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Pyramid Bought Florida for $2,400?

I’ve been wondering how long the McDonald’s land swap with Pyramid has been in the works. I first reported on the rumor over a year ago, on February 1st, 2005 so I figured they probably started all this in 2004.

Well, I think I can pinpoint the time even more — the 2nd quarter of 2004.

During this period the following Pyramid-related contributions were made to the “Citizens to Elect Jennifer Florida” committee:

Stephen G. Symsack, 63119; $300
Steller Properties, Inc., 63101; $300
Stan Presson, 62236; $300
John R. Steffen, 63118 (old office location); $300
Matthew D. O’Leary, 63101; $300
Desiree A. Knapp, 63021; $300
Cathy Hagan, 63129; $300

Just a coincidence this many Pyramid folks decided to contribute to Jennifer Florida’s re-election campaign? Perhaps, but I think something else happened. I think a deal was made. By the way, the maximum contribution for any individual or company is $300.

Price tag for support on the McDonald’s project: $2,100.

John Steffen, Pyramid’s President, has donated another $300 to Florida’s campaign in the current election cycle. This brings the total to $2,400. All these contributions are legal.

Which brings us to the issue of legal versus ethical. To me this is quite transparent — support for a project in exchange for campaign contributions.

If you’d like to view the information yourself please take a look at Florida’s July 2004 Quarterly report.

While you are looking at the report take a look at the numbers. I’m no accountant but I’ve done my share of bookkeeping over the years and these numbers just don’t add up. I calculated $5,680 in itemized contributions for the three month period. Yet, on page 3 of the above report, it says $6,355 were received (Contributions and Loans Received, Line #8). This difference is $675.

The prior page, a “report summary”, shows total receipts for the period of $9,670. Again, the itemized detail only totals $5,680 by my calculations. The report shows nearly $10K in contributions for the period and nearly $29K for the election. To potential challengers such a large sum can be intimidating. But did she actually collect this much and, if so, where is the detail? The report indicates a closing “cash on hand” of $18,538.91.

But I calculate the actual cash receipts at nearly $4K less than the report summary, based on the detail given. I decided to look at the next report, the Oct 2004 Quarterly, to see if I could balance the numbers. I could not. In this report the summary indicates receipts for the election were the previous beginning balance, not the ending balance of almost $29K. How the receipts could drop by $10K yet the cash on hand balance remain unchanged is beyond me.

Based on the reports I’ve reviewed I believe it is safe to say we don’t now much Florida’s campaign has actually received and how much they have on hand. The only thing that is clear is that Steffen & Co have contributed at least $2,400 to Jennifer Florida’s campaign treasury in the last two years and she is doing and saying whatever it takes to uphold her end of the deal.

UPDATE 3/27/06 @ 9:45AM
I have reviewed some additional campaign finance reports from the Missouri Ethics Commission website. I looked up two wards where Pyramid has actually done recent work (April Ford-Griffin and Phyllis Young) as well as another south side alderman, Fred Wessels who chairs the influential Housing, Urban Design and Zoning Committee for the Board of Aldermen.

Young’s campaign for the 2005 election received nearly $50,000 and the contribution list reads like a who’s who list for development, not surprising since Young’s ward includes the downtown CBD and much of Soulard and Lafayette Square. Pyramid gave a total of $900 divided up among three different companies. I did not find contributions from any individuals, including Pyramid President John Steffen. The bulk of her contributions are in her October 2003 Quarterly Report. And, unlike Florida’s reports, Young’s actually reconcile.

Fred Wessels’ campaign received a good amount of money during the same period, around $15,000. This included $300 from John R. Steffen.

Wessels’ report notes the employer name for Steffen and notes they have a contract with the city. Young did the same thing on her reports, noting if a contributor had government contracts. Florida’s campaign reports fail to indicate the employer of contributors and if those employers have government contracts.

April Ford-Griffin’s reports show a number of contributions related to Pyramid. Ford-Grffin’s ward is where Pyramid is now completing the dreadful Sullivan Place senior housing project (read my review). Her 2nd Quarter 2003 report indicates the following were received on the same date of 4/25/03: $300 from John Steffen (“self employed”); $300 from Dawana Steffen (“homemaker”); $300 from Stellar Properties; $300 from Desiree Knapp/Robert Wilmouth; and $300 from Matthew D. O’Leary (“self employed”). Wow, $1,500 from Pyramid folks all on the same day yet, like Florida’s campaign reports, none of these contributions are directly from Pyramid. More disturbing is the amount of contributions she received from individuals associated with Winghaven in St. Charles County. What is their interest in the City?

– Steve


Minutes from Hearing on McDonald’s Drive-Thru

If, by chance, you are not sick of the McDonald’s issue yet I’ve go more for you. I have received a copy of the minutes of the meeting. This is not to be confused with a word for word transcript. Still, it gives you a good summary of those that spoke and their main points.

Minutes (5 pages, PDF)

And I have posted the letter of approval from the city on the drive-thru. Thankfully, Gravois Park residents have appealed this decision.

Once I receive the audio cassette of the hearing I will digitize it and make it available as a series of MP3 files for all to hear. The next best thing to being there!

Make no mistake, the Florida/Pyramid camp will likely stop at nothing to get there way over the objections of not only the immediate residents but all of us that consider this a critical area for St. Louis even though we don’t live within a few blocks of the area.

The continued attempts by officials in this city to discount the opinions of myself and others simply because we are not in the direct path of a poor decision shows how limited their thinking really is. Florida talks a good game about the big picture but the only big picture plan for the area she willfully choosing to ignore.

I am so over the “we need any development no matter how bad” mentality.

– Steve


Proposed McDonald’s To Be Most Suburban Among Fast Food on Grand

Unfortunately the seven blocks or so along South Grand between Potomac St and Alberta St are littered with fast food establishments, many with drive-thru service. North of this area is quite nice with urban storefronts. South of the area you get a nice urban feeling again with storefronts and homes facing Grand. It is the one section, centered between Gravois & Chippewa, that has been ravaged over the years by inappropriate development.

I decided to take a closer look at the existing drive-thru establishments to see how they compared to the proposed McDonald’s (view site plan). The numbers were startling.

First, only the 1996 White Castle and the proposed McDonald’s have any sort of auto drive separating the public sidewalk from the building. The Taco Bell, KFC, Burger King, Arby’s and existing McDonald’s all have no autos between the sidewalk and building. This places the building closer to the building line and is therefore more accommodating to pedestrians. The proposed McDonald’s will follow the newer White Castle by setting back the building and separating it from the sidewalk with an auto drive, making it less accommodating to pedestrians.

Fast Food on Grand

Here are some quick observations:

  • The Taco Bell has the smallest site. The proposed McDonald’s site is 223% larger than the Taco Bell site!
  • The Taco Bell and KFC sites combined are the same size as the current McDonald’s site.
  • The proposed McDonald’s site is 38% larger than the current McDonald’s site.
  • The site of the proposed McDonald’s is 64% larger than the next biggest site, White Castle.
  • The proposed McDonald’s will have 62% more parking spaces than the current location (29 vs. 47).
  • The mixed-use project just South of the Grand View Arcade includes a Wing Stop, a Subway a Papa John’s Pizza and a Head Start program. This project includes, for all four business, a total of 42 parking spaces. This is five less than the proposed McDonald’s. Keep in mind the McDonald’s owner is saying this move is necessary to increase his drive-thru business.

    The existing McDonald’s location, built in 1974, is the oldest of all the locations. One could argue it is due for replacement but I say it was the one that started the trend of suburban fast food in the area. However, the White Castle that was razed in 1996 may have pre-dated the 1974 McDonald’s.

    The proposed McDonald’s is less urban than the current location in that it will be set back from the public sidewalk and will have a lower building to land ratio (10.7% vs. 7.1%). Truly urban development would occupy a minimum of 30-40% of the parcel with buildings.

    All signs indicate the proposed McDonald’s is not only out of scale with the idea of a pedestrian friendly neighborhood but also relative to other fast-food drive-thru establishments in the immediate vicinity. Nobody involved has their act together. The city’s zoning is ancient with no guidelines to make drive-thrus more urban. The elected officials, alderwoman and mayor, seem glad to help McDonald’s more than help the area residents work toward a good compromise. The developer, Pyramid, seems convinced they are doing the city a good service. McDonald’s will generally push the standard formula unless they are forced to do something better which brings us back to zoning.

    Here is what I’d like to see happen:

  • An immediate moratorium on new projects on Grand between Potomac & Alberta with the exception of the SSNB & Melba/Grandview Arcade.
  • A community planning workshop to envision the potential of the area. Property owners, neighbors, aldermen, and the city’s planning staff should be involved in the process.
  • Ald. Florida & Ald. Schmid co-sponsor a bill enacting a special zoning overlay for the area. Zoning does not prohibit drive-thru restaurants but it does establish guidelines which mitigates the negative aspects associated with these building types. Drive-thru guidelines might follow this example from Toronto.
  • Moratorium is lifted with everyone now on the same playing field. Developers know if they invest in the area in an urban fashion that others will also be held to similar standards.
  • Will this happen? Probably not. This would require some leadership and frankly I don’t think Ald. Florida has either the will or ability to do it.

    – Steve


    Pyramid’s Sullivan Place Senior Housing An Anti-Urban Monstrosity

    Pyramid, the company proposing a highly suburban McDonald’s for South Grand, has dumped an atrocious housing project on the city’s north side (map). Forget the high-profile loft projects downtown, Pyramid is making a name for themselves with suburban rubbish throughout our once urban neighborhoods.

    Sullivan Place, named for Sullivan Street closed for this project, will be a 190-unit 55+ affordable housing project when completed. Half the project has been open for a few months yet lots of units remain available. No wonder, these “affordable” apartments run $511/month for a one-bedroom and $631/month for a two-bedroom. The income limit for a single person is $27,660 and $31,620 for a couple. Still, $511/month isn’t too bad depending upon what you get.

    Well, the six one-bedroom floor plans range in size from 461 sq. ft. to 515 sq. ft. Both two-bedroom layouts are 634 sq. ft. Laundry facilities are down the hall — two per floor. Units have very basic finishes and do not include a dishwasher. The only luxury are two call for help devices — one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. Residents are treated to a fortress-like security setup designed either to keep others out or the them inside.

    These units range from $0.99 per square foot per month to $1.10 per square foot per month. The only thing making these even remotely affordable is the fact they are so miniscule in size. Not that everyone needs massive places to live but I have to wonder about the total project costs and how much we, as tax payers, underwrote this project.

    Aside from the question of affordability is the suitability of the design for the neighborhood. In fact, I question the design for any location, even the most sprawling of suburbs. I will say, however, I have no objections to the material choices. I actually like that they didn’t try to make this some trumped up retro project (like Pyramid’s own King Louis Square at Tucker & Lafayette). No, the material selection and detailing is actually quite nice. It is the overall massing and site planning where this project goes into the unacceptable territory.

    The project is massive, occupying a block and a half. Based on dimensions from Google Maps I estimated the site to be roughly 5.4 acres. With 190 units that works out to a low density of less than 36 units per acre. I might be willing to accept a low density if much of the parcel was some sort of monumental park or other community asset. But that didn’t happen here. Instead we have an X-plan with the east & west triangles for parking and the north & south triangles as sort of left over green.

    sullivan_place - 09.jpgThe building is not an asset to the neighborhood. With its street setback, high fence, security gates and surveillance cameras it is clear Pyramid’s designers didn’t want to engage the area. Instead, the building retreats from having anything to do with the adjacent residences. Add some barb wire across the top of the fence and one might mistake this for a minimum security prison.

    In other parts of the city developers are creating new housing which makes connections with the public sidewalk, thereby contributing to a sense of connectedness. Not here. Clearly, the folks at Pyramid simply don’t understand what a city and urban neighborhood are about. And based on the rents vs. size, they have a warped view of affordability.

    The sad part is Pyramid wants to move the McDonald’s at Grand & Chippewa to the old Sears so they can build an 87-unit senior housing project on the current location. Where is the demand for those 55+ that earn less than $28K and want to pay $511 for a tiny place? I fail to see the logic here.

    The Sullivan Place project is one of the most horrific projects in recent memory. In my mind, thought not even complete, this project will need to be razed if we hope to rebuild the neighborhood. I can’t imagine someone wanting to build or live adjacent to this generic geriatric penitentiary.

    One can only assume that 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin approved of the plan. Perhaps she is having a contest with 15th Ward Alderwoman Jennifer Florida to see who can get away with the most suburban sprawl before getting recalled by voters? If so, Ford-Griffin will get lots of points for this one. Of course, Florida already has a rebuilt White Castle, a new Walgreens with excessive parking and the Gravois Plaza strip center under her belt without the proposed McDonald’s. They better watch out because 11th Ward Alderman Matt Villa’s Loughborough Commons project may trump them both. And they’re off…

    But it is not the Aldermen that are designing and building these projects. For Sullivan Place the blame lies solely with John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies. I know many talented people that work at Pyramid but they are not the ones calling the shots. It seems Pyramid has a complete lack of leadership where it counts. I couldn’t sleep at night if I was the decision maker that determined this was what St. Louis needed.

    Matt O’Leary, whom I’ve know for a number of years, is a Senior VP for Development but his territory is confined to downtown’s loft projects. Desiree Knapp, presumably another VP, is the person in charge of Pyramid’s neighborhood projects such as the nearly abandoned Keystone Place, the ugly King Louis Square, the proposed Grand McDonald’s and now Sullivan Place. In May of 2004 I met with O’Leary to see about working for Pyramid (taking Knapp’s place) but I don’t think he wanted to get involved in that side of the company so I never got a meeting with John Steffen. From the look of the resulting projects, O’Leary has kept a hands off approach. Too bad because I would have enjoyed doing some nice urban neighborhood projects with Pyramid. If by chance this post should make its way in front of Pyramid’s President, John Steffen: I’m available as an hourly consultant to help your staff evaluate future projects. Trust me, you need my help!

    Pyramid enjoys a favored position with the Mayor and others. But their track record leaves much to be desired. Now is the time to unite and fight Pyramid’s anti-urban sprawl projects. Additional photos of Sullivan Place can be seen on Flickr.

    – Steve


    Proposed McDonald’s Siteplan Now Available Online

    siteplan_thumb.jpgThanks to Missouri’s Sunshine Law I have obtained the site plan for the proposed McDonald’s on South Grand. To view a PDF version please click on the thumbnail to the right.

    In reviewing the site plan we can see just how suburban this McDonald’s really is. Asphalt is the primary material on the 40,000 sq. ft. site as the building occupies only a small percentage of the total area. Forty-five regular and 2 handicap parking spaces cover much of the area. Judging by this much parking they must expect to far more popular than they are now.

    Pedestrians are not given any consideration as they must walk in one of the three auto drives to get to the restaurant door. Heaven forbid someone in a wheelchair actually want to visit this McDonald’s as they must wheel all the way from the public sidewalk to the ramp on the south side of the building in the same path as cars going toward the drive-thur.

    The site plan reveals two “monument” signs — one at Grand and one at Winnebego. No street trees are indicated along Winnebego and we are losing several tree spaces along Grand. No bike racks are indicated. This could not possibly be any more inappropriate for the City of St. Louis.

    Ald. Jennifer Florida, in supporting this project, wrote:

    “McDonald’s has been sensitive to including an urban architectural design, pedestrian friendly to the neighborhood.”

    I’m not sure how Ms. Florida even remotely comes to this conclusion. What makes this, in her mind, as being urban in design or pedestrian-friendly? I’d hate to see her idea of something that is not urban and anti-pedestrian. I can come to only a few conclusions: either she is really stupid or she thinks we are. Well, I’m not stupid. I’m not buying your lines Jennifer.

    Everyone involved in this project should be embarrassed for even suggesting such a thing in a fairly pedestrian area. Jennifer Florida should be laughed out of office. Mayor Slay should question why his staff hasn’t pulled the rug out from under this project. John Steffen of Pyramid should question the values of his own company if this is what they want to dump upon our neighborhoods.

    – Steve