St. Louis Alderwoman Marlene Davis wants you to know that Board Bill #118 has nothing to do with any potential demolition of the Del Taco building at South Grand Boulevard and Forest Park Avenue. She repeated this several times at last week's Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Aldermanic Committee meeting that "this bill does not approve demolition."
That was a key point, of course, as more than 50 people showed up to protest the bill, which they — and everybody else, including Mayor Francis Slay — believed would open the door for the endearingly quirky building's demolition. As the debate at the meeting made clear, though, the bill would merely provide a tax abatement to redevelop the property. And Davis stressed that any proposal to demolish the building, which is in a historic district, would still have to go through the Preservation Board, despite rumors that that wouldn't be the case.
In fact, Davis claims, the bill may actually help prevent demolition. Here's why:
Del Taco has been subleasing the building to an independent operator. The franchise didn't make much money, and in December 2009, the operator filed for bankruptcy. He stopped paying his sublease after that. One year later, Del Taco decided not to renew its yearly lease with building owner Rick Yackey, opting to go month-to-month instead. More recently, they decided to close the branch. (The Del Taco officially closed last Thursday.)
For the past six months, Yackey told the committee, he has been trying to find a new tenant for the building. It's been "extremely challenging," he said.
"Candidly, I don't see us finding someone else," he told the assembly. The building is not an appealing property for retailers because of a lack of parking, he said. Yackey also said that he doesn't want another place open until 4 a.m., saying that neighbors have complained about crime taking place around the Del Taco late at night. He wants to demolish the building because he doesn't think anybody would be interested in reusing it.
He can apply to have it demolished regardless of whether Board Bill #118 passes, he explained. What the bill provides is an incentive for potential retailers, in the form of a tax abatement. Yes, the tax abatement could end up funding a demolition. But it also could be the carrot that draws a tenant to an (supposedly) unappealing property.
At the meeting some people questioned the process by which the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Del Taco building was actually part of a number of adjacent properties that Yackey was able to place on the historic register in 2007 soon after he purchased them. That historic designation ended up saving him millions of dollars through historic tax credits.
So, as Alderman Scott Ogilvie pointed out, Yackey got the money because he argued that the buildings possessed historic value — even as now he's arguing that one of those buildings isn't valuable enough to preserve, so he should get even more money to redevelop it.
"If we demolished every building in the city that has had a bad operator, here in 2011, we would have zero buildings," said Ogilvie, to a wave of applause from the audience.
From the start, Alderwoman Davis seemed taken aback by the passion ignited by the bill. Over the course of the meeting, she declared multiple times that the bill was exactly like many others the committee has passed.
But while Davis repeatedly claimed that the building would only be demolished if no new tenant stepped forward, its owner, Yackey, was adamant in proclaiming that the property was undesirable and would likely need to be torn down.
After the meeting, Davis said that she would ensure that every effort will be made to find a tenant willing to reuse the building. She noted that all the attention has dramatically increased the number of inquiries from potential tenants — and they're interested in reusing the building, not tearing it down.
The bill passed the committee by a vote of 5-2; it will likely be voted on by the entire board of aldermen on Friday, July 8.