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Del Taco saucer-shaped building

The  saucer-shaped former Del Taco restaurant building along South Grand Boulvard in St. Louis, as seen on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • Threatened last year with demolition, the historic “flying saucer” building in midtown St. Louis soon will be an emporium for $6 lattes and gourmet burritos.

Starbucks and Chipotle are near completion of leases for the former Del Taco outlet near St. Louis University. Developers plan to renovate and expand the unusually shaped building in time for the start of SLU’s fall semester.

Hany Abounader, a partner in the development, said the building, at 212 South Grand Boulevard, will serve as a southern gateway to midtown.

“It’s going to be a landmark for the SLU campus and the Grand Center area,” he said.

Preservation of the building, erected in the 1960s as a Phillips 66 gas station, represents a turnabout for the owner, Rick Yackey, who last year sought city permission to replace the structure with a conventional retail building. His effort prompted protests from preservationists and sidewalk demonstrations.

Yackey at first insisted that the saucer’s preservation made no economic sense. But after the only occupant — a Del Taco — closed last summer, Yackey said he would keep the building and hunt for new tenants. The outcry against demolition affected his decision, he said this month.

“Frankly, we got a lot of pushback from a lot of people,” he said.

Those favoring preservation said the saucer is a prized example of mid-century modern architecture. It is within a district of low-rise and high-rise residential buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Starbucks and Chipotle had yet to sign lease agreements but Yackey and Abounader said they are confident the two national chains will occupy the building when it opens in August or September.

A Chipotle spokesman said Thursday the company does not comment on new outlets until leases are signed. A Starbucks representative was unavailable for comment. 

The developers will preserve the round concrete roof and erect a mostly glass addition on the east side of the building to house Chipotle. Starbucks will use much of the original building, which will get new glass walls to reproduce the structure’s original see-through appearance. The businesses will seat about 100 people combined, plus 50 more on a patio beneath the saucer’s broad overhang. Starbucks will have a drive-thru window.

Randy Vines, a Cherokee Street businessman who helped organize the save-the-saucer effort last summer, cheered the decision to preserve the structure.

“Although most of us would have preferred local businesses, the preservation and rehabilitation of the iconic saucer has always been our primary goal,” he said. “Thanks to Rick Yackey for choosing vision over generica.”

Yackey said the $2.5 million development will produce a 4,400-square-foot building half the size of the commercial structure he had initially proposed for the site. State historic preservation tax credits will help fund the saucer project but the trick was finding suitable tenants, he said.

“We always liked the building,” Yackey said. “The problem was making it work economically.”

Fifty of the more than 17,000 Starbucks coffee shops worldwide are in the St. Louis area. The midtown Chipotle will add to the chain’s eight quick-Mexican food outlets in the region. Chipotle has more than 1,200 restaurants.

Abounader, a commercial real estate broker at Balke Brown, said he believes the reborn saucer will be a catalyst for further retail development in the immediate area. He and Yackey are marketing two nearby buildings with a total of about 9,000 square feet of space. Both are within The Flats at 374, a residential complex for 300 SLU students.

“We’ve got tons of interest from local and national retailers to take that space,” Abounader said. “We’re looking for the type of retail opportunity that can serve this community and the students.”

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