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One Year Later: Mississippi Bluffs Project Going Nowhere Fast

A year ago today I did a post about the problems with the proposed design for the Mississippi Bluffs condos, including the razing of the stately Doering Mansion. This was a follow-up post to the November 28, 2005 Preservation Board meeting where the project was given approval by a vote of 6-2. At that meeting Ald. Matt Villa (yes, of Loughborough Commons fame) spoke about how he selected this developer over others. Once again, we have Aldermen medling in development issues for which they are not qualified.

On February 22, 2006 I lamented about the Doering Mansion:

The once stately Doering Mansion is nearly gone. Today only a few walls remain standing as the machinery tears away at the structure.

It its place will be some vaguely interesting condos on an artificial bluff sited much closer to Broadway than people realize. Sadly this will be one of those projects where after it is completed people will be remorseful for the old lady that was razed.

This is how the building looked just over a year ago:

Doering Mansion

The experts and not-so experts said it was too chopped up and beyond saving. I disagreed. Turns out the so-called experts were wrong about what could be built on the site. If you recall the developer, Michael Curran, argued he had to have 56 condos on the site to make the project feasible. Without the mansion’s site, he’d have to build 120 units on the balance. By April 2006 something was up with the real estate agent returning deposits to buyers. In early September Curren went back to the city to amend his project from 56 units down to only 34. Ooops!

Well, it is December and the mansion is long gone and so are any construction crews. The site has been vacant for months. The development’s website has yet to be updated — it still shows the original 56 units to be constructed.

Who do we hold accountable? We can start with developer Michael Curran, the man that picked him for the project Ald. Matt Villa and the four members of the St. Louis Preservation Board that voted in favor of allowing the Doering Mansion to be razed: Richard Callow (now Chairman) Mary Johnson (vice-chair), Luis Porrello and Melanie Fathman (no longer on the board). Two architects on the board voted against demoltion: John Burse and Anthony Robinson.

Here is what Ald. Matt Villa had to say yesterday:

“I don’t know when the project will start, but I do know that Mike Curran plans to proceed.”

Developer Mike Curran did not respond to my request for a comment. And so one full year later we wait…


Currently there are "31 comments" on this Article:

  1. Adam says:

    steve, where is the website for this development? i couldn’t find it via google.

  2. EITR says:


    This is progress. Now instead of a vacant building, we have a buildable site for a new development.

    Speaking of elephants, look at your picture. The old building was a big, white one.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Part of the criteria the Preservation Board was supposed to evaluate was if “The proposed new construction would commence within twelve (12) months from the application date.”   Had they done done their jobs they would have seen the project costs vs. renovation had not been calculated.  Too late now.]

  3. The Preservation Board should have enforced the Preservation Review ordinance. However, if the vote had been reversed, Ald. Villa could still have obtained a demolition permit through aldermanic ordinance.

    The Preservation Review ordinance places the burden of proof on the applicant seeking demolition for exactly the reason this failed project demonstrates. Promises don’t build new buildings in the place of old ones — viable development plans do. Hopefully the Preservation Board won’t let something like this happen again.

  4. Lester Burnham says:

    ^EITR, that attitude has gotten us nothing but a bunch of vacant lots. Many very successful rehabilitation projects laid in wait until the economic climate made them viable. Where would we be if the Old Post Office, The Paul Brown, The Syndicate, etc. were torn down. All were thought at one time (among others) to be hulking “White Elephants” and are now structures contributing the life of downtown. Not just because where they are but because WHAT they are — treasures. The least we can do is not tear down our assets until it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there indeed is a higher and better use. It is obvious this developer did not do his homework before proceeding. Damn shame too. They don’t build ’em like that anymore.

  5. EITR says:

    Um, yeah, they do. Take a ride out to St. Albans sometime. They build ’em bigger and better.

  6. Really? says:

    While the homes in St. Albans are big, I truly doubt that any of them have solid masonry structures. Most likely they have balloon frames, with a veneer of brick, stone, or stucco. So Lester is correct in stating that they don’t build them like they used to. The homes pictured on the St. Albans website have bloated features and seem to lack the elegance that the Doering mansion possessed. Design and construction are lost arts… pleasing proportions are sacrificed so that stock, mass produced building materials can be used. These homes will quickly become obsolete relics of the motor age, and will not hold up to the test of time the way that the traditionally build older structures in the region have. They are ephemeral, cheap, and will not become part of our regions beloved built environment because these structures only give the illusion of strength and permanence… two things that the Doering Mansion actually had going for it.


  7. St. Albans is clearly another country club McMansion “community”. It is where the affluent buy homes they believe are classy, when in fact they are simply mass produced trash. I suppose if one wants a lot of square footage and exaggerated features then St. Albans is the ticket. If one wants solid construction and one of a kind elegance, well we are destroying that every day so buy it before its gone! Good job guys, keep up the demolition. I love it when we destroy our finite resources.

  8. Maurice says:

    There is a far difference from a single use building that is no longer usable versus a multi-use/floor building like those sited (post office). We can all lament the loss of a house and it is always easier to call foul when it’s not your money out there. But he brought the building and by law he went to the board who approved his plans. We may not like what he did, but legally he could do it.

    The only true way to save all of the past is for one to buy it all up. Since no one has that much money it’s a fact of life that we will lose some buildings. Some are just too far gone or no longer viable.

    Some experts said it was beyond repair, others say it wasn’t. It just goes to show that you can find anyone to support your position.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I personally believe the Board acted outside their authority, skirting the legal requirements to justify the demolition.  This was very polical and I simply could not afford the attorney to have the decision reviewed in court.  Curren proved nothing as required and the Board proved they will cave to political pressure when enough money is at stake.  Supporters (neighbors) were a bit smug after the meeting but they are not so smug these days.  The old mansion is much better than the pile of construction rubble I’ve been looking at for the last 10 months since the building was razed.

    My point at the time was to give the building a chance — put it on the market.  This speaks to your point, buy it yourself.  The house was sold with the rest of the land and buildings so it took well over a million dollars to buy the whole property — the former owner would not sell the house by itself.  I asked that the house be listed on the real estate market “as-is” for 3-6 months just to see if someone would come along and buy it, still leaving over 6 acres for development.  This compromise solution was not given a chance.  As it is, the house could have been on the market for the last year while the developer tries to figure out how to salvage his concept.]

  9. Maurice says:

    Steve, you raise some valid points, but those smug supporters which you classify as the neighbors, don’t they have the right to have some say in their neighborhood? And they did. As you said, they supported the demolition in hopes of something better. Now whether or not that development comes is a different issue.I’m sorry but I have trouble following the thought where neighbors have no say.

    I do agree that the original owner should have sold the property in pieces, but again, that was their right to sell as a whole or as a part. Can you fault them for selling? Could you afford to hold on to property for 6 months/a year/ longer when you have an offer in front of you?

    [UrbanReviewSTL — The neighbors in favor of the demolition had as much right to speak as the neighbors that were opposed to the demolition.  I’m just saying afterwards I got this, “see you hippies lost” kinda feeling from them.  Bad karma if  you ask me.  

    Yes, the prior owner had a right to sell it as a package but the point is the Preservation Board has the duty to uphold the law, in this case verify the building cannot be rehabbed.  That was flat out not done.  I’ve seen them tell building owners who’s buildings are taking in water to list them for sale.  I’ve seen people be denied after showing the costs of renovation is the same as building new.  None of that happened here — it was a complete travesty.  The board could very well have said they will postpone a decision until after the owner had tried to sell it — and it just so happens the property was already deeded separately so that would have quite easy to do.  Nothing legal or free market happened, it was completely political. 

    Those involved in this mess likely assumed the new bulidings would get built right away and once finished any concerns about the old mansion would be gone.  But now we have neither but it is too late to bring back the Doering Mansion.  Have we learned anything? I want to make sure the Preservation Board members continue to sting from this one so that it won’t happen again.  I’d personally like to see some sort of consequences for a developer razing a historic building with promises to start new construction within 12 months but then not doing so — right now nothing exists.  I’d also like to know how much city money Curren has already received — he apparently already got half.]

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    “While the homes in St. Albans are big, I truly doubt that any of them have solid masonry structures. Most likely they have balloon frames, with a veneer of brick, stone, or stucco. So Lester is correct in stating that they don’t build them like they used to.” It’s all a matter of perspective – I live in a solid masonry home in south city. It has its plusses and its minuses. I like its location, the solid feel of the plaster, the stained wood trim, the stained glass accents, the real hardwood floors and its steam heat. I don’t like its lack of insulation, its marginal electrical system, the low ceiling in the basement and the stone foundation that likes to leak and settle. And I have this nagging concern that its all going to come crashing down around me when the next, big, promised, earthquake hits the New Madrid fault. Quality design and quality construction is not a function of time, it’s a function of knowledge and commitment. McMansions reflect a fascination among many Americans with size over quality – big(ger) equals affluence and keeping up with the Jones. The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, by Sarah Susanka, is but one example of trying to change this mindset. Until we quit measuring home values by dollars per square foot, we’re going to continue to see corners getting cut on quality. Bottom line, you get what you pay for!

  11. Scott K says:

    All fairness to St. Albans. While many of the homes are as described above – frame with a brick and sided veneer. There is a privated gated section in St. Albans that offers solid stone homes. That are truly beautiful homes and built in an old world style and method. Of course some of those homes cost $10 million plus to build. Not justifying the homes – just sharing the additional information. No, I don’t live there. I have had an opportunity to visit two of them beyond the “common” homes.

    People have been convinced they need media rooms, hearth rooms, family rooms, oversized bedrooms, bonus rooms, home offices and then end up with rooms that they never use. Ultimately virtually every room should be used in a house daily and if it is not then your home is poorly designed for your needs.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — This is good.  If you want a classic “old world style” place in the burbs it is going to cost you upwards of $10 million.  But in the city, with a spectacular view of the river, we raze it for some generic as yet unbuilt condos.  Our “leadership” in this city never ceases to depress me.] 

  12. Scott K says:

    Exactly Steve, the stone homes in St. Albans have spectacular views of the Missouri River and you can see the Augusta Wine area & the power plant along the river. People need to celebrate the city and the features it has and correct some of the mistakes from the past. St. Albans is convenient to nothing, and doesn’t really offer much to do, except golf…

  13. Adam says:

    ok i swear when i typed “mississippi bluff condo” into the google search field i came up with nothing. or maybe i was really drunk. i forget. oh, well. thanks for the link Lester.

  14. Really? says:

    The problem with making a balloon frame home look like a masonry home is that it is lying to the public. People no longer have a sense of what quality construction is. I have seen some newly built homes that are beautiful and well built, but they cost a fortune. It is right that you get what you pay for, but for most of us we are getting crap, and I feel that it is homes like these that are eroding our sense of quality from the top down. I live in an old south city home, and it has all of the details and problems that you mentioned, but it is what it looks like. It’s not trying to present itself as something else. The thing that I am concerned about with the new homes that are built is will they stand up to the test of time. One of the things that saved neighborhoods such as Lafayette Square and Soulard (differing social classes) is that the buildings in them are well built structures that could stand up to years of neglect and abandonment. I don’t see the same for these homes. I fear that they will age like balloon frame homes. Once again though, like I stated before, I fear that they are eroding the public’s sense of quality in giving them a built form that is not true. This goes for all of the McMansions out there, not just St. Albans. I would like to see the newly built stone homes, but fear I don’t make enough money to. I’m not concerned though, I can drive down the public streets of the city and any older neighborhood in the region, and see well built and designed homes (some of them frame…but they aren’t trying to hide it). I just wish I could drive through the newer subdivisions and see the some thing, but I guess that is only for the super rich now.

  15. Exactly Steve, the stone homes in St. Albans have spectacular views of the Missouri River and you can see the Augusta Wine area & the power plant along the river. People need to celebrate the city and the features it has and correct some of the mistakes from the past. St. Albans is convenient to nothing, and doesn’t really offer much to do, except golf…

    You also have no African American or low income neighbors. Lets not forget that is also a reason people live there.

  16. Maurice says:

    I think ‘really’ makes some interesting points. Balloon framing is a cheaper way, but there are ways to make it structurally sound. Just because it is wood doesn’t mean it is low quality. Even the homes of Soulard have wooden beams. But irregardless, I believe that it is this ‘jones’ attitude that everyone must have bigger and better things then the neighbors. Too many people think they know quality by paying for it, but that is not the case. I would take a quality build wood house over a cheap masonry home anytime.

    But look at some of those subdivisions out in St. Charles….one good hail storm and everyone is getting new siding.

    Stone and brick homes have just become too expensive to construct. But why? Is it the cost of labor or the cost of materials? Or a mix of both?

    The problem with many homes in the city isn’t the fact that they are brick, that they are solidily built, that they are inefficient to heat and cool (interesting that even some of these inefficient homes are more efficient than some cheapos out in suburbia), but that they simply are not condusive to today’s modern family….family rooms, large closets (to store all our material goods), fireplaces, plenty of electric outlets, more than one bathroom, master suites…the list goes on and on.

    As for the other comment regarding race and low income, I will concede that low income is definetly a limiting factor…but for race…bull. Is it because I don’t want African Americans for neighbors or is it because I don’t want that percieved african-american=crime in my neighborhood? I tend to believe it is more of the latter than the former.

  17. Really? says:

    You must not know many people from St. Charles. If you put a few drinks in them they will outright admit that they moved to St. Charles from North County because minorities had moved too near to them. When it comes to the issue of balloon frames, they are very different from having wooden beams, or a timber frame. Many masonry structures have wooden beams. They are what were used before iron and steel. Timber frames are built out of large timbers that are fitted together and they can last a 1000 years or more (just look in England or China). Balloon frames are a fairly modern invention, and while they are not inherently bad, they are the product of an age that was experiencing increasing population and a decreasing resource base, plus they are easy to build. They are great for building cheap, quick housing, but they have helped to erode the knowledge base that builders once needed to possess. Balloon framing was the beginning of the end for true craftsmanship. Plus, if you put a brick veneer on it, it is not a brick house. I will never be no matter how much the real estate agent tries to say it is.

  18. LisaS says:

    “Stone and brick homes have just become too expensive to construct. But why? Is it the cost of labor or the cost of materials? Or a mix of both?”

    Stone and brick homes were always expensive. People made the investment because of durability, and because they assumed they’d live in the home for many years. Less expensive homes (many of them smaller, think of the shotguns and small homes that underwent mass demolition in FPSE this year) were built of wood frame/siding–still quality construction, but much less expensive to build and more maintenance intensive. Owners moved as they became more affluent. One notable exception to this is on the Hill, where many of the older homes were initially constructed with wood siding, and recieved brick veneer as their owners became wealthier.

    These days, initial cost is the most important single factor in home sales, and moving every 4-5 years is the norm. Buyers are therefore interested in the most comfort they can purchase, and a certain return on investment. What incentive is there for builders to invest in quality construction in this atmosphere?

  19. Correction to “Really” above – “Balloon framing” is actually not a recent invention. In the 19th century when tall old growth trees were more plentiful (to provide the long pieces of lumber required for multiple story buildings), the practice was actually more common than it is today. Modern building codes discourage or outlaw balloon framing because of the fire hazard – the long framing members in the walls can provide an excellent path for fire to take between floors of a building. It is much more likely that the St. Albans homes, as are most homes today, simply light wood frame “platform”-type construction. In platform framing, each floor platform is supported by a wall that bears on the floor below. Buildings constructed this way are built up starting with the first floor walls rather than building the entire building shell first and adding the floors later.

    Some of this information came from Wikipedia.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Good catch there, I’d been so busy with my term paper I hadn’t had time to address the issue.  I never really thought this post would evolve into a discussion about construction methods.  Frankly, I think the St. Louis area is a bit too hung up on masonry construction over frame construction.  Solid masonry buildings have a number of flaws including crumbling in an earthquake and difficulty in insulating.  Frame construction, done right, can be a much better solution.  That said, new infill buildings in Chicago are often masonry (cinder block w/face brick) with interior framing for insulation and wiring.]  

  20. Really? says:

    Well…then I’m kind of wrong. It wasn’t the resources that led to the proliferation of the Balloon Frame, it was the labor pool, but I do consider the 19th Century to be part of the modern era (not style). Everything since the industrial revolution could be considered part of the modern era. Plus I was wrong about the balloon frames on the St. Albans home, they are most likely platform frame, which is kind of an evolution of the balloon frame. Now I do wonder if the platform frame evolved purely because of safety, or if it was the absence of long timbers. Most likely both. Anyway..Like the homes being built in Chicago..In 100 years, after cycles of change, they are still going to be able to be gutted and renovated to adapt to the needs of the people in that time. As long as there are no major earthquakes they should last because most likely they are reinforced and they should be able to ride most of them out. I’m not totally against frame buildings, I just don’t believe that they are able to stand up to the cycles of change that take place in cities. Really this has been fun, but I do think that I have taken this conversation on a tangent. The Mississippi Bluffs projects should be the main focus at least in this thread. Personally I never liked it, and not because a historic building got demolished, but because what is planned there will cut off public access to one of the most beautiful sites in the city. While it never was public, it should be planned as a much more mixed use area. It is a large site for a city. A lot can be put there and the developer should be more creative. I am just imaging restaurants facing the bluffs and apartments and small homes lining the streets. Anyway, I have to go.

  21. Adam says:

    ^^^ agreed. it makes me sick that this city’s greatest asset (the riverfront) is little by little being turned into nothing but casinos, parking lots, and now these generic condos. condos are fine but not when they cut people off from the river. i wish we had something more like memphis’ riverfront along mud “island.”

  22. Jim Zavist says:

    If you don’t own it, you don’t control it – there’s a concept known as private property rights. And “make it a park” only goes so far – you need tax-generating private property to pay for the maintenance of public properties. Bellerive Park is a block south of here. I’ve never seen a lot of people in it. Why should the city spend money now acquiring and developing more parkland here?! Yes, the proposed architecture won’t win any awards. But, they property’s owner does have as much right to build a generic-but-marketable product as someone in St. Charles or Jefferson County. Potentially, if the quality were improved, they could recoup the added costs through higher sales prices. But the reality remains that if you go only two or three blocks west, away from the river, existing home values are significantly lower than the current asking prices for the new condos. Sure, the views command a significant premium, but real estate is still all about location, location, location . . .

    [UrbanReviewSTL — What about a community’s zoning and land-use planning?  Those dictate what a private owner can and cannot build.  It is what says some areas can be single family only, or no more than 2 floors.  You certainly don’t want to build a nice house and have a McDonald’s drive-thru right behind you…]

  23. Land use zoning can be enacted to control a wide variety of societal occurrences which the community my warrant “negative”.

    For example, some communities, like Ladue, set minimum lot sizes and height restrictions so that developers are unable to build higher dense housing which could be rented to lower income residents. This practice is referred to exclusionary zoning. This effectively allows a community to exclude a socioeconomic group from the community through statute. Several east coast states have enacted “anti-snob” laws which set required low income housing criteria thus prohibit exclusionary zoning. One of the problems with these anti-snob laws is that they usually have loopholes which sidestep their purpose and lessen their effect. Basically citizen pressure for exclusionary zoning means that any anti-snob laws enacted are usually rather weak or not enforced. Anti-snob laws are least effective in low dense suburban communities where citizen opposition to higher dense housing is greatest.

    The point is that zoning can be used to control things why many agree are negative such as porn, liquor, and gun shops, yet zoning can also be used to regulate where groups of people can live. The pursuit of protecting property values is important yet it can also be discriminatory against the disadvantaged.

  24. Jim Zavist says:

    To clarify – a private property owner has reasonable expectation that they can build whatever they want within the constraints of existing rules and regulations, including existing zoning. Where I have problems is the assumption by many people that “what they see is what they’ll get” in perpetuity. Many, many times the existing zoning allows a lot more than what’s in place now. The time to look at and discuss this is now, not when a development becomes public. Most property owners are somewhere between hesitent and adamantly opposed to any downzong, aka, a takings by the government of their existing rights without compenation. For most people, real estate is the biggest investment any of them will ever make. Very few are altruistic enough to give away potential profits just because it feels good. Yes, there can always be a greater public good, but as the whole condemantion debate has shown, the rights of the individual property owner also need to be respected and not trampled by their government. That, and the government simply can’t afford to buy every marginally-desirable piece of property and place it in the public realm – we are not a socialistic socity!

  25. While we may not be socialists, we also have this idea called “The American Dream” of self-improvement. When entire sections of the population are excluded from this opportunity through job inaccessibility and exclusionary zoning, which are two characteristics of suburbanization, the capacity for self-improvement is reduced. When the poor are relegated to the uban core, where jobs have long left, and they are priced out through zoning in the suburbs, which are largely where jobs are located, how is this Representative of equity?

    If you believe individuals are equal before the law, then why is government regulation creating disparities? Shouldn’t we all have the opportunity to own property?

  26. Jim Zavist says:

    Yes, we all should have the ability to own property. It’s when more and more property ends up in government hands (“make it a park”) and/or faces increasing restrictions (Oregon, until recently, Boulder, Colorado after the greenbelt) that we see distortions in the market economy, sharp jumps in property values and the common man getting priced out of the market. St. Louis is better positioned on the housing side than many, many other American cities because we have both affordable existing urban housing and affordable new suburban housing. What we really need are more “middle-class” jobs to help grow the area.

  27. really? says:

    Who said make it a park? I think everyone is saying that the city needs to push for a more creative plan, and we need to push the city for more creative zoning (modern zoning, not 1940’s zoning).

  28. Jim Zavist says:

    I’m reading “make it a park” in Adam’s post (what, six up) – “condos are fine but not when they cut people off from the river.” I do agree, however, that if the city’s zoning isn’t working anymore, it needs to be addressed citywide. What I don’t agree with is the city having too much of a say on just exactly is a “good” or “better” design. Government’s role is to set minimum standards, to protect the health and safety of its residents. Architectural design styles fall in and out of style, as do the needs of people for homes and places of business. Letting city planners, who have no financial stake in a project, make aesthetic decisions is both unfair and limiting. While such control can limit some of the worst of “bad” design, it also limits more creative, “out-of-the box” solutions from being built. If I wanted to live in Chesterfield or Winghaven, I would’ve moved there!

  29. ex-stl says:

    “Modern building codes discourage or outlaw balloon framing because of the fire hazard – the long framing members in the walls can provide an excellent path for fire to take between floors of a building.”

    ironically, balloon framing became popular following Chicago’s Great Fire due to it’s fast and cheap method…

    back to St. Alban’s and speaking of excess, I enjoyed the first listing hyping a kitchen within the kitchen and judging by the slide show there’s a separate dining area in the dining room.

    as far as access to the river don’t forget upper and lower Bellerive park in that area (we used to take beer down there and climb commando style on the stay cables out to the moored barges in high school – in a more innocent time, family picnics on the upper portion)

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