John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies has thankfully been thwarted in their pursuit of mediocrity in areas outside of downtown. The plan, hatched long ago with the full support of Ald. Jennifer Florida, was to allow McDonald’s to construct a suburban-ish drive-thru restaurant on the site of the former Sears store on South Grand. In turn, Pyramid would get to build some senior housing on the current McDonald’s site.
A long battle ensued with a strong and effective grassroots campaign to halt the drive-thru from encroaching into the Gravois Park Neighborhood. On June 21, 2006, however, it looked as though the campaign had lost — the city’s Board of Adjustment denied the neighbors appeal on the variance for the drive-thru. Steffen’s lackeys from Pyramid had a smug look on their face as the ruling went in their favor. Ald. Florida, wisely, wasn’t present. But it seems the whole deal unraveled after that.
The blame is on the deed restriction on the property which reads:
Grantee, by the acceptance of this Deed, agrees, as a covenant running with the land, that the Property shall not be used for retail sales purposes, except that, notwithstanding the foregoing, a portion of the Property may be used for retail sales purposes provided that in no event shall more than fifteen thousand (15,000) square feet of floor area in the aggregate on the Property be used for retail sales purposes and in no event shall any single store, business or other commercial occupant on the Property use more than two thousand (2,000) square feet of floor area on the Property for retail sales purposes. This foregoing use restriction shall be binding on the Grantee and the successors and assigns of Grantee forever.
This restriction on the property has been in place since Pyramid acquired it as part of the Keystone Place project. Such restrictions are typical for stores such as Sears to place on property so a competitor could not take over the building. When the area was in Craig Schmid’s ward, the decision was made to raze the store. This, in hindsight, was a major mistake. But back to the restriction, this was fully known to Pyramid and likely Florida and McDonald’s as they worked on this plan at least since late 2004. Pyramid and McDonald’s are far to experienced in development to have not known and considered the restriction. Most likely, they assumed they’d be able to get away with building it and Sears likely would not have pressed any issue or even known about it. But, it was the adjacent residents that are part of the Keystone Place development, also on former Sears land, that may have had a leg to stand on in court to enforce the restriction. They — Pyramid, Florida and McDonald’s — knew a legal challenge was possible.
So today we have a closed McDonald’s down the street from a closed Burger King. Over on Kingshighway we’ve got a closed Wendy’s and over at Gravois & Jefferson another closed Burger King. Doesn’t look like the city should bank on these high-debt franchises for our future. It is unfortunate the individuals working in these establishments are likely unemployed now. Tax wise things will go on. The city residents that ate at all of these establishments will not stop eating all of a sudden. They will visit other restaurants like Arby’s, Subway or Taco Bell. Or perhaps one of our fine locally owned restaurants. We will still collect the sales tax — it will just come from different places. And hopefully those that worked at the closed places can find work at the others that will handle the additional customers.
Lucas Hudson writes for the ACC about the owner of the McDonald’s franchise that just closed:
He was demonstrative in pointing out what kind of businesses are taking over the area– across the street there are a couple of no-name markets, a non-descript car detaling place that used to be a licensed Firestone branch, and the omnipresent legalized theivery of Rent a Center.
Interesting. Perhaps he is unaware of the condos going into the former Southside National Bank? And while the street has some “no-name” markets what is wrong with that? If you are not a chain place your name is worthless? Conversely, the German-chain Aldi’s next door to McDonald’s isn’t exactly small potatoes. And did the McDonald’s franchise owner (or Lucas for that matter) stop to think that just maybe the McDonald’s chain itself has contributed to the decline of the area since it opened in 1974? For over 30 years a highly auto oriented fast food chain has dominated the corner and now the owner is being critical of other businesses that follow! One of my arguments all along was that we are not going to attract good urban design if we build a new suburban drive-thru.
The Lawrence Group’s renovation of the SSNB is great but it is still needs our help. They need retailers for the base and future urban buildings along Grand & Gravois. They are also taking on the smaller building across Grand with a need for street level retailers. Ald. Florida does deserve kudos for her continued efforts to save and renovate the SSNB but it is not in isolation. Retailers need to see more than simply the footprint of the property in which their store might be located. We must revitalize the street and return it to being a pedestrian-friendly and urban corridor that it once was before the McDonald’s entered the picture in the early 70’s and changed all that. Now that it is closed we have a fighting chance of actually turning this street around.
Back to the ACC:
The ACC just talked to Jennifer Florida about the closing, and she does not currently have plans for the site, but mantains that she wants to go through a “community based planning process”, and used Lafayette Square as a model of successful design.
Now she wants to plan. Great. Let’s see, how long did it take? Ald. Florida was sworn into office on April 17, 2001, nearly six years ago. Where was the “community based planning process” in all the years prior to this controversy? Non-existant! Before this she was in her “you can’t get everything you want” mode of thinking, no doubt instilled in her by old timers like Ald. Fred Wessels. But maybe she has now seen the light, or at least the power of a small & determined group with internet access, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt. Not you Fred, just her…
My friend Steve Wilke-Shapiro has been taking the lead of late on looking at this section of Grand on his excellent 15thWardSTL blog. Click here to read his initial take on the new plan by Pyramid to build senior housing on the old Sears site (as well as the section past the alley to Arkansas St.). You can check out Ald. Florida’s comment-limited blog here. To get an appreciation for Pyramid’s experience at senior housing in a St. Louis neighborhood see my post on Sullivan Place.
Here is what we need to do on South Grand from Utah to a point somewhere south of Chippewa, quite possibly it should match the blighted area which continues to Meramec. First, a community based planning process not driven by the current needs of a particular developer or single property owner. This needs to be followed up with a “zoning overlay” for the district. This overlay would replace the current zoning for that district and would allow us to have greater control over what could be proposed and built within the area. Requirements, such as any surface parking being located behind the building, could be enacted (think Kinkos/Bread Co at Grand & Arsenal). By having quality zoning, something from the 21st century, it will be less important for citizens to scrutinize each and every new project. With new urban-focused zoning for the street this will actually free up Ald. Florida and the developers to plan accordingly and be relatively assured that what they propose will not meet with strong resistance from the community. Citizens, rather than having to waste countless hours tracking down details of every project on every parcel, can hopefully move on to doing comprehensive planning in other parts of their neighborhoods and even work with the developers along Grand on finding tenants.
After all this we do have the potential to make something great happen on South Grand. Actions speak louder than words and right now the ball is in Ald. Florida’s court.