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Developer Curran Tosses Egg on Preservation Board’s Face

Developer Michael Curran just reduced the number of units at the Mississippi Bluffs project from 56 to a measly 34. I say measly because the site is a massive 8.2 acres. Part of the site, as you may recall, had the wonderful but tired Doering Mansion (shown at right). This formerly graceful mansion sat on the far north 1.79 acres. Myself and others argued before the Preservation Board the Doering Mansion should be saved which would still leave 6.4 acres for new construction. The Doering Mansion was razed earlier this year.

From the Suburban Journal last week:

Curran had argued before the St. Louis Preservation Board late last year that he had to have the larger amount to make the project feasible.

At the time, Curran was seeking the Preservation Board’s permission to tear down the Doering Mansion on the north side of the property to make room for more townhouses.

He said at the time with a smaller amount of townhouses – 42 – he couldn’t recover the cost of preparing the property for development, including demolishing the old Good Samaritan Home. To recoup the investment on a smaller area, he would have to build a larger condominium development with about 120 units.

That would overwhelm a prime piece of property, Curran said at the time. Rather than do that, Curran said at the time he would sell the property to another developer.

The Preservation Board wound up voting to approve the project and demolish the mansion.

OK, just so we understand. Before the mansion was razed it was argued by the developer that if he could not tear down the historic structure that would reduce his planned 56 units to 42 units and at that rate he could not make any money and would be forced to abandon the project and sell the property. The only way he could recoup his costs if the mansion stayed was to build a bigger structure on the balance of the site containing 120 units. The classic doom and gloom argument.

Now, he says, due to site costs he cannot build 56 units because it would be too expensive!!! Thus, he is placing only 34 units on the 8.2 acre site. He couldn’t make money with 42 units on 6.4 acres plus a mansion but he can somehow make money with 34 and no mansion? Was the Preservation Board taken for a ride when they approved the demolition of the Doering Mansion? I think so.

This is yet another example of a poorly executed project in this city. The Mansion was razed in February and yet no construction has begun. Had they started razing the old Good Samaritan Home first they might have realized the folly of their plan and been able to go back to the drawing board before the loss of the mansion. This developer has an excellent track record with historic rehab projects but is not doing so well with new construction. He probably would have been better off with the old mansion. This fine example of planning shares the same ward as Loughborough Commons, Matt Villa’s 11th Ward.


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. Marti says:

    Steve, wasn’t part of that issue that he discovered he was going to have problems building on that bluff, but did not discover this until after the mansion was demolished? If this is the case, why wasn’t this checked at the door.. the Preservation Board hearing? I guess I am wondering why Mike Curran would spend the money to tear down the mansion without hiring the proper engineers to determine all issues around building on the bluffs first? Am I wrong about my understanding of this issue?

  2. Ted says:

    Hopefully if this project eventually does go under we’ll see a better plan for this site. It is far too unique to be tied up with just 34 condos. Maybe a mixed use development with restaurants facing the bluff. Such a wonderful site shouldn’t be tied up with just private homes, it should be accessible to the public at least in some way. A lot could be done with 8.2 acres. It could be a micro new urbanist development.

  3. travis reems says:

    The number of units aside, it is reprehensible that such an historic home was allowed to be demolished.

  4. StlMark says:

    I’m glad you posted on this. I was reading that article thinking WTF? The preservation board should be held accountable for this botched development. Maybe Matt Villa too. I hope this site does get developed, but do you really think people will invest in expensive condos at this site? It seems like a risky investment.

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    Historic buildings + determined deveopers = unintended consequences.

    Cincinnati tried to save old buildings by prohibiting most demolitions. People who wanted to demolish just quit maintaining their properties, allowing them to deteriorate to the point where demolition was the only viable answer from a public safety standpoint.

    The mansion here definitely fell into the category of historic – it wasn’t just another old building. Still, there are, and should be, limits on the city’s ability to “save” historic structures. Short of actually buying the property, what right does any government have to compel a private property to do something with his or her property?

    There are public safety issues that need to be maintained, and zoning helps limit incompatible uses from locating next to each other. There are incentives available that make preserving historic properties financially attractive, but the reality remains that any older structure will have higher maintenance costs that a new one won’t have. Systems wear out, and labor costs, especially for the specialized trades needed to work on older systems, have skyrocketed. There comes a point where it simply doesn’t make financial sense to “keep throwing good money after bad”.

    I’m probably getting way too cynical in my old age, but the adage of “If you don’t own it, you don’t control it” seems to ring more true every day. The city has limited resources. We need to pick our battles. There are a lot of older buildings around here. Some are priceless. Many are just old (but/and taken together, create a “fabric”). And some are just old eyesores. The city also has a whole menu of other government “needs”, from helping to fund public transit, repave the streets, pick up the trash, keep the streetlights lit, pay for police and fire crews (and their growing health and pension costs), and yes, help fund new developments like Ballpark Village. We’re not Williamsburg, nor do I think that we want to be. Living in a museum would be just plain weird.

    Government is not always the “answer”. Urban life is also messy. We may not always like what our neighbors are doing, but we need to respect their right to do what they want if we’re going to have the same right. I like that I can paint my house purple with teal trim without having to “get approval”. I probably won’t, but it’s nice to know that I can. And both NIMBY and “Make it a park!” are symptoms of a mindset that is marching down a road to beige suburban blandness.

    This diatribe all gets back to both defining (and limiting) what government is and should be, and encoraging people to change the system if they’re not happy with the way it works. The Preservation Board is limited by law as to what it can and cannot do – if you don’t like it, change the law! The Preservation Board is staffed by people appointed to fill their positions. If the people aren’t qualified, work to get them replaced AND work even harder to get well- (better?) qualified people appointed in the future. And remember that government is also about the art of the possible. There’s a board in place because design is simply too complex to legislate. Their role is to act as both an arbitrator and an arbiter, and there will continue to be times whan their decisions won’t be as “right” as they could be . . .

  6. Under the current system, though, if the Preservation Board had denied the permit the Planning Commission or Board of Aldermen could have overriden the vote by approving a Planned Unit Development and blighting ordinance that called for demolition.

    With the Doering Mansion, the alderman (Matt Villa) and the city planner, (Rollin Stanley) went before Preservation Board to argue in favor of Curran’s plan as the best for that site and for the city.

    With influential and powerful voices like that, who have connections to bodies that could override their authority, members of the Preservation Board may have felt pressured into voting for approval.

    Until the Preservation Board has real authority on demolition permits, expect more of the same.

  7. urban reader says:

    With Curran the successful developer of the Maddox School and Stein Row projects, he has established a track record.

    At Stein Row, he succeeded in generating sales prices never before seen for townhouses in Carondelet, let alone the historically accurate preservation of the some of this city’s oldest structures, LRA-owned, and facing imminent demolition.

    Given a far superior location, there is no reason to doubt that Mr. Curran won’t be able to achieve high prices and quality craftsmanship on new for sale townhomes offering commanding views of the Mississippi.

    Look for an inspiring article on the Bluffs project to appear in the real estate section of the Post Dispatch sometime during the peak real estate selling season, 2007.

    [UR – I agree Curran has an excellent track record in historic renovation but it seems careless of the Preservation Board to make assumptions this would translate into a good record in new construction. The reverse is also true, a developer that has a good record in new construction would not necessarily go well with historic renovation projects — they are different worlds. I would hope the Preservation Board takes their appointed positions a bit more seriously than to make such assumptions.]

  8. Douglas Duckworth says:

    These old ‘mansions’ do not compare to the luxury homes in Ladue or Clayton. For half the price I can get twice the space, plus a private yard with a big driveway! My three kids love the driveway, because there is plenty of space for their cars!

    We need to get rid of these old and moldy homes because they are ugly. Who wants a whitewashed building when we can have vinyl siding anyway. Siding lasts forever and it never stains!

    Who needs historic homes? Those homes don’t have a big enough driveway for my Ford Excursion or my wifes Mini Van. And if my kids don’t have enough space you can bet they will make my life hell. Destroy these homes please!

  9. Jason says:


    I completely agree with you with regards to the demolition of the mansion BEFORE the Good Samaritan home. From what Curran was saying is that the prohibitive cost of the project came with the massive retaining wall he found that was going to have to build to hold dirt for his larger development. So its not that he was trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes intentionally (trying to be nice here) but he didnt have a thorough understanding of the site before he demolished the structure. Maybe he should hold his civil engineer accountable?? They typically do most of the up front work determining site issues. Maybe the Preservation board should have required more thorough documents such as soils reports and civil backgrounds. I dont know what was actually presented beyond some pretty pictures so I dont know if any of this was submitted previously.

    As for Duckworth’s driveway comment. That is the only bad part about living in my city house. The kiddie toys dont work very well in the grass, and you are not allowed to play in the street. The alleys are nicely paved with broken glass though! Guess I will have to just sell all of the tricycles and buy some yard darts for them to play with.

    [UR Their entire design centered around creating this new “bluff”. These costs and concerns should have been addressed prior to razing a historic structure. I believe the Preservation Board failed to due their duty by ensuring the argument put forth by the applicant was sound. To argue the mansion could not be saved because it would require the project to be larger only to have it turn out smaller anyway is a slap in the face.

    I’m not saying that was the plan going in but someone needs to be held accountable.]

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    Jason (and Steve) – if a structure is truly historic, cost should not be a factor. Once you agree that there is a price, you’ve become the prostitute, only arguing over the cost . . .

  11. “if a structure is truly historic, cost should not be a factor”

    When is cost NOT a factor in determining the fate of historic buildings?

    Besides, many historic buildings would never make it onto the National Register of Historic Places or the rada screens of tax-credit developers. “Historic” isn’t as obvious to many people as it should be, and many preservationists like to keep it that way. Not me. I think that there are broader criteria of what makes a building historic, including form, materials, location and use.

    Just as social and econimic conditions led to the construction of buildings now deemed historic, those conditions determine their preservation. It’s a shame, because we do need greater legal protection based on context and form rather than official landmark designation.

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