Home » History/Preservation »Midtown »Planning & Design »SLU » Currently Reading:

Biondi Razes Public Housing Building for Open Space

May 29, 2007 History/Preservation, Midtown, Planning & Design, SLU 14 Comments

Don’t get excited folks, this is old news. Actually, it is more than 15 years old.  I was doing some research on the St. Louis Housing Authority and came across an interesting story that given the recent news about expansion of the law school I thought I’d share.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 15, 1992:

On Thursday, the Cochran Tenant Management Corporation, which [Bertha] Gilkey heads, submitted to the St. Louis Housing Authority a plan to buy one of its buildings that St. Louis University had wanted. The plan does not list a purchase price. Gilkey says she wants to turn University House into a cultural center as part of an education and training program she wants to offer to dysfunctional families at Cochran. University House, at 215 North Spring Avenue, is about three miles from Cochran, a public housing complex just north of downtown. Other parts of the program would operate out of a privately owned apartment complex near Cochran that Gilkey is negotiating to buy. Sources who did not want to be identified believe that Gilkey could be using her right under federal law to buy University House as a bargaining chip with St. Louis University to get its help with her family program. The university could be instrumental in starting an alternative education program for children in public housing, Gilkey said.

At the time Gilkey was trying to purchase the then vacant Neighborhood Gardens apartment complex adjacent to Cochran Gardens, the “privately owned” complex mentioned above. Neighorhood Gardens, architecturally very interesting, was recently renovated. Given how that vacant complex was next to Cochran Gardens it made sense to work togther but I am not so sure her plans for the building on Spring at Laclede would have been logistically feasible. For now I will assume that it would work and that transportation would not be an issue.

From Jerry Berger’s Post-Dispatch column in June 1992, just months after the building dispute started with Gilkey competing with Biondi:

Biondi wants to extend the malls on the Frost Campus by closing off West Pine Boulevard between Vandeventer and Spring and closing off Spring Avenue between Lindell and Laclede. He also envisions an outdoor amphitheater and a significant monument consisting of a bell tower and fountain at the intersection of West Pine and Spring. Removing asphalt on Grand Boulevard to allow the construction of a sculpture park. The university is quietly seeking a 6- to 10-foot sculpture as the park’s anchor. (Are you listening, Laumeier Sculpture Park’s Beej Nierengarten-Smith?) Sources close to Biondi say he is hoping alumni and benefactors of the university will dig deep into their pockets to finance the projects.

Does that say “removing asphalt on Grand Boulevard” for a sculpture park? Yes, yes it does. I can’t even think about that one right now. The main point of the above quote is that Biondi wanted to close off both West Pine and Spring and without control of the University House at the coner of these two streets he’d be out of luck, most likely. Gilkey’s plan, if you recall, would require transporting some people back and forth from the Cochran complex. Closed streets would certainly make transporting individuals more complex.

With no agreement between Biondi and Gilkey, a lawsuit was filed to help SLU & Biondi. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch October 1, 1992:

St. Louis and its housing authority filed suit Wednesday to block a tenant management group from getting a 13-story building the city wants to sell to St. Louis University. The suit seeks to force the Department of Housing and Urban Development to sell the vacant University House, 215 North Spring Avenue, to the university. The suit was filed in federal court. On Monday, HUD tentatively approved selling University House to the Cochran Tenant Management Corp., headed by Bertha Gilkey. That organization runs Cochran Gardens housing complex north of downtown.

Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. accused HUD secretary Jack Kemp of making a ”political payoff” to Gilkey, whom Kemp frequently refers to as a model public housing manager. ”This is an irresponsible use of power on the part of Jack Kemp and his millions of minions,” Schoemehl said. The Rev. Lawrence J. Biondi, president of St. Louis University, said he was ”completely frustrated and outraged” by HUD’s decision to prefer Gilkey’s bid. ”We will be left with an abandoned and decaying building in the heart of our campus and our community outreach programs will not all be housed in one convenient location,” Biondi said. Joseph G. Schiff, an assistant HUD secretary in Washington, responded: ”If Vince Schoemehl would spend more time improving the St. Louis Housing Authority and less time on needless partisan bickering and ridiculous lawsuits, the taxpayers of America would be better served.” …St. Louis University has been trying to get the 19-year-old building since the Housing Authority closed it in 1987. Gilkey has proposed a cultural and education center for families in public housing. The building once housed elderly people.

So in October 1992 SLU President Biondi wants to ensure their community outreach programs will all be in one location. The next day the Post-Dispatch reported that, “The university wants the building for offices and community programs.”  Well, that sounds good but in reality Biondi likely figured that if Gilkey got her cultural and education center it would mess up his plans.

Gee, was anything else going on in October 1992? Say, a presidential re-election campaign for Bush Sr. against some Governor of Arkansas? Could Kemp have been trying to help Bush get the black vote in St. Louis by siding with Gilkey? As we all know, Clinton made Bush a one-term President which meant Jack Kemp was out as HUD Secretary.
Besides the Presidential election of 1992 the mayor would elect its first African-American Mayor, Freeman Bosley, Jr., in March 1993. Geez, a new HUD Secretary under Clinton and a new mayor, would this help Gilkey? Nope! From the July 21, 1993 Post-Dispatch:

Bertha Gilkey, who failed in her bid to buy the 13-story, vacant University House, said Tuesday that she would sue the St. Louis Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in federal court to reverse the transfer of the building to the university.

Well, we could see that coming. I’m not sure if she sued or not but SLU got the building.  Back to the July 21, 1993 article:

The building, with 201 apartments that had been for elderly public housing residents, is on the west side of Spring Avenue just south of Lindell Boulevard. The university is turning that block, the block to the south of it and Pine Street between Spring and Vandeventer Avenue into a pedestrian mall. Victor De La Cruz, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, said Tuesday that the agency had complied with federal procedures in the matter. “Our position does not change,” he said. The transfer was completed Friday, said the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, university president. He said he did not expect Gilkey’s plans to delay the mall’s completion. He said the university would raze the dilapidated building in four to six weeks.

What!?! Raze the building? Back in October SLU President Fr. Biondi wanted to ensure all their community outreach programs would be in a single convenient location! I guess Biondi conveniently found another location for the programs once the University House building was transferred to him — I mean to SLU.

The July 21, 1993 article continues on Biondi’s plans:

The university started working on the mall in May, closing Spring Avenue between Laclede Avenue and Lindell. The area will be transformed into a “contemplative park” that will include a lighted walking space, a 50-foot clock tower, a 10-tier amphitheater with waterfall, a fountain and sculptures. Biondi said that eventually, the university would complete its plan to define the school’s boundaries by closing West Pine Boulevard at Vandeventer Avenue.

A “contemplative park?”  Oh please, with all those ‘neked’ bronze statues around campus who can contemplate anything the Jesuits would approve.  Biondi got his street closings, clock tower, waterfall & fountain in addition to the sculptures.   I was not and am not a fan of the street closings but I get the “campus” logic.  What I don’t get is the razing of a building only 20 years old, most likely with a fine structure.
The Post-Dispatch has an editorial supporting SLU in the August 2, 19993 edition:

The St. Louis Housing Authority has given St. Louis University control of University House, a vacant public housing building on Spring Avenue near Lindell Boulevard. The university intends to demolish the structure and turn the block into a pedestrian mall. It might seem unconscionable to raze the building when this community has a waiting list of people needing decent housing. But the transfer can be justified in that it offers long-term benefits to public housing tenants.

As part of the transfer, the university promises to set up an $840,000 endowment for scholarships to be awarded over the next century to students who live in public housing. It also promises to help public housing managers develop and expand their business skills, and it will encourage public housing residents to make use of counseling and education clinics offered by the university. Though this transfer holds promise, it shouldn’t be regarded as a precedent.

There certainly should be concern over the fact that public housing is being demolished without being replaced.  Ordinarily, the federal government would require the construction of an equal number of public housing units to replace the 201 that will be lost when the 13-story University House is demolished. However, the federal government made an exception in this case. 

I intend to find out the current status of these scholorships and the rest of SLU’s promises.

The 201 units of public housing lost when the building was razed in 1993 is a bit dramatic, they were really lost six years earlier in 1987 when the St. Louis Housing Authority shuttered the building.  But that takes me back to one sentence from the Post-Dispatch from October 1, 1992; “St. Louis University has been trying to get the 19-year-old building since the Housing Authority closed it in 1987.”  What are the chances that Biondi helped make sure the housing authority, with members appointed by Mayor Schoemehl, decide the fate of the then 14-year old building housing elderly residents?  I think closing the University House was part of a long-term plan for Biondi.  When did he become President?  Oh yes, 1987 — the same year the Housing Authority closed the University House public housing building.  Schoemehl is now the head of Grand Center, Inc. which works closely with Fr. Biondi.

Returning to 2007 we have the current issue of SLU razing an old mansion for the law school expansion (see my post).  Architect Paul Hohmann has done some more research this latest issue, for his report see Vanishing STL.


Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. DeBaliviere says:

    That building was demolished my freshman year – it was an ugly concrete eyesore, and I was glad to see it go.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I personally don’t recall the specific building.  Let’s see, public housing for poor elderly folks — yeah, “ugly concrete  eyesore” sounds about right.  The building, however, was not very old and most likely the concrete structure was perfectly sound — it could have been reskinned so as to be more attractive.   Just seems very wasteful.]

  2. MH says:

    Unrelated funny story: The building was being demolished one floor at a time, because the demo guys feared that explosives would bring the building down on the short brick building next door to it. They didn’t get very far when the building fell down on its own — in the middle of the afternoon. SLU was extraordinarily lucky that the contractors had just left the building and no students were walking by. There was a mushroom cloud of dust and debris hanging over the corner of Spring and West Pine for a couple hours. Very strange.

  3. Jim Zavist says:

    So, something wrong happened 15 years ago . . . aren’t there more pressing issues than worrying that a 20-year-old concrete shell could’ve/should’ve been saved and reused?! I agree, it wasn’t the most PC thing to do, but we were a lot less PC back then, and hindsight is always 20/20. Yes, the apparent back-room dealing looks suspicious, but that’s how thing were (and still are?) done. If you really want to revisit history, how ’bout how whole blocks were demolished to create a parkway along Market in front of Union Station (using proceeds from the 1923 bond issue)? Yes, we need to learn from past mistakes, but I’m not seeing this one as that big of a deal . . .

  4. Michael Allen says:

    “that’s how thing were (and still are?) done”

    That seems to be the point of Steve’s post: same shit, different day. Maybe we can learn something from observing mistakes repeat…

  5. Becker says:

    I do agree that there have to be better things to talk about. This is just more of the same tired potshots against Biondi that we have all seen for years.

    But I guess getting a posting is better than not.

    Has anyone else noticed that Wash U can apparently do no wrong?

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I try to write every day and have a very long list of possible topics.  Indeed, we do have better things to talk about but last night at 2am this is what struck me as interesting.  So it was this or nothing for today! 

    WashU can do plenty wrong I am sure, I just don’t get that far west very often.  The area around WashU is certainly much different than that of SLU.  What I found very interesting is the how the tone of articles have changed over the last 20 years — early on it was all about Biondi’s vision and now with the whole TIF thing they’ve had to step back from that so it makes it appear as though the mostly-lay board is in charge (wink, wink).]

  6. Erin says:

    Is Steve to police everything in St. Louis? I assume that Steve was in someway once affiliated with SLU, or lives nearby, and therefore takes an interest in SLU-related activities. Just as say, I, as a Webster alumni, have no shortage of complaints about that school. If Wash U doesn’t garner as many words on this blog, it doesn’t mean they are without fault. Do you know something about Wash U we don’t? Then by all means, SHARE!

    Jim, I think the point of the post is that Biondi obviously knows how things work and is not above being underhanded to get what he wants. There is much to be learned from this information (which I never knew about) even though it took place 15 years ago. As Michael said, it seems that it’s just same shit, different day.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Exactly, I can only do so much!  And like it or not, I write what pleases me.  I have no editor or paid subscribers to answer to.  For those that don’t know, I am a current grad student at SLU so it is in my mind and right in front of me more often than other universities in the region.  

    And yes, looking back at how St. Louis and SLU have operated over the years is helpful, at least for me, in understanding how we got to where we are today.]

  7. Darren says:

    While I agree with Jim that current topics deserve priority, bringing stuff like this out of the archives, so to speak, serves as a reminder that Biondi’s m.o. has been unchanged for quite some time: he just uses his influence to bulldoze anyone or anything in his path, damn the considerations of anyone else. Any individual or institutional property owner, public or private, is subservient to his “holy mission” of building his empire.

  8. Hound says:

    “As Michael said, it seems that it’s just same shit, different day.”

    Perhaps that should have been the title of the post for those that don’t understand at least the most obvious facet of Steve’s point. We have a way of collectively allowing the same mistakes to be made and when anyone tries to remind us of those mistakes they are told to get over it. I am tired of getting over things like the Century Building demolition when the lesson should have been learned with the Buder, or Title Guaranty, or the countless other treasures that were squandered to benefit those who were able to manipulate the system. Just wait ’til Paul McKee (aka Blairmont) destroys half of North St. Louis (by willful neglect if not outright demolition). Can’t wait to get over that one…

  9. Nathan says:

    C’mon, Steve…

    ‘Given how that vacant complex was next to Cochran Gardens it made sense to work togther but I am not so sure her plans for the building on Spring at Laclede would have been logistically feasible. For now I will assume that it would work and that transportation would not be an issue.’

    So you aren’t sure that the plans would have been logistically feasible, or feasible by any measure, yet you’ll assume that it would work, since it gives you a platform to gripe about what we can agree was a bland building being torn down FIFTEEN years ago?

    I’m all for protecting architecturally significant buildings that still serve a purpose and still fit in a neighborhood. I’m all for density. I’m also for open spaces on college campuses. The contemplative park was built simply so that it could be torn down…things like gazebos, foutains, etc can easily be moved for things like….an arena. That is where the arena WOULD have gone, if not for some unanticipated engineering issues related to an underground creek.

    As far as Biondi’s vision vs. the lay board, seems like you haven’t done your homework. The lay boards supremacy over the university was established by Fr. Reinert.

    Get a new hobby horse, brother, and I’ll ride with you.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Homework? So let me make sure I understand your view. I’m researching the many issues surrounding the St. Louis Housing Authority over the last 20 years to fill in where my knowledge is lacking and find what I think is an interesting story, from 15 years ago although really starting in 1987 — 20 years ago. I start off the entire post stating as much — it is old history. To top it off you conclude that I need to go back further than 20 years — the pre-Biondi days. Let me learn what I can about the last 20 years that are available online at 2am before I dig into the older archives.

    Your view about “protecting architecturally significant buildings” is one of the main problems I see in St. Louis, those are the only buildings anyone gives a damn about. This is why we so freely tear down good buildings that form wonderful streetscapes and neighborhoods — because they are not “significant” enough. You and many don’t get it — it is often about streets, not always about individual buildings.

    And yes, I had to assume that Gilkey’s idea of transporting people back and forth was feasible so I could take the conversation where I wanted to go with it — pointing out that Biondi claimed he wanted to use the building but quickly decided upon razing it once he wasn’t facing opposition from public housing tenants. Had I found a picture of the building I might have gone a different direction.

    Tear down the contemplative park/pedestrian mall later? WTF? Are you saying the pedestrian mall at Spring & Laclede would have been the arena site if not for an underground creek? Or are you simply confusing the massive green space east of Grand with the fact the article was referring to the pedestrianization of Spring & Laclede?]

  10. Nathan says:


    this isn’t even apples and oranges…..this is apples and elephants.

    The buildings you cited had relevance.

    These did not.

  11. john says:

    The SSDD theme is relevant and it is that repetition which has even greater significance. Why is this so obvious and yet so repetitive that it makes Steve write on this when so many other issues are boiling? Is he starting to feel the pain from observing the consistent apathy or is he beginning to understand the StL culture?
    Go back 15 years, 30 years, 45 years,… you’ll get similar stories.
    INSANITY? Well perhaps, especially if you believe that Albert E. was correct in stating “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. Handing out favors, looking the other way, etc. and expecting progress is so NOT NEW, especially to tax free institutions! It is a tradition in ol’ St Lou, isn’t it grand?

  12. Maurice says:

    Wtih regards to whether those buildings had relevance or not back then…that is only a matter of perspective. Perhaps some buildings being torn down today have no relevance either, but will they in 5 years?

    Also, before I believe that Biondi went after these buildings, I would have to see more documentation. I’m sorry, but I would have to give the benefit of doubt that Biondi had more than his hands full when he arrived on campus and for quite a bit afterwards too. Not that he may not be totally innocent, but perhaps the wrecking ball started rolling before he arrived.

  13. Hound says:


    It’s not about the significance of the buildings at all. It’s about those who are able to manipulate the system to their own ends with flagrant disregard while squandering what makes this city unique. I actually don’t recall the building in question. It may have been butt ugly but the precedent it’s demolition set and or continued paved the way for countless other losses — some that you may even care about.

  14. Bridgett says:

    That building was razed when I was at SLU, living down at Marguerite Hall. It had already stood empty for several years and was as many have said, an ugly eyesore. It was a gray concrete structure built compartmentally–a floor was built and then raised up on top of another floor. I have never been a fan of Biondi and I think many things he has decided in the past put appearances over substance, but this one I actually thought was a good plan. My father, also a graduate from SLU in the 70s, was so impressed with the changes. It “felt” like a college, finally. That doesn’t mean that his other decisions in that area–the ridiculous clocktower, the fountains, the weird statuary–were good ones. I just think that University House had little to offer.


Comment on this Article: