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Blogging From The Conditional Use Hearing On Energy Center

This post is regarding the conditional use hearing for Larry Rice’s Energy Center in the Dutchtown Neighborhood (see prior post). I’m blogging from the meeting as it is underway. Updates will be added below in reverse order (oldest at the bottom).

10:10am: People are still talking outside the hearing room, reporters were getting quotes. I’m signing off now for a couple more meetings — I’ll have more later today.

9:55am: Post meeting notes. The opposition was strong. We all signed a sheet that we were hear to speak against the conditional use so it could be submitted since we were not all able to speak. The conditional use was only on the storefront & greenhouse — not the full property.

9:40am: Testimony is concluded. A decision will be reached later with the answer being mailed out.

9:33am: Ald Kirner withdrew her prior support.

9:31am: Only five people have been allowed to speak. The city’s staff person indicated that no further testimony will be taken. Many took off work to come to the meeting but they will not be heard. Ald. Kirner gets the last word before Rice.

9:26am: Downtown Dutchtown president Caya Aufiero spoke in opposition. I’ll provide a copy of their well-worded later.

9:21am: One person spoke in favor the energy center. Opposition is now beginning testimony starting with a neighbor across the street.

9:19am: City staff person raises issue about Rice’s sign for the business which has already been posted. He asks Rice if he has applied for a sign permit. Rice indicates he has not applied for a sign permit.

9:15am: Larry Rice indicates he has traveled all over the country taking classes on alternative energy. Has taken “8 courses” at the Solar Energy Institute.

9:10am: Larry Rice is now presenting his case.

9:05am: Representatives of both the Mayor’s office and the President of the Board of Aldermen are among the audience.

8:50am: Hearing is underway with other items on the agenda. The room is not full but there are more people here in opposition than in favor. Alderman Kirner is sitting among those opposed. The process is one person from the city asking questions of the applicant, the proceedings are audio recorded. Following the applicant there is a chance for anyone else supporting the application to speak. Then opposition gets to have a say. The applicant and one person from the opposition can speak briefly to close. The interesting thing is the opposition is not a collective group but simply a bunch a individual home owners — not sure how one person will be selected. More as it develops.


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.


City Needs To Follow Ordinance Regarding Posting of Signs on Trees

The ordinance regarding the respect for street trees is pretty clear:

22.48.100 Attaching items to trees.

No person shall attach or place any rope, wire, sign, poster, handbill or other thing on any tree or shrub now or hereafter growing in any street or public highway of the city, nor on any guard or protection of such tree or shrub. (Ord. 49772 § 2 (36), 1960: 1960 C. § 242.060.)

Yet I see violations all the time — from the city itself!


The above would be a public street tree with a public notice stapled to it.


Getting in closer we see it is a notice about a zoning conditional use hearing — for Larry Rice’s “Alternative Energy Center.” I’ll write more about this situation prior to Thursday so I don’t want comments to be about Rice and all that associated baggage.

IMG_2815.JPG copy

No, this is about street trees and making sure they are properly cared for. It is clear from this and many others that the city doesn’t respect its own trees. I presume someone posting about a garage sale could be cited for such an offense so why shouldn’t the offending city department?

The fine for removing the sign is $500 but what is the fine for posting the sign on a tree?


Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center Opens Renewable Energy Center in 25th Ward

For nearly a year now the old Held Florist & Greenhouse in the 47xx block of Tennessee Ave has been getting a make over. Broken greenhouse glass fixed, a good cleaning, paint and such. A woman named Susan Jansen had purchased the property in late 2006 and everyone was finally glad to see things happening. In July, the property was sold to the New Life Evangelistic Center operated by Rev. Larry Rice. NLEC is most well known as the controversial homeless shelter located on Locust between 14th & 15th.


On Saturday the 25th Rice held a grand opening for his new Missouri Renewable Energy Center located at the property. But, by this time his holdings had expanded. If you recall from June, the 1894 frame farm house was being threatened with demolition but the Preservation Board put the kibosh on that (see prior post). On August 7th the NLEC, represented by Larry Rice, purchased the old Held home and the adjacent land. The brick 2-family with the green roof in the background above was formerly my home which I sold in January 2006 (can you say good timing?) to an owner occupant.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this but I do know that a number of people have contacted me expressing their concern about his presence in the neighborhood. When I told one concerned person about the change of ownership, their reaction was simply, “Oh shit!”


Preservation Board to Hear Appeal to Raze 19th Century House (Updated)

A first glance, it doesn’t look like much. Perhaps even the second and third glance you may not see the appeal. The home at 4716/4722 Tennessee in the 25th Ward should not be razed.


The above home is on today’s agenda at the Preservation Board, a developer seeks to raze the home. In its current state, it looks pretty rough. For years this home was covered in a newer “low maintenance” siding which is now half removed. With the lower windows boarded and the dormer windows removed the home looks much worse than it really is.

As I had long suspected, the original clapboard siding was hiding under the newer siding and remains in amazingly good condition. The porch is original.


Even though the front door is now boarded you can see the original transom peaking out above the red partical board. The original porch detailing is a rare find these days. A portion of the rear foundation is damaged but certainly repairable.


A later back stoop is falling down, as it has been doing for years. You see, I know this particular building better than most as I lived next door for 10 years.


Above is the 2-family I purchased in August 1994 and sold in January 2006 after having moved into my current place a few blocks away in the fall of 2004. Having lived next door, I knew the owners of the property during this period and through many conversations, much of the history of the structure. I have attempted to reach the prior owners but I could not track down them down.
Before I explain some of the interesting history, however, I want to talk about the demolition review process and where things have gone wrong. Ald. Kirner, whom I challenged in the March 2005 election, is under the impression it is her responsibility to broker deals and if she can’t make a deal for a purchaser then it is OK to allow a building to be razed. Aldermen should not be brokering real estate deals. Demolitions should not hinge on their ability to make a deal or not.

The Preservation Review ordinance has a number of criteria which must be met in order to permit a building within Preservation Review Districts to be razed. We will see if the appliant provides sufficient information to meet the criteria. I believe if the house were sold by itself, without the extra building lots between it and my old place, that someone would be interested in buying and rehabbing it. I attempted to explain this concept to Ald. Kirner a couple of weeks ago but I don’t think she got it — she kept talking about trying to see if a previous guy was interested in buying it. Remember, I am the licensed real estate salesperson, not her.

Back to the history.

When I purchased my 2-family in 1994 I bought it from John Held, of Held Florist next door. His grandfather had purchased the old frame house along with quite a bit of land on both sides in 1904. The only thing on the land, besides the frame house, were some greenhouses — the house and greenhouses dated to the 19th century. The Held’s continued the tradition of raising & selling the plants on this land. Over time the business passed to John’s father who built my 2-family in 1924. I was the first person, outside the Held family, to own this 2-family. At the time, in 1994, the frame house, extra lots, greenhouses with storefront and florist business were all for sale. John Held was ready to retire and his kids didn’t want to continue the business. For a brief time I considered buying the whole mess and going into the nursery business — but as a group it was way too much for me to take on. It was too much for anyone really as it had not been as cared for as it should have.

The entire collection sold in 1998 — about five years after he started selling it. The new owner, Michael Dunham, bought the property and business and did a good job starting to clean the place up until he became ill. He was in recovery in the country for a few years and the future of the property was uncertain. He was not able to return to the business and once again the entire collection of real estate was put on the market. Last year it sold but this time a new step was taken – the commercial storefront with greenhouse was legally separated from the frame house and adjacent vacant lots. An excellent move in my view, allowing the new owner of the storefront and greenhouse to renovate that structure (which she has done) without the burden of the rest.

And now a developer wants to raze the frame house and construct three new houses on the site. Although I was sitting in Ald. Kirner’s office at city hall, I was not shown any drawings of the proposed houses. The agenda for tonight’s meeting is not yet posted so I do not know what is planned for the site — other than three new houses. I just cannot support razing a viable 19th century house for some as yet unseen project from unknown developers with an unknown track record — neither should the Preservation Board. As many of you will recall, it has been 18 months since the Preservation Board approved razing the Doering Mansion on Broadway and yet construction has not begun on the replacement project — and that was with a well-known developer with an excellent track record.

I believe the current owners need to plan for two new homes on the vacant land while marketing the existing home with a narrow yard. With alley access new owners of the old frame house could construct a garage out back. If more living space is required, a new addition to the rear could easily be blended in with this frame structure. Again, I’m just saying before we toss the building aside see if anyone is interested — the house has never once been for sale by itself — it has always been part of a bigger ensemble.

The home is a classic center stair house — very 19th century. The kitchen, located in the south end, was remodeled in the 1950s I would guess. The north end is a living room. Upstairs are two rooms. The basement is the best part — it contains a brick barrel vaulted meat locker which would make an excellent wine cellar. The home has a nice presence on the street which is a hodge podge of various styles and periods although most date to the early 20th century. Three new homes were constructed in the late 1990s on the south end of the street at Delor.

Once again we are going about this all wrong. The proposed development is a secret, the elected legislator is playing real estate deal maker and lack of any real design standards could mean a proposal for front-garage houses despite an alley serving the land. I doubt we will have much more information at 4pm when the Preservation Board takes up this and other matters. The meeting is held on the 12th floor of 1015 Locust.
CORRECTION: Today’s meeting will be held at 4pm in Room 208 (Kennedy Hearing Room) in city hall.
Ald Kirner can be contacted here. The Preservation Board can be reached via the Cultural Resources staff here.

UPDATE 6/25/07 @ 10:15pm

This evening the Preservation upheld the staff denial of the demolition request — the house is safe for now. I will use this as a case study in a separate post to talk about some of the issues this brings up as they relate to the Preservation Review ordinance. In short, the appliant failed to meet the various requirements in the ordinance necessary to justify the demolition. The big question is what next? Hopefully the house can get rehabbed (by current or future owner) and a couple of new houses can get constructed on the balance of the site.
In preparing for today’s meeting I ran across a picture I took in March 1994 when I was looking to buy the place next door: