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Preservationists lament MLS team's plan to demolish buildings near stadium site for parking

Preservationists lament MLS team's plan to demolish buildings near stadium site for parking

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ST. LOUIS — Preservationists are denouncing plans from the owners of the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise to tear down a row of buildings on Olive Street in order to expand a parking lot.

Though none of the buildings are specifically designated historic, detractors of the plan complain it’s another loss of decades-old, main-street scale brick architecture in Downtown West, buildings they hoped would contribute to the aesthetic surrounding the under-construction MLS stadium. Adding insult to injury, the structures will be replaced with surface parking, which downtown residents and boosters have long complained is too prevalent.

A petition from one resident to save the buildings had garnered over 750 signatures by Friday afternoon.

“It’s old-school St. Louis, 1960s-era development (policy): Let’s just tear it down, pave it over so that cars can sit on it a few days a year,” said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. “In the meantime we’ve lost more buildings that make our community unique, more of our history.”

But the soccer team owners, led by members of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car family, said they need more parking, at least temporarily: The stadium is being built on top of two existing surface parking lots, and one of them was being used by employees at 1831 Chestnut, the office building anchored by Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, until construction started.

The team, St. Louis City SC, said it needs a new parking lot to accommodate those office employees.

It’s still working through “the long-term future use of this space,” the team said in a statement. But it’s considering construction of a mixed-use parking structure with commercial space on the first floor. Such a building would architecturally complement the stadium district, the statement said.

St. Louis’ Cultural Resources Office Director Dan Krasnoff approved the demolition permits Wednesday. The buildings, several two- to four-story brick storefronts in the 1900 block of Olive Street, sit in a city preservation review area, which means demolition requires review from the Cultural Resources Office. City staff can approve such permits or send them to the city’s Preservation Board for a public hearing and decision.

Preservation Board member Randy Vines said this request should have been publicly reviewed by the board.

“If this is not a case of one of those that should have come to us, I don’t know what is really — a high-profile block in downtown St. Louis, which is the center of the region,” Vines said.

In an unsigned memo from city staff justifying their decision, they say the buildings have “limited reuse potential,” pointing to the 1700 block of Olive Street, where the massive Butler Brothers building sits empty.

And they reference one section of the 115-page stadium development agreement with the city that says the two parties will cooperate to identify locations near the stadium for surface and public parking. The development agreement contemplates a Transportation Development District will help finance parking construction with a 1% sales tax on stadium purchases. A June petition to create the TDD includes the 1900 Olive area.

The Taylor family, plus co-owner Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of World Wide Technology, announced construction plans for the stadium in October and early this year began construction on the site, most of which is former state highway land. The families, prominent philanthropists for institutions throughout the region, have said they hoped the project would better connect the Downtown West neighborhood with Downtown.

When they described their vision for the stadium, they indicated they didn’t plan to add a sea of parking, instead relying on the many nearby lots and garages and adding only a few hundred spots underneath practice fields adjacent to the stadium for team staff. A different ownership group entity, Pitch314 LC, began buying the 1900 Olive buildings and the already-existing surface parking lot next to them in December. They had the block bordered by Pine, Olive, 20th and 19th streets assembled by March.

Weil, at the Landmarks Association, said he and others are thrilled with the team’s investment overall, but he’s disappointed that owners who appear committed to downtown aren’t willing to put in a little extra effort to save buildings that help make the area interesting. The structures could easily be rehabbed to accommodate bars and restaurants that would do well on game days, he said.

“It’s a big investment in downtown and we’re all grateful for that,” Weil said. “They could have built it in Chesterfield and they decided to build it downtown. I think it’s going to do great things for Union Station. I think it’s going to catalyze development of other larger buildings, like the Butler Brothers nearby. But I think this is a missed opportunity, and we all know how difficult it is to dislodge surface parking lots in downtown St. Louis once they’re established.”

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