ST. LOUIS • It rises from South Grand Boulevard like some kind of red-rimmed flying saucer, a neon UFO serving 99-cent bean and cheese burritos into the wee hours of the morning.
And something about that combination of funky architecture and cheap food made the South Grand Del Taco a cause célèbre on Wednesday — as word spread that the building's owner hopes to demolish it and erect something presumably less distinctive.
As that news filtered out, St. Louis University students and alums issued howls of protest on Twitter. Local preservationists mobilized to save what they call a classic midcentury building. And by late Wednesday, a Facebook group called Save St. Louis Del Taco had drawn 1,942 members.
"Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that so many people feel like that about that building," said Mike Batchelor, a St. Charles man who created the Facebook group on a whim Tuesday night.
All this for a low-slung former gas station on the corner of Grand and Forest Park Avenue that houses a tired-looking fast food joint that has been in bankruptcy court for 18 months. The building's owners — developers who lease it to a Del Taco franchise — have said they want to knock the thing down and replace it with new, more pedestrian-oriented retail space. In fact, a lawyer for developer Rick Yackey told the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority at a meeting Tuesday that two "national chain restaurants" have signed letters of intent for the new space.
They will be good, said the attorney, Sarah Davis, of Husch Blackwell. But they won't be Del Taco.
And whatever replaces it probably won't be as visually unique. The building, initially a Phillips 66 gas station, was built in 1967 as part of the bigger Council Plaza project. With its 120-foot circular roof, accented with long fluorescent lights over a wide apron of blacktop, it was "a very inspired gas station," said local architectural historian Michael Allen.
"It really gives the whole complex an architectural signature," Allen said. "It's this colorful and creative anchor that has become an enduring symbol."
As a home to commerce, though, it has been less successful, despite its late-night popularity with SLU students.
Phillips gave way to Naugles, a fast-food Mexican chain that eventually merged with Del Taco. The Chesterfield-based franchise that owns the store filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late 2009. Soon after that, Yackey's group moved to evict them, but a judge allowed the store to stay put for the time being.
Now, according to bankruptcy court filings, the franchise's two remaining stores, the South Grand site and one on McCausland Avenue, are up for sale — $150,000 for both. Neither the owners nor their attorney returned calls Wednesday.
Yackey didn't return calls, either. Nor did Davis. And city officials didn't respond to requests to see the specific redevelopment plan.
At Tuesday's meeting, Dale Ruthsatz, a staffer for the St. Louis Development Corp., said the new building would be 3,500 to 7,000 square feet, depending on demand, and would be designed to improve the streetscape on that busy corner.
Alderman Marlene Davis, whose ward includes the site, said she generally agreed with the plan, though she hadn't been briefed on its specifics since a broader plan for neighboring Council Towers was approved in 2008. The area needs more shopping opportunities, she said, and, barring unusual circumstances, people have the right to tear down buildings that they own.
"I support the development plan that (Yackey) showed me, which includes new retail," she said. "I'm not part of the decision-making process of what you may keep or change."
But that doesn't mean City Hall has had its last word on Del Taco.
The owners could get approval to demolish the building in one of two ways. Aldermen could approve an ordinance specifically authorizing the tear-down. Or Yackey could apply for a demolition permit, which would require approval by the city's Preservation Board, because the Del Taco is part of the Council Plaza historic district.
A new ordinance would likely need to be introduced Friday for aldermen to approve it before they break for summer — and the agenda for Friday's meeting is published 24 hours in advance.
Whatever path the owners take, Allen said he and other preservationists plan to fight demolition. In recent years the city has allowed a number of buildings that are unique — if not so old — to be knocked down, from the Arena to the San Luis Apartments. Watching those sort of cultural icons go, Allen said, is frustrating, and destructive to the fabric of the city.
"Yet there's very little concern on the part of city government to do anything to keep them," he said.
With the wave of support for this trippy taco joint, he hopes that, just maybe, Del Taco will be different.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect name for the man who started the Facebook page. This version has been corrected.
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