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Stadium team quietly lining up land near St. Louis riverfront

Stadium team quietly lining up land near St. Louis riverfront

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ST. LOUIS • Gov. Jay Nixon’s new stadium task force has cobbled together far more land along the north riverfront than publicly known, and is eyeing at least one plot outside the publicized footprint.

The team has established or is close to establishing “site control” of about 70 parcels in the roughly 100-parcel footprint, according to a map created by task force contractors that identifies the status of every plot. Of the 30 remaining parcels, all but two are marked as nearing site control.

Those two, the downtown steakhouse Al’s Restaurant, and an Al’s parking lot, are labeled as “likely eminent domain,” the first tangible sign that the task force is actually considering government-authorized legal action to strip land from unwilling sellers.

The map also identifies the St. Louis Community Release Center, a halfway house directly north of the new stadium footprint, as stadium land — again, the first public indicator that Nixon’s task force wants to expand north and move or close the state correctional facility.

Other maps suggest that Trigen-St. Louis Energy Corp., the steam plant now housed in the former Union Electric Light & Power Co. building, could move north onto the site of the release center. The task force has said it plans to save the towering, century-old power plant and turn it into a team store or other sports-related facility.

Together, the maps obtained by the Post-Dispatch show details of the stadium site and progress made on land acquisition that planners have so far declined to publicly discuss.

Downtown business association president Doug Woodruff, who is putting land together for the task force, cautioned in an interview Thursday that some of the details aren’t pinned down — he knows of no promises from the state, for instance, concerning the correctional facility. Site control, he added, can mean that the owner is willing to sell, even if they haven’t yet signed a contract.

Plus, there are newer editions of the map, he continued, that update the status of several parcels, including Al’s, and suggest a different location for Trigen’s move. He declined to release the newer versions.

Still, he acknowledged, the maps obtained by the Post-Dispatch do accurately reflect “a snapshot of some of the things we’ve been thinking about.”

“The plan is to show the NFL we have site control,” Woodruff said. “And, as you can see, we’re making tremendous strides.”

Nixon’s two-man task force announced plans for the $985 million open-air riverfront arena in January, days after St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke leaked his own plans to build a stadium in Los Angeles.

Since then, the task force, working through the public board that owns the Edward Jones Dome, has spent more than $5 million in tax dollars hiring bond attorneys, construction managers, geotechnical engineers, financial advisers, surveyors and architects.

In February, the task force contracted with Downtown Now!, an arm of the downtown business association headed by Woodruff, to tackle land acquisition. Woodruff is a former redevelopment banker.

The Dome authority is paying Downtown Now! $20,000 a month, plus expenses related to appraisals and title research. As of this week, the authority has already sent Now! almost $70,000. Woodruff pays expenses, plus $12,500 a month to developer Craig Heller to help negotiate land deals.

Heller has served as managing member of a company that owns property — among it, the Stamping Lofts redevelopment — in the stadium footprint. Woodruff said Heller has little to no investment in the company, and has recused himself from negotiations over the relevant property.

Heller did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Neither did representatives from the Missouri Department of Corrections.

In May, Woodruff, with Mayor Francis Slay’s former chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, and current chief of staff, Mary Ellen Ponder, met with a state corrections administrator. They talked mostly about downtown safety, Woodruff said. But the new stadium was also on the agenda.

“This is the single running release facility in the state, and we don’t think that’s appropriate,” he told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday. “It would obviously not be a desired use in the vicinity of a sports venue and public recreation area.

“From a planning perspective, it has to be dealt with.”

Peacock, who was on vacation this week, said in a statement that the relocation of the release facility is a “prime example of the positive and long-term impact that can result from this redevelopment project.”

Discussions with property owners, he added, were “productive.”

Attorney Mark Schulte, co-owner of the long, mural-covered Cotton Belt Rail Depot building, had been a holdout. But he said Wednesday that he had reached an agreement with Woodruff’s team. He was working to get some concessions for, among others, the homeless, who often camp along the north riverfront, and artists, who hold at least one festival there.

But Al’s owner Pam Neal said she was stuck. Neither Woodruff nor Heller have talked to her in weeks, she said. And she just couldn’t imagine selling. If they’ve saved Trigen, and the biker bar Shady Jack’s along North Broadway, she asked, why can’t they carve out 50 more feet for Al’s?

Neal, 60, lives in Fresno, Calif., keeps a house in St. Louis Hills, but considers Al’s home. Al’s is where her parents lived and where her grandparents lived.

“They say everyone has a price. And maybe that’s true,” she said. “But right now, I’m in this for the love of that restaurant.

“They can force me to sell,” she said. “I guess.”

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