Father Biondi is Lying

There’s exaggeration, there’s hyperbole and there’s lying. It’s easy to say that someone is exaggerating. Saying so is a rather bland assertion and one that few really object to. Accusing one of hyperbole requires a little more substance. And to call someone a liar you had better know what you’re talking about. Father Biondi is lying.

Of course he also exaggerates and is prone to hyperbole. Saying that Saint Louis University needs to demolish the Pevely complex to compete against hospitals in St. Louis County is an exaggeration. Stating that SLU Care physicians would flee the hospital if Pevely were to remain is hyperbole. Claiming that the university hospital and medical school would move to the county if Pevely is not destroyed is a lie.

The December Preservation Board hearing regarding Pevely was a veritable kitchen sink performance by SLU. University administrators testified that they thought the building was ugly. The school claimed that they couldn’t fulfill their mission of providing healthcare to the underserved is the building was left standing. They claimed they had exhausted options for reuse. Father Biondi reminded the board of the good things the Jesuit school does. The project architect claimed that while listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service designation really doesn’t count because he says so.

These are all degrees of exaggeration, hyperbole and non-sequitur, and all were aimed at convincing the Board to disregard the city ordinance declaring that buildings listed on the National Register as high-merit should not be demolished. The Board didn’t buy it. But they did seek a reasonable compromise. SLU would be allowed to clear the two largest buildings of the high-merit complex, freeing more than 90% of the site for development, while leaving the smokestack and most significant building standing.

We’ll likely never know what specifically compelled the Planning Commission to reverse the Preservation Board decision. Members are not required to explain their votes. But in a perverse effort to exert the greatest amount of pressure, Father Biondi let everyone know that if he didn’t get his way, the hospital and medical school would shut down and move to St. Louis County. He lied. No one called him on it. Not a single commission member bothered to ask if this were even plausible.

It’s not. Hospitals and medical schools are not simply shut down and moved. The lie was directed at the City’s insecurity. After all, didn’t a number of hospitals flee in the 1950s and 60s? Aren’t we constantly competing with Clayton and Chesterfield for jobs? Moving a major medical center takes years of planning, years of fundraising and then years of building.

Such a move would also not be the decision of Father Biondi. The State of Missouri has a say in where hospitals are located. The state Department of Health and Senior Services would take quite an interest in this decision. A medical center is not a law school. It is also not Father Biondi’s decision as the hospital is owned by Tenet Healthcare. SLU has been exploring the option to buy back the hospital it sold in 1998, but the latest rumors are that they have concluded it’s not financial feasible.

After the Planning Commission’s reversal, Biondi was asked about his claim of being offered land near Maryville University to relocate the hospital and medical school. He told Michael Calhoun of KMOX flatly, “Well, this is now approved so that point is moot.” He said that because he was lying.

Father Biondi is a small fish swimming in a vacant tank. Like any bully, he’ll continue to puff himself up and bluster on about dire consequences and spout ultimatums like a bellicose five-year-old. And like any ill-behaved child, he’ll continue his tantrums until he’s shown that it will no longer be tolerated. The City of St. Louis doesn’t have enough self-esteem to say so. Events such as this produce a toxic atmosphere, an adversarial reaction.

Who’s to blame? No one person of course. We’re all to blame, but in this case the community advocating for reuse of the Pevely dedicated substantial energy and time to encourage the City to uphold its own ordinance. What that community lacked was the Big Lie, the threat that just dares anyone to call the bluff. The city chose to cower under a deluge of lies and threats instead of uphold its own ordinance and side with those using only enthusiasm, common sense, precedent and truth to argue their case.

For seven decades the City of St. Louis has demolished entire neighborhoods, huge swaths of the city, homes, historic buildings and corner stores. It hasn’t worked. The belief that just one more demolition for one more game-changing building will bring about a better, more economically viable, more vibrant city, is false, but we keep buying the lie.