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Homeless-Staffed Renewable Energy Center Seeks Approval for 38-Car Surface Parking Lot

Missouri Renewable Energy (MORE), operated by Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center, is seeking a zoning change to allow them to create a 38-car asphalt parking lot in the middle of a residential block. Yes, the group that “believes in caring for creation by learning, teaching, and implementing clean energy (solar, wind, and water power, biodiesel), environmentally friendly housing structures, going organic, and consuming less” wants to put down a big chunk of paving among a residential neighborhood (see map).

IMG_3524.JPGFrom where I stand it would seem that creating large paved parking in the midst of residential areas is not exactly “caring for creation.” Before getting into the zoning specifics of the proposed parking area, we need to look at how we got to this point.
For decades the area in question was part of Held Florist and Nursery. The commercial building was built in the 1950s and had been used continuously as a florist since that time. However, a few years ago it stopped being used commercially and sat vacant. For decades this business had been grandfathered in — what is more technically known as a “non-conforming use.” That is, the use (commercial) doesn’t fit in with the zoning for the area (residential). But you can’t just tell a business they must close up shop when you change zoning so existing places became grandfathered in. And to permit someone to sell their property as a commercial entity the city allows that such non-conforming use can continue provided the property doesn’t go vacant for a period of greater than 12 months. But once the non-conforming use lapses for a period of 12 months the grandfather provision goes away and the zoning reverts to whatever it is for the area. Someone purchasing real estate anywhere needs to understand this very basic concept and exercise due diligence before assuming they can do as they please. Perhaps Mr. Rice got bad legal advice on this purchase?

All over the city we do have commercial properties that are in the midst of residential areas. We can’t very well expect these all to be converted to residential or razed to build residential. This small commercial building with greenhouse does have value which should be permitted to be used. But this doesn’t mean that someone can buy the building and do as they please. A nightclub, for an extreme example, in an old greenhouse could be pretty cool but not the most ideal in the middle of a residential street. The florist shop brought virtually no traffic to the area — most business was deliveries. Any enterprise that can potentially overload a residential block, as opposed to a commercial block, with too many cars at a very specific time is something which should only be permitted in extremely rare cases. I don’t think this is one.

Let’s take a look at what is proposed. The following plan was distributed by Larry Rice at City Hall a couple of weeks ago when he was to have a hearing on his request for rezoning. That decision has been delayed until October 18th which allows for a public meeting on the issue — to be held tonight (more info at the end).


The buildings shown on the plan are all existing. The area marked “demonstration area” is a greenhouse from the many decades as a neighborhood florist and nursery. The asphalt parking lot, however, is new. In fact, the only structures ever built on this land were some makeshift greenhouses. To the left is this site is the two-family building I owned from 1994-2006. Residential properties surround this in all directions.

For a moment let’s focus on the parking lot. Given the few “energy fairs” already conducted by Rice at this site it is clear they are a big draw — the street gets packed with cars of people visiting the site. But do we really want a 90ft x 113ft section of asphalt to handle cars once a month? This is certainly not very environmentally friendly.

And what about those dimensions? Rice shows 38 spaces, certainly a lot of cars. But does this work? Well, no it does not. City ordinances and common sense require certain sizes for parking spaces (view zoning code). For 90-degree spaces they need to be eight and a half feet wide and eighteen feet deep. In terms of width the idea works so far — 10 spaces across the back only requires 85 feet. But it is the other direction where we run into issues. The plan shows four rows of cars — four times eighteen is 72ft. OK, good so far but in order to do this he needs two drive lanes to actually access the parking. The city says drive lanes must be 22ft wide — each. So you add another 44ft onto our 72ft and now you are at 116ft. This doesn’t even account for required landscaping or accessible parking spaces.

The depth of the lots in this block are 142ft-6inches. Let’s say 143ft just to make it easier to discuss. So we’ve got 143ft from the sidewalk to the alley — the depth of the lot. To get his parking in there you need 116ft — leaving only 27ft. Well, the old frame house the Preservation Board (thankfully) says cannot be torn down is set a good 10ft or so back already and is likely close to 20ft deep itself. Basically, Rice’s plan doesn’t work — he is showing a paved area set at the back of the lot far from the street but the reality is to accommodate 38 cars he’d need to pave pretty much the entire section of open land — including where the frame house is located.

To complicate matters even further, a new parking lot in a residential area requires setbacks from the property lines — you cannot just pave up to neighboring property or the alley. Rice is showing 3ft at the back but nothing on the north side (to the left). Also not show is how he plans to address water run off issues — how will the parking lot be drained. Will this cause more water runoff to the neighboring property to the left? Will this cause more water to run down the alley? What is the anticipated flow of water in a storm and can existing sewers/drains handle this increased volume? These are all normal considerations when considering such a massive parking area.

In July a developer was seeking to build three houses on the land where Rice seeks his asphalt parking lot. The Preservation Board told them the old house could not be razed. They quickly sold the property to Rice. So what was his plan for his center if the new houses had been built?

For an organization that purports to be supportive of the environment to propose an asphalt parking lot is certainly a bit questionable. Water run off, as opposed to ground absorption, is an issue as is the heat island affect. Truly environmentally friendly places have pervious parking such as paving blocks or the block grid that allows you to grow grass through the paving — both allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground. The latter doesn’t contribute to heat island issues. Impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete are part of our environmental problem.

Some people I’ve talked to are concerned about the homeless or formerly homeless that will staff the place. I’m not concerned so much as I am puzzled. The concept is to train these individuals for jobs in the growing energy field but that seems far fetched. From a Post-Dispatch editorial from the 2nd:

We also question the wisdom of training the homeless for these sorts of jobs. “We are an agency that places 1,000 [homeless] people a year, and I’ve never heard of a placement in renewable fuels,” says Dan Buck, chief executive at the St. Patrick Center, which operates a wide range of training programs for homeless people. They are much more likely to find work, Mr. Buck notes, in restaurants, call centers, building maintenance and the like.

So while the idea of training the homeless for a career in alternative energy is appealing, I’m just not sure how practical it really is. While there certainly are exceptions, many of the homeless are not the best educated. I wonder what the extent of the training program really is? Will these persons receive any pay? How does this fit with labor laws?


And what about the production of biodiesel at the site? Rice mentions the use of waste vegetable oil being converted to use as fuel in diesel cars like his Volkswagen Jetta TDI, shown above, on the residential block where he seeks zoning approval. So my question would be what quantities of fuel might they be making at this site? Just a few drops here and there during his fairs? Or will he have free homeless labor churning out the fuel to keep his ride going? Is there a point where the making of fuel for personal use differs from the the manufacturing of fuel for the market — involving state regulation and conditions conducive to the production of motor fuels? We already have meth labs blowing up, do we need experimental biodiesel manufacturing facilities doing the same?

IMG_3647.JPG copyRice has intimated that if he doesn’t get his zoning he will want to use the area to house the homeless. Nice. Of course as part of the “B” two family zoning district there are numerous guidelines that, if actually followed, would make it difficult to run a shelter on the order of the one he has downtown. Even transitional housing, something the city does need, would have to conform with the zoning code.

Publicly there seems to be very little opposition to the energy center, the zoning changes and even the parking lot. The most visible opposition comes from the gas station a block away at Grand & Delor (see photo at right). The 25th Ward Alderman (whom I lost to in March 2005 by 117 votes), Dorothy Kirner, has reportedly written a letter of support for the project. This is interesting as she earlier opposed a parking lot for the exact same site when a Muslim church on Grand owned the land. Did Kirner apply a double standard?

Local neighborhood groups are taking a Swedish like position — publicly neutral. Privately many in the immediate area as well as throughout south city are more than a bit upset.
An informational meeting with a chance for public questions/comments is scheduled for this evening. Given all the issues and personalities at play this is a must see in my view. The meeting will be held at 7pm at Gretchen’s Inn — the one-story place behind the Feasting Fox on the corner of Grand & Meramec (see map).

I’m not in favor of large surface parking lots anywhere. I’m certainly not a fan of them on otherwise residential blocks. The parking lot should not be allowed regardless of any issues around the homeless, Larry Rice or the intended use of the property. This is just not a wise move to allow a parking lot in such an area.

Prior posts:

Note: Headline changed at 10:25am from “Homeless-Run…” to “Homeless-Staffed” to more correctly reflect the stated intent.


Currently there are "28 comments" on this Article:

  1. Bridgett says:

    When you wrote about Rice buying this, I kept thinking, what’s the catch? it looked so benign. And now I see. I love threats–I’ll house the homeless here if you don’t let me pave it. Bizarre. People like Rice wear me out.

    Oh, and is it “Muslim church”?

    [SLP — It is probably not “church” but I don’t know the correct answer.  It was a former Lutheran church and from the outside it looks like what most Americans would call a church.]

  2. studs lonigan says:

    Mr. Patterson-

    You have revealed yourself as one of those curiously spiteful citizens with an utterly irrational and unfounded distrust of Reverend Larry Rice and his unassailably selfless, virtuous and tireless dedication to the homelessness industry. I suggest that while breathing in and out, you seek counseling for this perplexing psychological deficiency, unless you are capable of propping up your vile crucifixion with stats, percentages and figures from a suitably impartial source. Anyone who gives away air conditioners does not deserve to be troubled with your quibbling facts and theories about what might be appropriate or environmentally progressive in an urban community.

    If you discern a note of facetiousness or sarcasm in this post, you are mistaken. It is an entire symphony.

    [SLP — Beautifully conducted!]

  3. James says:

    Make the asphalt parking lot a garden plot instead and I’ll support it ’till the cows come home.

    [SLP — The site would make an excellent south side version of New Roots Urban Farm.]

  4. Hey, at least he isn’t trying to built a parking garage. Steve, give him a pass on this one. Didn’t you know that more parking is progress?

    Is the meeting tonight at 7PM?

  5. Aaron says:

    If the lot is not to be used to full capacity at all times, why is street parking in the area not sufficent for the overflow? Another option to decrease the lot space is to actually use the land adjacent to the building by adding spots in the “L” shaped area between the alley, greenhouse, and up to the line of the classroom space. Less of a walk to the building too! Any parking for a building with this kind of proposed environmental adjenda should most certainly be permeable like you were saying…this place should be a showcase, not an example of how to half ass it. If they really need it (doubtful, given the many durable and permeable alternatives, they could have just a few asphalt spots on directly adjacent to the building to handle to most frequent use.

  6. Thor Randelson says:

    1. Additional question is whether ally only access could handle the traffic of a 38 space parking lot. Without a secondary curb cut on Tennessee I just don’t think the parking lot could function properly.

    2. Given the need of both the Rice facility and the owner of former Lutheran church for parking, maybe an option for shared parking somewhere nearby (i.e. the vacant lot at the corner of Grand and Delor).

    3. I am not sure about Missouri, but if uses defined as “inherently beneficial” are given special standing when requesting a use variance (as they are in other states), a Rice proposal for a homeless shelter (one might also argue that adaptive reuse might also qualify under a broader definition of inherently beneficial) may leave the City with few options except to approve the application for the site, subject to conditions designed to negate any negative effects stemming from its operation.

  7. Stl_stadtroller says:

    hmmm… perhaps if there were fewer blacktop parking lots covering up the formerly cooling greens of this city, there wouldn’t be such a need for air-conditioners to begin with.
    just a thought…

  8. Stl_stadtroller says:

    oh, and it’s “mosque” Muslims worship in a Mosque. (i hope I spelled that right! lol)

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    This simply a classic St. Louis conundrum – do you let it sit vacant and unused or do you let an ugly parking lot make it a lot more valuable to (and functional for) the new non-conforming use? New residential was the original answer and it was shot down – this is a classic case of be careful what you ask for / the law of unintended consequences . . .

    [SLP — New housing was not shot down.  It was suggested that two new houses be built and the house be marketed as a stand-alone single family house.  Once again, it was not placed on the open market to see if anyone was interested in other options.]

  10. Southside Tim says:

    Larry Rice is a scab upon this city. For years he has concentrated the homeless Downtown who in turn concentrated crime upon us. Prior that he had his homeless womens shelter in Lafayette Square which was a further detriment to development until he decided he could get enough $$ selling that building.

    The man’s is totally unaccountable to anyone and inflicts his vision upon everyone.

  11. dude says:

    “Renewable” energy center needs parking lot for cars? Are they at least guaranteeing only vehicles that run on ethanol or vegatable oil will be parked there? Did the employees go from homeless to having cars? The level of backwards thinking in the headline alone is baffling. What’s next, a fur shop for vegatarians or a liquor store inside the Salvation Army building?

  12. Maurice says:

    Some of these posts are pretty far fetched, but that is neither here nor there. Steve, I think you raise some good issues with regard to the parking lot and use of the building. But your article should have concentrated on those issues only.

    I can understand your interest, especially since you once lived near by. I can relate as well. Many suggestions were to let them park on the street, but having a church near my house, makes Sunday parking a headache…why should those neighbors who live there 24/7 be subjected to the same thing?

    I know that many people, perhaps unconsciously, negitively judge the homeless. Not all are bad, and many, many more than most think have an education. (of course, those that have the education would use it if they really wanted to get out of homelessness and not rely on any entity to do so). Then there were the comments about labor laws and pay. I think these were unnecessarily negative judgements.

    The issue of bio fuels is interesting, though there are many around the area that perculate their own fuel. I am unsure of the fire/safety issues but there must be some because I believe that lye, an acid, is used in the process. I think this will be a growing issues in the years to come.

    Just my thoughts.

  13. atorch says:

    I knew it would come to this, it is the ever-present threat from Rice, if he doesn’t get his way he wants to make the rest of the neighborhood miserable. He then stands behind the old ‘I’m doing work for Jesus, I’m better than you so I can do whatever I want’ act! Well, there was a similar situation on the city/county border where in the middle of a residential block two houses were mysteriously ‘burned down’ and a ‘church/meeting place’ was built in their place, original only about a 22 space parking lot was slated but that turned into an asphalt jungle of about 30 spaces, a couple of flowers, a sidewalk going nowhere except to the middle of the neighbors large front lawn and a hug white ugly fence surrounding the parking lot, it looks absolutely horrible to see a large empty (6 days a week) parking lot in the middle of a residential block of houses! I am sick of Rice and his threats, he should be denied such insane plans in a residential area.

  14. jp says:

    That meeting was crazy. What is wrong with people that they are so hateful towards a man that has dedicated his entire life to helping his fellow man and woman? The people that criticize how he operates have absolutely no right to do so. Are they running a shelter that helps 1000’s of people a year? I never watch channel 24 and I don’t consider myself a bible thumper at all, but I can certainly see the need that he is trying to fill by operating a shelter downtown.

    Furthermore, He made it very clear tonight that he has no intentions to make the building a shelter, and that no one would even be spending the night there ever. I was also surprised to hear that the individuals in the downtown shelter only stay for about a week at a time, and he requires that they relocate to a more rural location/site/shelter (In rural Missouri that he also runs) to avoid the temptations of the city. (Perhaps this is some sort of Work Camp….but really who cares? they are just drug addicted, homeless people right? They are better there than in “our neighborhood”)

    I do think there is some federal grant available to this type of green operation, that he briefly mentioned tonight. It is probably a very lucrative ongoing grant that will probably only increase as the years go by. Well, who cares? Certainly the man deserves to profit if he chooses. He says he does not profit, so we have to take him at his word unless a criminal investigation reveals otherwise. We should not speculate that he lives in a big house in Ladue, and lines his pockets on the backs of the downtrodden.

    Furthermore still, to everyone that is scared of the homeless in Dutchtown, they should quickly realize that that area is a hotbed of gang activity, and drugs, and distressed property. I would love it all to go away, but my magic wand is broken. We should not actively stand in the way of ANY progress just because people think poorly of Larry Rice. Plus, this type of place could be an asset to the area, but it should not be half assed. The parking lot should be done in a proper ,environmentally friendly, way.

    As statistics show, an incredibly large segment of the population is less than 3 months salary away from being homeless themselves. So good luck, and I hope no one loses their jobs anytime soon.

    [SLP — I do think how he operates is entirely the point — when someone — anyone —- applies for a conditional use permit to operate any business in a residentially zoned area these issues come up.  Had Mr. Rice done any amount of research into real estate 101 he would have realized what was required for occupancy before closing on the sale of the properties.  I suspect he knew very well what was required and went the route of asking for forgiveness instead of approval.  When other homeless advocates and one formerly homeless person I know all tell you that he is not helping the homeless then we must take their word for it.]

  15. jp says:

    One last thing, If you want to really see a non-profit group profiting, go to Schnuck’s some time soon and you will the Susan G Komen organization profiting immensely by making us “aware” of breast cancer. There is enough pink shit for sale there to decorate your doll house. Do you condemn that organization too?

  16. Dan Icolari says:

    How telling that one of Rice’s defenders used the term ‘homeless industry.’ Precisely.

  17. publiceye says:

    “Susan G Komen organization profiting immensely by making us ‘aware’ of breast cancer”

    Um, how’s that?

  18. Nick Kasoff says:

    Larry Rice is a jerk. He is a bad neighbor wherever he goes. Thankfully, the Kiel Center developers had enough clout to axe his proposal to put a homeless megacenter next door. Hopefully the folks in this nabe will somehow be able to squash his ambitions there.

    Maybe some day the financial contributors in this area will realize what a dirt bag Larry Rice is, and that there are other homeless service providers more worthy of their contributions – St. Patrick’s Center is the one that comes to my mind. Let Larry Rice go broke, that’d be the best thing for the homeless and all the rest of us too.

  19. cptmrpants says:

    Quote: “You have revealed yourself as one of those curiously spiteful citizens with an utterly irrational and unfounded distrust of Reverend Larry Rice”

    One could hardly blame him.

    As a public service, please post a sign at the site “Don’t feed the evangelical minister”

  20. jp says:

    I never used the word “immensely” however since you did, I will agree with you that they are profiting immensely. I still think they are a good organization, and have done a lot of great work over the years. Just don’t be under any sort of illusion that the directors and higher “officials” in that organization are not all drawing a salary of $250k+. It is just the way of the “successful” non-profit. Non-profit “groups” are typically set up by “individuals”. These “individuals” profit. It is the way it works. I am not trying to be some pessimist that sees the world as manipulative and greedy, because I am not. I am simply saying that the same people that would condemn organized religion as “profiting” from their “flock” would readily defend an organization like The Komen Foundation and not even take into consideration that these religions built nearly all of the schools and hospitals in this country. Yes, the Komen foundation is working to make the world aware of breast cancer issues, and is helping to fund breast cancer research, (mind you, buy giving money to the doctor’s and researchers of THEIR choice.) both of which are very very good and noble causes. But as I see it ALSO, they are helping numerous corporations hock everything from Pink Coolers to Pink Bathroom tissue. Are those companies not “profiting”?

    Anyway, when I posted that last night I was ripe for the picking, because I had just come from Schnucks. I realize that none of this has anything to do with the issue at hand, and I apologize for the tangent. I simply think I should defend what I have said, and I am not trying to bash the Komen Foundation. I fully support them…even if I am jealous of their huge salaries.

  21. jp says:

    I did use the word ‘immensely”, sorry for the jab.

    Damn it, Steve turn on the comment editor so I won’t look hateful AND stupid. Though I am sure I don’t need any help looking stupid.

  22. studs lonigan says:

    Hey, Dan Icolari-

    Studs Lonigan here. Just wanted to clarify my use of the term “homelessness industry” and the Reverend Rice’s dedication to it; my post addressing Mr. Patterson was facetious. I am most definitely not a Larry Rice “defender”. As I posted elsewhere, I truly hope Dutchtowners are able to invite NLEC to stay the hell out of their neighborhood.

    Steve P. is correct in his assessment that the Reverend chose to buy the property and foist a fait accompli on Dutchtown, knowing well there would be controversy and opposition to his plans.

    Some more facetiousness ahead…

    Certain developers operate essentially the same way: act first without official permits or review and brashly assume people will forgive and forget (especially forget!) later, since any development activity whatsoever is viewed as unquestionably positive by those who hold low expectations for our city. It’s a mentality based on the idea that the city is a foundering, pitiable, lost cause in no reasonable position to actually question any of the benevolent works interloping capitalists wish to ply within its boundaries. JUST ANYTHING will do. We slum dwellers won’t get in your way. Rape, pillage and demolish historic structures, undermine our shabby community, overload our Dumpsters, ignore us, break the law and don’t forget to keep your snoot firmly in the taxpayer-trough while you do it. WE’RE JUST RIGHT GLAD YOU’RE HERE.

    Frustratingly, too many people espousing this pathetic attitude actually live where these disingenuous, manipulative and cynical “techniques” are employed. That’s why they work. Sometimes.

  23. jp says:

    Steve, judging by the tone of that meeting last night, and what was discussed, the parking lot is the least of the concerns of that neighborhood. It is just a case of NIMBY. Everyone wants to help the homeless, and most people like the idea of a renewable energy center, it is just that no one wants to have it in their neighborhood.

    I am anxiously awaiting your follow up piece about the actual meeting. I would love to hear your thoughts about it.

  24. Adam says:

    i’m just wondering … does rice have any renewable energy credentials? i mean, does he have any sort of background in environmental science or materials science or any type of science that would lend itself to researching/teaching about renewable energy? is he hiring people who do? people spend YEARS in graduate school to become proficient in these technologies and he is single-handedly going to train the homeless? i just think it’s a little wierd and far-fetched. it’s one thing to say, encourage composting. it’s a little more complicated – and dangerous – to make ethanol, for example.

  25. MH says:

    I live a few blocks away from this site, and I adamantly opposed to Rev. Rice’s latest folly. I’m not opposed because I don’t want to help the homeless- there are great nonprofits like Saint Patrick Center that do wonderful work. I’m not opposed to renewable energy- anything we can do to help the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil is a plus in my book. And, I’m not opposed to a place for the homeless blocks away from where I live out of fear.

    I oppose this proposal because as Studs correctly pointed out, Rev. Rice knew there’d be considerable opposition and therefore forced this plan upon the neighborhood as a fait accompli, not unlike his proposal for the former Abrams Federal Building near Kiel Auditorium and Scottrade Center. And how in the hell is a renewable energy center going to help the homeless lead productive and self-sufficient lives? This thing has folly written all over it, so I’m not surprised to see Alderwoman Kirner rubberstamp such a misguided plan while the neighborhood groups sit idly by lest they be seen as being against helping the less fortunate (even though Dan Buck clearly knows at least a little bit more about actually helping these people than Rev. Rice).

    I’d much rather have the mosque. The southern half of Dutchtown and the northwest part of Carondelet have enough problems as it is. Sorry, but I really don’t want to add one of our city’s biggest problems (NLEC) to the mix.

  26. Larry's Daughter says:

    This is Larry Rice’s daughter, I stumbled upon this blog today. I must say I find your statements about my father very hurtful and mean… these especially: “jerk”, “latest folly”, “scab upon the city”.

    He is a person who actively loves St. Louis, the environment, his family, Jesus, and the poor. Earlier this year his wife, (my mother), died from breast cancer and his father also passed away a few months ago. Just remember, he is a person… you all seem to forget that easily.

    J. Rice

  27. Dave says:

    Aren’t the Swiss noted for their neutrality as opposed to the Swedes?

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