All MacroSun owner Gil Williams wanted was a little face time with Larry Salci, the executive director of Metro. Williams wished to calmly discuss issues surrounding the transit agency's management of the ongoing Delmar Streetscape project, which is aimed at sprucing up the boulevard east of Skinker.
He got his face time, all right. But that part about calm? Nah -- more like a storm.
"[Salci] was just downright rude," Williams says of his May 14 meeting with Salci and Metro director of communication Adella Jones. "He said that the letters we had written were nonsense. He said that I was a nuisance. He raised his voice and interrupted me repeatedly.
"I've been in business for fourteen years," continues Williams, whose store on the east end of the Delmar Loop deals mainly in exotic African garments and artifacts. "I work with artists and craftspeople in third-world countries. Two things I don't like are incompetence and blaming others. For a public figure, [Salci] needs to go. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to understand how this individual became the CEO of a major governmental agency that has such influence on the future of the region."
At the root of Williams' anger toward Salci and Metro is a September 2003 sidewalk dig -- and the subsequent flooding of MacroSun's basement, which wiped out precious inventory and, Williams claims, cost him precious revenue before and during the holiday shopping season.
Gershenson Construction, the subcontractor that dug the trenches and performed other street- and sidewalk-related functions on the project, sent its insurance company, United Fire & Casualty, to determine whether the construction outfit was liable for any damage to MacroSun's property. The insurer found that Gershenson -- and, by extension, Metro -- were in no way culpable for the flooding and lost inventory.
The verdict left both Williams and his landlord, Loop developer Joe Edwards, miffed. "I found [United Fire & Casualty's] response to be unconscionable," says Edwards, the owner of Loop stalwart Blueberry Hill who also built the Pageant and spearheaded the renovation of the Tivoli Theatre building (where the RFT leases office space). "That building was dry before they tore up the sidewalk. There was torrential rain, and then the basement flooded. Once they finished the sidewalk, the basement's been dry. And there have been harder rains. For them to say it's the building's fault is an unfair conclusion."
United Fire & Casualty claims supervisor Scott Gaddis begs to differ, pinning responsibility for the damage squarely on Williams.
"The facility had problems with water and filtration," says Gaddis. "It's an old building. It looks like there were letters [from Metro] in July and August warning that potential water could come in, so [Williams] was aware. And some of the letters stated that he should keep his basement clear and they would let him know when he could put stuff back there. So he put stuff in the basement knowing that there was an issue with the water, and then the water came in."
If the insurance company's finding was a bluff, Williams is calling it. On May 18, four days after his meeting with Salci and Jones, the shopkeeper filed suit for property damage in the 22nd Circuit Court, seeking upward of $25,000 in damages from Gershenson and Metro.
Neither Gershenson nor Metro would comment specifically about the litigation, but both pointed to United Fire & Casualty's investigation as proof that Williams' allegations are baseless.
"It has been explained to Mr. Williams that Metro entered into a contract with Gershenson Construction to complete the Streetscape project," Adella Jones writes in response to an e-mailed request for comment. "Under the terms of that contract, the contractor agreed to indemnify Metro for claims, suits, etc. that arise from the construction activity. Additionally, they agreed to provide commercial general liability insurance and to name Metro as an additional insured on that policy. On October 13, 2003, United Fire & Casualty Company notified Mr. Williams that their investigation failed to show any negligence by their insured.
"Therefore, they denied Mr. Williams' claim for water damage to the building he rents," Jones' e-mail continues. "Metro is obligated to abide by the decisions of United Fire & Casualty, and the agency looks to United Fire & Casualty for its legal defense. Metro cannot take action unilaterally with Mr. Williams."
Joe Edwards smells a rat. "In my opinion, insurance companies, more and more, just stonewall because people don't have the money to sue," the developer says.
This begs the question: If Metro had washed its hands of the matter, why did Salci agree to meet with Williams months later? Apparently the meeting came in response to a request from the office of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who was alerted to the situation by Barbara Weiss, an investor in Big Shark Bicycle Company, a Loop business owned by her son, Mike Weiss.
"We would very much appreciate it if you could personally meet with Ms. Weiss and with the owners of the other businesses in the construction area and discuss their concerns with them," reads a March 27 letter addressed to Salci from Barb Geisman, Slay's executive director for development. "If businesses have suffered actual physical damages due to the contractor's activities, the contractor should be asked to compensate them for their losses.
"While it may be too late in this project to use signage and communications to improve retail traffic during construction now that construction is almost complete," Geisman's letter continues, "we believe that conversations with the affected individuals can help Metro avoid these types of confrontations in the future."
And so Metro acquiesced.
"The meeting was agreed to as a courtesy to the Mayor's office," confirms a May 7 e-mail addressed to Williams from Salci's assistant, Barb Georgeff. "Mr. Salci does not engage in settlement discussions with contractors, particularly when the claim has already been previously addressed.... You should not have false expectations. This is why Mr. Salci believed that a meeting would be inappropriate -- your expectations were unrealistic, and the meeting would have ended the moment you attempted to negotiate your claims."
Williams says Georgeff's adversarial tone carried over into the May 18 meeting. Had things gone more cordially, the business owner suggests, the two parties may not have found themselves at legal loggerheads.
"The lawsuit could have been avoided," Williams says. "It was the last resort we had. It is costly and a royal pain in the neck. The matter could have been resolved in a straightforward manner if an honest, responsible resolution was sought by Metro at the outset.
"Our understanding was that Metro would provide some role in mediating between the needs of the community and the needs of the contractor," Williams continues. "When problems arise, particularly problems that threaten the livelihood of businesses as a result of their actions at taxpayer expense, Metro has a responsibility to do more than fall back on bureaucratic finger-pointing."
Meanwhile the street-improvement project, which was originally scheduled to be completed by October 2003, continues as a work-in-progress, with streetlamp installation scheduled for August.