As a hard-luck property, the tract of land at 11000 Riverview Drive on the northern tip of the city of St. Louis might contain some of the most expensive dirt in the city.
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of the Interstate 270 bridge, the property is owned by Tony Daniele and his wife, Beth. Along with their partner, Illinois banker Mark Repking, they have grandiose plans for a lighthouse, a hotel, restaurants and a public marina.
Daniele, a former city police officer, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison in 1988 for his role in a police pension fraud and extortion scheme. Repking did a year in federal prison in 2007 in a bank embezzlement case. Their attorney, Bill Kuehling, says they’re really “good guys” trying to do something important for the city.
Their property, though, has the sort of history that should worry aldermen scheduled on Wednesday to consider one of two bills regarding Pier St. Louis, which would create a Community Improvement District and allow the developers to recoup about $9 million in sales taxes on the site over 20 years for investment in “public infrastructure.”
In the mid-1980s, the property was a golf course that was regularly flooded. It also was part of a development scheme pitched by developer Floyd Warmann. The Democratic insider and power broker floated several big ideas along the riverfront over the years, from a casino to an entertainment barge.
Many of them ended up embroiled in lawsuits, investigations and questions about financing. Warmann pushed hard and got the Board of Aldermen to rush through a bill that paved the way for his apartment complex despite neighborhood opposition. The deal eventually fizzled.
Next came the gaming investors. One such group paid the owners of the Riverview Drive property $425,000 for the rights to build a casino there. Then the 1993 flood came and the property was completely under water. It happened again in 1995. The casino operators walked away.
The Danieles bought the land in 1998 and have had big ideas ever since. Following the Warmann tradition, they parked an old entertainment barge there — the Belle of the Night — and raised money for a development. Flooding broke the barge from its mooring and killed that idea.
Now they’re back, seeking tax handouts for a business development that so far has only one company under contract — a gas station and convenience store.
What aldermen haven’t been told in the paperwork on file preceding Wednesday’s scheduled hearing, is this: The city has already invested nearly $500,000 in the property.
Since 2009, various city departments — parks, streets and water — have been paying Pier St. Louis to dump “clean fill” on the property, making them partners in the plan to raise the land out of the flood plain. The records, obtained by the Post-Dispatch in a series of Sunshine Law requests, show payments beginning to Pier St. Louis for use of the property as a landfill in August 2009. The city issued the first call for bids to dump clean fill later, in 2010, according to the records, and further bids were sought in 2013 and 2015 and later extended.
According to the records, and to Board of Public Service president Rich Bradley, Pier St. Louis has always been the only company to respond to the call for bids.
He said bids were sought after the city’s landfill on Hall Street closed. Through the end of 2016, the city had paid Pier St. Louis a total of $448,205. Bradley did not know that the Pier St. Louis owners were raising the property out of a flood plain. But, he said, “It was all done through a normal process.”
The result is that a flood-prone property is now raised up several feet — with the full support of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which approved permits for the project.
For David Stokes, this represents the worst kind of public policy. Stokes is the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting flood plains from commercial development around the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, which happens to be just north of Pier St. Louis.
“The most bothersome part has already been done,” Stokes says of the development. “They took 70 acres out of the flood plain. What area is going to be flooded now that wasn’t in the flood plain before? We won’t know until the next flood.”
Stokes plans to testify against the Pier St. Louis proposal. Kuehling said the hearing set for Wednesday might be delayed. Some aldermen, apparently, have raised questions as to whether the process is being rushed.
“Our intention was never to try to force the issue,” Kuehling says.
It recalls the Warmann proposal on the same property more than three decades ago. Then, as aldermen tried to rush approval of the apartment project at a special meeting, the president of the area neighborhood association, Peggy Rustige, protested. Suggesting that unusual “political pressures” were being applied to approve the project, she said this:
“We just feel some strange things are going on.”
At Pier St. Louis, history repeats itself again and again.