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St. Louis’ Board of Adjustment Votes to Restrict Free Speech on Eminent Domain

July 12, 2007 Downtown, Eminent Domain, Local Business 25 Comments

You’ve likely seen Jim Roos’ anti-eminent domain statement on the side of a building he owns in an area known as Bohemian Hill. Yesterday attorney John Randall argued before the Board of Adjustment the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to voice free speech. The Board of Adjustment hears appeals from those who’ve been denied permits by the building department. The member’s names, date appointed, term length, term expiration are not posted online on the city’s website, nor is their agenda published online.

During the meeting a total of three appeals were heard relating to signs — all did not meet the strict letter of the city’s antiquated zoning code regulations (see the “Comprehensive” Sign Control Regulations). All three were larger than allowed by the code, two were approved but one was not. Laclede Gas got approval for a large sign on top of their building in downtown St. Louis so they could hopefully get spotted by TV cameras during Cardinals games. Laclede Gas argued their sign on the top of their building would be a positive “contribution to the St. Louis skyline.” I saw the mock-ups of the sign, it wasn’t something to hail as great nor was anything bad. They indicated that the city’s maximum allowable size for a sign on their building would look like a “postage stamp.” If the city really wants to be business friendly they will take a fresh look at the sign regulations and I don’t know, maybe publish something on the building division site about signs rather than make the public wade through the technicalities of the ordinance.


Roos and his attorney argued this is not a sign, per the city’s regulations. I’m not going to take you through all the various points of the ordinance but in large part, per the code, a sign faces a public street. The building above was originally a rear building — the public street is to the left out of view. The side of the building, clearly visible from the interchange of highways I-44 & I-55, does not face a public street — it faces an adjacent parcel of land owned by someone else. The poorly constructed zoning code relating to signs also addresses the question of what is a sign vs what is not:

If for any reason it cannot be readily determined whether or not an object is a sign, the Community Development Commission shall make such determination.

Again, it was argued this was not a sign but Bob Lordi from the city’s building division determined it is a sign. The ordinance language is unclear as to how this debate of sign or not gets resolved. Some of the best humor was provided by a June 28, 2007 letter from alderwoman Phyllis Young (D-7th Ward):

“If this sign is allowed to remain then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency.”

When this was read during the proceedings I actually laughed out loud. The irony, of course, is that earlier this year Young advocated razing the entire area where the “sign” is located for a new development. She passed legislation blighting the entire area and now wants to protect it from a sign put up in response to the very real threat faced by these home owners. I will have more on the status of this project separately.  Click here to view the entire letter in PDF format.
Another part of the letter gave me reason to chuckle as well:

I have worked diligently throughout my career as an alderman to reduce the number of billboards cluttering our neighborhoods and our city. As you drive I-44 you’ll see no billboards in my ward from Compton east to the intersection with I-55 other than the one in the commercial area at Jefferson. The wall sign is an affront to the neighborhoods, drivers, and the city. It should be denied and removed.

One of the most telling comments is that being an alderman is a “career” rather than simply a public service. But I think Phyllis needs to get in her Prius, or better yet a good pair of sneakers, and just check out more of her ward, including downtown.















The vinyl banner is now the defacto sign type, replacing painted signs. They are realtively cheap and last for years. Plain and simple, the city doesn’t like the idea of people being influenced against their abuse of eminent domain.


Currently there are "25 comments" on this Article:

  1. studs lonigan says:

    An observation unrelated to the more germane question of whether this is a constitutional/free speech issue: wouldn’t Roos more succinctly express his view on eminent domain by featuring the words “eminent domain abuse” circled with a line through it? As is, it reads “end eminent domain abuse” circled with a line through it, which could be read to mean that he actually opposes ending eminent domain abuse. Of course, no one around Mr. Roos for more than two and a half seconds could ever reasonably infer that meaning.

    I believe he has a right to festoon his property with ugly disfigurement, whatever his larger and/or (arguably) noble intentions are. Irrespective of the sentiment involved in signage, whether it offends anyone or makes people uncomfortable, or, a modern day classic, is “hurtful speech”, I just hate to see honest old brick defaced with paint. This would include the clueless dimwits who painted the stone and terra cotta on a fabulous 1890s McKinley Heights flop near Russell and McNair turquoise and sky blue (and who should be publicly flogged) as well as people who express their views by pressing innocent brick into shrill, ideological service.

    The creep of censorship in our land is, however, a greater concern and viewing this in that context makes it easier to sympathize with Roos.

  2. Government will use whatever excuse possible when its power is threatened by the people it is supposed to serve. This is called turf and autonomy. The City has no problem with corporate banners and taking property through eminent domain for corporate usage. This is because the interests behind those actions fund campaigns and pay a lot of revenue and jobs. When a group of citizens threatens their turf, by questioning these actions thus interests, of course government will react in a fascist manner. We also cannot forget that a majority of aldermen are self serving sycophants who are completely unqualified for the position. Thus, a well educated politically active electorate would put them out of office. The people would realize that many in the Board of Aldermen are egregiously moronic thus stymie the progress of our wonderful City.

  3. Curtis says:

    Oh, heavens to mercy! Allowing people to express their own opinions without government control! What is this city coming to!!!!

  4. mike says:

    In the alderwoman’s defense, the pictures you show do nothing to refute that paragraph, as none of them are visible from I-44. Most of them are also much smaller. I also agree with her that it would be a bad thing if more and more people did this kind of thing. That’s not to say the city has the right to stop them.

    That being said, I applaud Mr. Roos’ act of civil disobedience. The post article said he won the battle. If that is true, I think he should remove the sign regardless of whether the city makes him or not.

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    Unfortunately, signs and advertising are like the cold war arm’s race – too big is never enough. The government does need to both set and ENFORCE limits, to provide a level playing field for public expression. Times Square, the Vegas Strip and the Ginza in Tokyo are all examples of signs gone wild, and something to be savored in small doses. I see no need for St. Louis to allow bigger signs. I do see a big need to enforce whatever limits there may be. Businesses and some civil libertarians will always whine if they can’t do whatever they please, and yes, cities are messy. But part of being a civilized society is not being bombarded at every term with “messages”, commercial or not!

  6. LisaS says:

    While ugly beyond doubt, Roos’s wall seems to me to fit under the rubrik of “Works of art which in no way identify a product.”

    But it begs the question: Where is the line between signage and art? If it has a definite biased message–for example, a picture of a strip mall under the slash–is it a sign? Do words–like those used by Barbara Krueger–define a work as a sign? How about Andy Warhol?

    From the practical point of view–maybe Roos should have his “art” screened onto a vinyl banner and placed over the offending “sign”–as a “temporary” sign it is unregulated if taken down for a few days every 5.5 months.

    On the face, this seems very similar to Ladue v. Gilleo to me–the City doesn’t like the content of the speech, so seeks to regulate it.

    (and studs, I agree with you about paint on masonry. an abomination, to be sure.)

  7. gadfly says:

    Visitors to North St. Louis will recall seeing many beautifully painted murals on the sides of buildings along Page in the 18th ward. They are high quality works of art in the Classical style, reminscent of the ceiling of Sisteen Chapel. The artwork also contains worded messages.

  8. Jim Zavist says:

    I would guess that painting the brick was conscious or subconscious recognition that the wall will, in all likelihood, be coming down . . . the goverment has a a way of getting what it wants, so why not “go out swinging”?

  9. a.torch says:

    I think Roo’s should get the ACLU involved and fight it on the grounds it could be considered a mural. I might have missed the news, but were the row of houses there (Roo’s prop and the neighbors) saved or are they still slated for e.d. ?

  10. Matt B says:

    Little know fact…

    Mr. Roos’ masterwork of artistic vision includes an important artistic element commonly found in all the masterpieces painted by artists such as Picasso and DaVinci – two URLs directing people to the web for more information.

  11. Cody says:

    Uh yeah Steve you better look out because that painted flour sign on the side of the building you are listing at 3463 Itaska St might be considered expressing your feelings for that flour rather then Pillsbury or some other brand and then you might have to cover it up! This is a issue that is really touchy with me because so many people say they are being censored when in fact they are not. Take for instance where i live on Virginia. There are many neighborhood markets with cigarette signs that they put out on the public right of way and hang them on the side of their buildings and use big banner signs to promote cell phones, calling cards and what not. I have to say that there is a city ordinances that you must have a permit if you have a sign anywhere on your business. I know that this is his personal property and all but really it is a sign and not a mural. The definition of mural is: A painting that is applied to a wall surface. Do you consider this to be a painting? I mean I know it is painted on the wall but would you consider this a painting. I think is is more of a message that he is sending out there for a sign. So there for he must get a permit like every other business that has a sign on their property.

  12. dutchtown says:

    There is a rich history of coded messages being included in works of art and music. No doubt, Jim Roos is well-schooled in the propaganda potential of the fine arts. However, rather than debating the merits of his giant mural (perhaps if it comes down, it could be replaced with a Bohemian Hill version of “American Gothic”, featuring an agrarian looking Roos, pitchfork in hand, standing next to a Phyllis Young-looking bride…), isn’t it great theater following these stories in the local press, and reading the ongoing debate at Urban Review? This is a great town!

  13. Brian says:

    Much of art is political. A more clever mural would have been either a swinging wrecking ball crashing through the wall or a rendering of the paved paradise planned. If using such images instead of words, perhaps it would have been harder for the City to still say it was a sign, instead of art.

  14. Reginald Pennypacker III says:

    If he had painted the same sign with the words “Keep Fags Out of the Neighborhood”, would everyone here be so quick to defend him?

    [SLP — Absolutely not, hate speech is quite different.]

  15. Reginald Pennypacker III says:

    Why is it “different”? It’s still speech, and that is what everyone seems to be defending.

  16. Adam says:

    hate speech incite’s violence against it’s targets. a sign reading “End Eminent Domain” does not. BIG difference.

  17. Speech that would incite immediate violence is not protected. But we can’t forget that Bong Hits for Jesus isn’t either. How things change and we are stuck with GWB’s legacy for quite a while.

  18. a.torch says:

    Free speech has limitations. You can’t yell FIRE in a theatre. You can not say ‘I have a bomb’ on an airplane. Saying: ‘End Eminent Domain’ does not directly cause riots or impede the safety and/or well-being of a particular group of people.

  19. john says:

    Signs everywhere… do they all have permits? Variances? Of course not… good job Steve in photographing and clearly documenting the double standards which continue to create lower standards for all. There are few actions by government that destroy public trust and the investment climate more than ED abuse… and of course it is unconstitutional. His sign is indicative of our troubled times and our leaders’ duplicity.

  20. GMichaud says:

    Jim Roos has good reason to put this sign on display, 23 homes that were owned by his company were taken by ED in McRee town. For what?, the new developer made money off his property, that’s why. What’s worse Jim Roos and his nonprofit company were compensated at approximately $25,000 per unit for 6 room, 1700 sq ft townhouses., these are units renting at $500 and above a month. That means a 2 family home would sell for $50,000. No one in their right mind would say a 2 family bringing in $1000 a month income was only worth $50,000. Thus wealth has been transferred with the blessing of the courts and the government to the developer (Taylor Morely Simon I believe) It is a reverse Robin Hood, steal from the middle class and poor to give to the wealthy.

    ED, unlike many topics, is the focus of a broad section of citizens. The ED sign should stay for that reason alone. But the ongoing corruption and banditry that involves the courts, the government and the elite manipulators of money makes honoring free speech an essential feature of the sign. (The Boston Tea Party is not far behind). It is outrageous. It is similar to the takings of property in Communist China where the property owners are shafted and walked over by their own totalitarian government. How is the so called democracy in St. Louis different?

    (In the case of McRee Town, normally a unit with $500 a month income is worth at a average 7 years times the yearly income or $42,000, this is a standard real estate calculation. If the unit is valued at 5 years or less as a multiplying factor, it indicates a high risk investment and location. As Jim Roos points out, once ED is put into place the area has already redevelopment potential, Taylor Morely Simon and similar developers do not enter areas of high risk, thus McRee Town was simply a taking (stealing) of already valuable property, Bohemian Hill is a similar situation)

    Steves photos of large signs defines clearly the underlying prejudice and hypocrisy of the process that is claimed to govern this sign.

  21. Jim Zavist says:

    The message – I support it. Is it a sign? Yes. Is it “art” or a “mural”? No, it’s a sign, meant to convey a specific message. Is there a double standard / lack of consistency in the city’s enforcement? Apparently, yes. Is this a free speech issue? Not really. It’s an issue of how big is too big, a zoning issue. If it were any other message, there would be no discussion. This is a big new sign in a highly visible location. Hypothetical – assume Mr. Roos is successful in his efforts not to lose this property. What next? Does the message stay, when it would become a true billboard, advertising/advocating for an issue not directly related to this property? Should Mr. Roos be allowed to change the message? Allow A-B to paint a mural of the Clydesdales? Let Mr. Roos lease the billboard to Coors or Miller to have an in-your-face competing ad near the A-B plant? It’s a question of where the city “draws a line” and enforces what regulations it has. Claiming discrimination is disingenuous – if a billboard went up across the highway, the same residents would be complaining about that new visual blight. The point’s been made, time for this sign to be removed.

  22. GMichaud says:

    JZ I have to disagree with you. As you point out the sign policy is applied in an inconsistent manner, that alone is reason enough to leave the sign. On top of that it is a political statement, free speech, the government has created the conditions for this action and it is a response to taking property from Jim Roos and his company in McRee town. Not only taking it, but not offering fair market value on top of the taking. While I would hate to see building after building turned into political statements, it also reflects the lack of avenues of expression for citizens. The advent of the blog has helped change that dynamic to a degree, but other than that the citizen is relegated to a letter to the editor at best.
    The reality, as you say, is the city is messy. It mirrors the reality on the ground. That reality is a bully political establishment that cuts off debate when the opinions expressed are not to their liking.
    You say the point is made, well then why does Budweiser not take down its billboards after being up a few weeks? In any case a Budweiser or Coors sign is commercial advertisement and is an entirely different situation. Eminent Domain abuse is political in nature, the fact the sign exists at all indicates the city is not addressing the concerns of the people. The underlying cause of the problem should be looked at, not maneuvering any way possible to suppress ideas.

  23. Travis Cape says:

    I’m not a big fan of Mr. Roos. I don’t really buy into all the help that his companies website claims to give. I’m also not thrilled with the McRee town redevelopment and sometime wonder if his 23 properties help bring down the area. I was told that he also owns one of more lackluster properties on the 3500 block of Oregon. Maybe he should just sell the place and use the cash to fix up those? After all, his mission is to provide affordable housing. Besides, the mural is ugly, off-center, and contradictory.

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