservation Board can be reviewed," said Wessels, who also serves as the 13th Ward alderman. "The city planning commission reviews them and that's part of the ordinance."

Wessels said he sided with SLU because the university made a convincing case that the property west of Grand and north of Chouteau was essential to the development of its medical campus.

file photo by Eva Connors (click for larger version)
"They also made a convincing case that the existing buildings couldn't be suitably converted to what they want to use them for," he said. "I think the university needs this land to develop and maintain their viability and competitiveness of their medical campus, which is important to the city and the patients that use it."

Wessels said the desire to keep SLU in the city also factored into the commission's decision.

"We've had a lot of hospitals leave the city ... and we need to do what we can to maintain as many and as diverse medical services as possible for the residents of the city," he said.

SLU officials said they will proceed with the project as soon as the university receives documentation from the city's Planning and Urban Design Agency.

"We are pleased that the St. Louis Planning Commission has cleared the way for us to move forward with construction of a state-of-the-art ambulatory care center in Midtown St. Louis," SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said. "This important project will create new jobs, spur economic development and strengthen our ability to deliver top-notch health care in the heart of the city, including to those in need."

"No Legal Recourse"

Preservationists could appeal the planning commission's decision by taking the matter to the St. Louis Circuit Court, but there's not much point in that, said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

"There is an appeal process in place that we could pursue to the circuit court, but there's one huge problem: Demolition is not stayed by an appeal," he said. "We can hire lawyers and start proceedings, but demolition can proceed while our case moves forward. By the time we have a hearing, the appeal will be moot because the building will be gone. Everything is going to come down and we don't have any legal recourse right now."

That's a hole that needs to be plugged, Weil said.

"This is a problem with the preservation ordinance that we've been working to fix for about a year now and we are making headway with the mayor's office, but they seem to get hot and cold on the idea," he said. "I am hopeful that this situation provides the impetus needed to restart talks on the matter."

Preservationists say it was never their intention to keep SLU from building a new medical center, but wanted the university to do it in such a way that preserved Pevely's historic integrity.

"We want them to build everything they want to build," Weil said. "We just wanted them to acknowledge they have other vacant land and to use that."

Another main objection preservationists had was that the historic corner Pevely building will be replaced by green space, according to Weil.

"Our efforts were focused on a compromise position that allowed demolition of the vast majority of the 10-acre site where the doctor's office building will be located, yet retained the high-merit corner building where green space and a portion of driveway will be located," he said. "The buildings we were trying to save had no impact on the footprint of the doctor's building."

SLU officials disagree.

"The corner office building has numerous challenges that would prevent us from developing the kind of modern health care facility that we are planning for our patients, physicians and students," Berry said. "The university must be allowed to take that building down for this project to move forward."

As for the smokestack, Berry said the university had planned to preserve it depending on the cost.

"We had hoped to be able to save the smokestack if it was financially feasible," he said. "However, to make the structure safe and up to current seismic codes would require significant cost-prohibitive repairs."

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