The Pevely Dairy Site Two and One Half Years Since Demolition by SLU

Back in early 2012, then Saint Louis University President Father Lawrence Biondi told the city’s Planning Commission that if the university weren’t allowed to demolish the National Register of Historic Places registered Pevely Dairy complex, “we would have to shut down our medical school and find property in west county”. In response to a question about the project, he stated that financing for a new $75M ambulatory medical center was in place, and groundbreaking could occur in March 2012.

The issue was posited by the local news as a series of false choices: preservationists and a vacant building v. a hospital, surgical center, or doctor’s offices. There was even a laughable rendering released showing a medical-like building. Having noted the desolate nature of this stretch of Chouteau Avenue in the central part of our city, some fingers wagged, “Just wait until you see SLU’s state-of-the-art medical center!” and so on. About six months after being issued demo permits, we learned that the medical center wouldn’t be built at this location.

So now it’s become an annual check up to see what’s happening here. It’s been two and one half years since SLU was allowed to tear down all but the corner building of the complex. The Planning Commission decided that the corner building was more historic than the rest of the complex, and decided to let it stand, at least until the university receives a building permit to replace it. The Pevely sign was simply knocked over onto the building’s roof when the university realized it didn’t need a permit to do so.

If a medical center had broken ground in March 2012 and were completed today, the process pursued by the university would be no less grotesque, but at least someone would be benefiting today. Either there aren’t as many underprivileged children to serve as SLU thought, financing fell through, or perhaps their argument wasn’t fully…factual. There remains no word, no rumors, of a project on the horizon.

The full press by SLU showed clearly that the city can’t and won’t stand up to institutional bullies. It highlighted that lack of a city-wide development plan. It exposed the weakness of our ward system. The alderman for the site testified that if SLU said they needed Pevely demo’d, he supported them. Later he would admit to having been misled.

After demolition, hills of debris sat for more than a year with no violations filed and no fines accrued. Now a blank graded site, there’s a little more green than in previous years, the place is no less desolate. Once more, when a city fails to have a vision for itself, others enforce their own vision on the city.

  • robbyd

    When did ‘city’ become synonymous with government and not individuals and their free associations?

    • Adam

      I don’t think it’s either or. It depends on the context. Within the context of this story “city” refers to city officials.

      • robbyd

        I basically agree with you. I just think SLU will create the campus that makes sense for them. We can choose to like or dislike it. And that’s all this discussion is I suppose. Some magical alderman or bureaucrat dictating and controlling SLU s expansion does make sense to me though.

        • robbyd

          Does not make sense, haha! Subconscious slip? Lol

        • Adam

          Ah, so then your original comment was insinuating that SLU, being an “individual”, should have free “association” to do what it wants with Pevely? If not, my apologies for putting words in your mouth. If so, well, we’ve been around and around with that and I’m not doing it again except to say that there is no city where an “individual” has free “association” to demolish whatever he/she/it wants.

          • robbyd

            SLU, being an association of free individuals, is the agent of change and investment was my point. They, not the local alderman or bureaucrat, know what kind of campus they want and can afford. We can all have opinions, of course, and should.

          • Adam

            Sure, they know what they want and they can want whatever they like as far as I’m concerned. Like any other free individual or association thereof, however, what they can not do is HAVE whatever they want. I would also argue that they are AN agent of change not THE agent of change, even though they’re doing their damnedest to acquire all of Midtown.

          • robbyd

            Yes, a significant agent of change and the anchor of midtown. Just about everyone else has chosen to leave, by in large.

  • Alex Ihnen

    What was this article about, anyway? It’s a good discussion, just try to bring it back to Pevely.

  • Eric Cooney

    What’s the status of the Missouri Belting Co builiding?

    • I’m curious too! Knowing nothing about that building or its owner, it and he/she/they have taken on an almost mythic position in my brain. 🙂 They’ve come to represent the Resistance, standing firmly in the way of the steamroller and wrecking ball.

      Silly, of course. But as long as I have that-little-building-that-could, my faith remains!

  • kjohnson04

    City should have called their bluff. That’s what would have happened in other cities. We’re so afraid that we’ll lose something to St. Louis County we inevitably back down and get space wasting crap like what’s across the street from Pevely. When the Captain D’s across the street is more urban in nature than a medical school building there are serious concerns that need to be addressed.

    As a graduate of SLU I find myself continually embarassed by the decisions and by extension the design of SLU’s campus. Wash U’s campus is more urban in nature. Is it possible that University City and Clayton have more veto power over bad designs?

    The city needs to play hardball with SLU and demand development or divestment of property. Untold thousands of people could be living, working, and playing in those “land banks.”

  • matimal

    The university that cried wolf. This is why St. Louis has to build its strongest areas as a bargaining tool against such attempts at manipulation. It seem silly to seriously suggest that a teaching hospital and medical research institution would not want to be near the heart of the eds. and meds. hub of the region in the West End. Is there any sign that St. Louis city government has learned a lesson from this?

  • the reason why they’re not tearing down the building is because of the lead abatement issue I live in the the Tiffany neighborhood at that building is in in the alderman nor did the Preservation Board or anyone notify the Tiffany neighborhood association that they were going to do anything with that property and they moved ahead without any consent or agreement from the neighborhood and now we have a nice eyesore building day after day after day after SLU screwed over our neighborhood in the community.

  • Carey N Clanton

    I don’t know, I’m kind of starting to miss Mt. Billiken!

  • rick

    They need to tear down that hideous and underutilized building across the street from it. If SLU architecture were interesting and attractive it would be one thing, but we don’t need any more of that crap dotting our skyline.

    • John

      They could have at least built it to the corner and scrapped the idea of its “yard,
      which I’ve never seen anyone use anyway.

  • brianheff

    ” Either there aren’t as many underprivileged children to serve as SLU thought, financing fell through, or perhaps their argument wasn’t fully…factual. There remains no word, no rumors, of a project on the horizon.”

    Did you ask the university for an explanation or comment?

  • Alex

    I reported the mound of rubble to CSB – When the case was closed. I asked them why it was closed the mound of rubble was still there so they gave me the City number to call and I asked them the same question. If I had a huge mound of rubble in front of my home you would be very quick issuing citations. They told me they would send another inspector out to make a report. Shortly after that the mound was gone.

  • T-Leb

    Ironic, We Buy Ugly Homes billboard is in most recent picture.

  • chewie

    Great job, SLU and especially your deposed idiot in chief Biondi.

  • TLH

    This really annoyed me. I remember when I first came to St. Louis and saw this building and remarked to my husband at what a precious relic it was and how it had a lot of potential.. Ugh. This is gonna hurt for a while.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Be fair, Alex. Whether or not his taste for power ultimately corrupted him, the city benefitted enormously from Father Biondi’s (and the Vatican’s) determination to expand SLU. But you are right, the forlorn Pevely site is a monument to Biondi’s fall from power.

    The new president has only been in office four months and I’d guess that his main mandate is to stabilize the faculty and administration.

    If you want to guess the timeline, start from the premise that most private universities are in a financial tailspin because their students cannot afford the tuition–or the loans. Then add in the fact that SLU is considered a jewel in the Vatican’s higher education portfolio. Given those two opposing pressures, I’d wager that it will be a few years before SLU proposes a new academic or medical development for the Pevely corner–although in the meantime, a developer might buy it from them for student housing.

    • Alex Ihnen

      This isn’t a survey of Biondi’s legacy, and I don’t presume to understand campus development in the 80s & 90s. This is simply an accounting of one set of lies told to the city, and the result. Whether or not anything is built here, the process was disgusting, and symptomatic of our dysfunctional (or lack of) planning process.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        Up until very recently, it may have been difficult to justify a strong STL planning department but we agree that STL needs a stronger planning department.

        I’m not sure that Biondi’s power grab and asundry development sins are the perfect example to illustrate this problem, however. The terrible planning of IKEA is a much better example, in my opinion.

        The interesting aspect of Biondi’s time is what he was able to do (with the backing of the Vatican) in the vacuum of a dying city. What’s also interesting is that he lost that power almost the minute that the city regained some genuine economic health.

        • Chris Naffziger

          Ann, I am honestly surprised you’re buying into the “Great Man” theory of history. The idea that one, all powerful superman spurred all of SLU’s growth is an insult to the thousands of employees and students who did the real work to make it a great university.

          • moe

            Fr. Biondi was a man just like anyone else. He had his flaws as every one else. I fail to understand why everyone has to damn him….as if you could have done 1/10 of what he accomplished.
            If anyone knew the history of SLU and how close it was to bankruptcy and closing when Biondi came in…..
            I’ll agree that Fr. did not do it all himself, but it was him and him alone who tackled the powers to be to not only remake SLU but build it’s endowment exponentially at the same time.
            I’ll also give the Fr has a love him or hate him personality, but he knew when to use it for the better of SLU and as SLU went, so did midtown and so did the City.

          • Brian

            Since the thread has already been hijacked, I thought I would go along for the ride. I was a student at SLU from 1977 to 1985, and SLU was already stabilized by the time Biondi arrived. The humorless, colorless Fr. Fitzgerald was brought on board in 1978 or 79 to stop the bleeding after Reinert, O’Connell and Drummond were not able to adapt to the changing landscape in higher education. There is a story that in Drummond’s tenure, Boatman’s Bank had to make an emergency loan to SLU so the paychecks would not bounce. Fitzgerald slashed budgets, raised tuition, eliminated graduate programs, retired inefficient administrators and built a modern recreation center (supplanting the ghastly West Pine Gym as the outlet for students to exercise). There was much gnashing of teeth during this period of time (mine included), but it turned out to be the right thing to do.

            Biondi also had the luck of being in the right place at the right time. He took over as the higher education industry entered a period of tremendous growth. The children of the huge middle class baby boom generation were going to college in unprecedented numbers. It was a rising tide that lifted all boats. Washington University, UMSL, Webster, Maryville, Lindenwood, etc., all expanded. (I seem to recall that Lindenwood was on the verge of closing when Bob Hyland led an effort to save it.)

            Regarding the SLU endowment, when Biondi took over, it stood at ~$140 million; after 25 years of his leadership, it was ~$900million. That’s something like a 6.5-fold increase; pretty good, no? However, when you figure that endowments earn an average 10-11% return and spend 5% annually, the 5.5% real growth means the $140 mil grew to $550 mil without Biondi raising one dime of new endowment funds. Thus, he raised $350 million over 25 years; not too shabby, but certainly not exponential growth. (This does not take into account inflation, which has given $100 in 1980 the same buying power of $290 today.)

            Certainly, Biondi made a huge difference for SLU and Midtown; much of it good, and some of it not so good. SLU definitely has his stamp, and will continue to do so for years. But his legacy is not much greater than that of others of that time.

          • moe

            Some of what you say is true, some is not so. We’ll never agree.
            Let’s return to the post of the Pevely building…..I do believe that had Biondi continued, there would be a new hospital in SLU’s future….not a clinic.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Hijacked indeed. These issues are very obviously related, but the point of this post was very limited – to one site and one process, from which we should all learn.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            You are reading far too much into my statements on Biondi, Chris. I never said that he spurred all of SLU’s growth. That’s a misquote. Or that he is a ‘Great Man’. I don’t hold that view, frankly. I hold the view that he was a powerful man during a very weak era.

            Biondi and his ability to unduly sway STL city officials is at the heart of the history of the Pevely Site–and this post. He’s not an isolated figure, either.

    • Adam

      I’m concerned that SLU wont sell even if a developer does come along. They seem intent on adding the site to their land bank through neglect, and Biondi wasn’t the only one intent on razing it.

    • Eric Fischer

      Do you have any data to support your assertion that “most private universities are in a financial tailspin”? Looking at data on endowments, they have grown at a compound annual growth rate ranging from around 3% [Rice (3.72%), Washington University (3.57%), Yale (3.97%)] to around twice that [Princeton (6.25%), Georgetown (7.13%), Northwestern (8.14%)] from 2005 to 2013. Please note that this period encompasses the 2008 credit crisis and resulting aftermath.

      How is SLU “considered a jewel in the Vatican’s higher education portfolio”? The Vatican doesn’t have a higher education portfolio, and has nothing to do with SLU or its administration. In the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings, SLU is tied with Loyola of Chicago for 101st place in national universities, trailing such academic behemoths as Clark University (#75), Alabama (#86), and New Hampshire (#97). SLU also ranked behind Georgetown (#20), Boston College (#31), and Fordham (#57), so I guess the most generous comment one can make is that SLU is tied for the fourth-best Jesuit college in the United States.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        1. I have a friend who was on the board and executive committee at another leading Catholic university and I know for a fact that the Vatican is involved at the board level with the leading Jesuit universities in the US.

        2. Endowments non-withstanding, friends who work at private universities and they tell me that their institutions either are or have recently been in crisis.

        3. The NIH budgets were cut in half and the academic science community is in deep financial crisis, unable to properly fund it’s critical scientific research.

        • Eric Fischer

          Thanks for all the data! “Ignore the endowment data, my anonymous friends say there’s a crisis.” You also reference an outdated article about the 2013 sequestration. In addition to the crisis in “it’s critical scientific research” there appears to be a crisis in the ability to teach elementary grammar!

          • Alex Ihnen

            Grammar police aren’t allowed in the nextSTL comments. 🙂 But really, let’s focus on issues and not snark.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            The article is not outdated because the problem still exists. Ask any St Louis academic scientist. The community is in a deep crisis. “The issue has become even more pronounced in recent years, as federal budget cuts have meant NIH grant funding rates have fallen to their lowest level ever. Just over 19% of grants were funded in 2013.”

          • Alex Ihnen

            It’s difficult to understand the depth of this crisis since no university wants to talk about it, but it’s very, very real. Academic scientists are mostly funded by the NIH. Grant funding has taken a huge hit. Relative to other schools, my understanding is that WU (and maybe SLU) are doing well, but they have less as well.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            The NIH has, in effect, been a significant financier for the med schools. Medical schools like WUSTL take more than 60 cents of every scientist’s NIH grant dollar for ‘admin’ costs.

            As I understand the history, Senate Republicans pushed through legislation that doubled the NIH budget in the period 1999 thru 2004. .

            Universities responded by increasing their (revenue generating) science programs but the budget hit a peak of $31.2 billion in 2010 and then started declining. It is down to $30.15 billion for 2014. There has also been a steep inflationary cost.

            Grants are spent over a period of years which means that the crisis is hitting now. Many local scientists are working off of grants they received five years ago. New grant applications have not been successful and science labs are reducing staff or closing altogether. Top scientists have left WUSTL in the past year, partly to go to schools (Harvard and UPenn) that offered funding independent of NIH grants.

          • Brian

            To set the record straight about indirect cost reimbursement (aka overhead), the WUStL overhead rate is 52.5%. That means that for every dollar that a researcher can spend for supplies, salaries, etc, the institution gets another 52.5 cents. Thus, WUStL does not take more than 60 cents of every dollar for admin costs; rather, it takes 34.4 cents of every dollar for admin costs. This may seem like a huge amount, but it is less than most other big league schools get.

            Top scientists have been leaving WUStL for decades to go to Harvard, Penn, etc.; see Stan Korsmeyer, Rita Levi Montalcini, Maynard Olsen, Randy Buckner, Josh Sanes, Jeff Lichtman, Bob Waterston, Helen Pwinica Worms, ry Fischbach, Dale Purves, Paul DeWeer, Susan Wente, Maurine Linder, Dora Angelaki, Steve Dowdy, and so on. The current crisis in funding is across the board; WUStL is definitely suffering, but no institution is immune. Azad Bonni came to WUStL from Harvard after Harvard eliminated the Pathology department.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            I agree that the current financial crisis in science is across the board although I understand that some of the East Coast universities have a more intense and more successful fund-raising program.
            On the percentages–I heard a different number and will confirm it. All the same, I don’t think the general public realizes the percentage is that high.

          • Brian

            To confirm my statement about indirect cost rates, please see for WUStL and for SLU. The grant I work with has an 8% overhead rate because it is for student training. We get ~$2million for direct training costs and an additional $160k for administrative costs.

            Regarding the public’s knowledge of indirect costs, 34% seems like a lot, but it is certainly less than the >60% rate you had erroneously stated. If anything, the public should be relieved to know that the cost is much less than you had supposed. Granted, 34% is more than the 20% that many charities spend on overhead (AHA, Komen, MDA, etc.) but research facilities are much more expensive to build and maintain that generic office space. Furthermore the robust regulatory requirements (human studies, animals, radiological and biological agents, etc.) are complex and require special skill sets not needed for fund raising and disbursement.

            East Coast and West Coast universities have definitely been more successful in fund-raising than those in flyover country. No big surprise there, as, following the Willie Sutton principle, that is where the money is: Michael Bloomberg makes billions and gives a hundreds million to Johns Hopkins; Carl Icahn loots TWA (among others) and gives tens of millions to NYU; Roy Vagelos, despite being Chair of Biochem at WUStL before moving to Merck in the mid-1970’s, gives tens of millions to Columbia and Penn. The mega-millionaire options for St. Louis universities is limited. The
            Danforth, Taylor, and Olin families have been generous, but Harvard,
            Columbia, Princeton, etc. have 50 prospects for every 1 that WUStL
            has. Furthermore, institutions like Harvard and Yale have been quite aggressive in managing their investments, much more so than WUStL and SLU. As a consequence, their return on invested assets was greater and their endowments grew accordingly. They took a bigger haircut during the 2007-09 financial crisis (higher reward = higher risk), but have rebounded in the years since then.

          • moe

            I’m not sure what all this has to do with the Pevely Building but hey….
            Each grant is different. One could say that “direct training costs” is, in fact, overhead. It would be in the business world. If that’s the case then that really skewers the numbers.
            Grants like any other data is open to interpretation.
            As for ROIs, I really don’t think we want to travel down that gritty road in a post about a building.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            I did some WUSTL med school research this morning. According to my current faculty source, WUSTL has recently been allowed to raised it’s ‘indirect charge’ from the NIH reimbursement to 56%. The NIH had lowered it across the board to 50% (after a scandal at Stanford) but institutions are slowly regaining higher reimbursements.
            Interestingly, the system is skewed to reward institutions for spending the funds according to NIH guidelines. nextSTL readers won’t be surprised to learn that the NIH reimbursement system encourages institutions to…surprise… build new buildings! WUSTL pressed the NIH for a higher percentage because it’s pool of NIH funding has dropped and because they have done a superb job of building new buildings.
            There are multiple reasons that the flattened NIH budget is dramatically affecting WUSTL and SLU labs.
            Most significantly, there are too many scientists competing for NIH funds–at every university. According to my source, WUSTL had approximately 1000-1200 scientists in 1999, before Congress doubled the NIH budget. WUSTL now has 1900 scientists applying for grants from the NIH. WUSTL has also increased the number of Admin staff. There are 10,000 employees at WUSTL med school and only 1900 are science faculty. And WUSTL was not alone in dramatically increasing the number of scientists in the pipeline. A majority of the institutions doubled their numbers.
            My source believes that the rate of faculty loss has increased in the last few years. Although St Louisans think of WUSTL’s endowment and think that WUSTL is rich, the WUSTL endowment of $5.7B does not compare to Yale at $20.8B. When Yale science faculty cannot get their research funded via the NIH, Yale uses their endowment to make up the shortfall. That does not happen at WUSTL. Much of the WUSTL endowment is earmarked for special purposes and cannot be used to support science faculty. Harvard has an endowment of $32.7B.
            My source also says that UPenn, Yale, Harvard and Stanford do a much better job of raising philanthropic funds for their science faculty. WUSTL has no such program. If a scientist manages to raise their own philanthropic funds, WUSTL demands a 10% indirect cost plus another 10% cut of the scientist’s direct funds. Because their scientists aren’t getting their research grants funded and the overall funding to the school is tightening, WUSTL is moving toward charging their scientists rent for their labs–a chunk which will be deducted from the scientist’s ‘direct’ NIH funding. To save costs, they are also reducing the salaries of science faculty who do not get funded.
            SLU’s research departments are much smaller. According to my source, Biondi (and others) did not support the previous research departments and as a result, they have dropped in stature. Even SLU clinicians are feeling the pinch because the NIH capped funded salaries at $165K, far less than most clinicians make in private practice. Schools like Yale can make up the difference. Not so at SLU.
            The political dramas at the NIH played a role in the revitalization of Saint Louis from 2004 to 2010, but a much less prosperous NIH era is upon us. The impact remains to be seen.

        • BudSTL

          Ann, please stop with the Vatican conspiracy theories. I’m quite comfortable believing that the Vatican and its leadership have larger issues to deal with than the minor development controversies of a backwater Jesuit university. Like all bureaucracies, the Vatican has some level of involvement in all things Catholic…but the “puppet-master” theory presented here doesn’t wash.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            We see SLU’s standing in the Catholic community differently. We also see the Vatican and it’s relationship to Catholic universities differently. “The main thing we know about [Vatican] Catholic Church finance is that in cash flow terms, the United States is by far the most important branch. America is a rich country with a large population of Catholics. What’s more, America’s Catholic population is a religious minority. That’s meant that, rather than using political clout to influence the shape of mainstream government institutions, as in an overwhelmingly Catholic country such as Brazil, the Catholic Church in the United States has created a parallel state: a vast web of schools, hospitals, universities, and charities that serve millions of clients. Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still.”

          • mc

            I wouldn’t say that SLU is a backwater Jesuit university.. Although I do agree that the Vatican doesn’t have direct involvement in SLU government.

          • BudSTL

            Absolutely no offense intended here. We are all proud of the accomplishments there, and they are without a doubt a first class urban university.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        Data—> “Total undergraduate and graduate enrollment in the U.S. is down more than three percent over the last two years. In May of this year, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling listed 470 American colleges that at the time of publication had not filled their freshman classes for this fall and were searching for qualified applicants.”

    • That’s what hurts the most! During public hearings, the “plan” was suspect at best and Biondi’s last-second outburst (not officially “on the record”, conveniently, so the Board should have disregarded it) was childish and desperate. We know now that a simple demolition permit AFTER building permit ruling would have saved the complex, and Biondi isn’t around anymore to harumph about it.

      Honestly, that should probably be the standard ruling for ALL demos of sound, historic structures going forward.

      I agree, the new President is (rightfully) more interested in stabilizing SLU’s academic standing, meaning he’s likely much more amenable to allowing outside developers to fill in the blanks — rather than Biondi’s goal of fortifying/expanding the campus and all its assets against the rest of the City.

      Such a sore spot and another example of our City’s leadership refusing to lead.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        SLU was one of the most active developers in the city at the time. I know at least one Planning Commission member who did not want to cross him.

        • By my understanding, an unofficial climate had been created in which SLU has essentially been the only entity allowed to develop in and around the campus footprint.

          Or, at least, City support for any outside developer was heavily contingent on the approval/direction of Fr. Biondi/SLU governance.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            That’s very interesting, Kevin. When I looked at the list of Planning Commissioners on that Board, I saw quite a few who would not cross Biondi or his power to dole out SLU development favours.

  • Org

    Don’t have anything to confirm this but I’m pretty sure Biondi never entended to actually build the medical center. At a speaking engagement before his “retirement” he was questioned about the pile of rubble that had been sitting there and no progress on the facility. He responded something to the effect that it might be a good spot to build a hockey rink/training complex

    • Alex Ihnen

      Yes, that much is clear. SLU never had financing in place, a groundbreaking was never imminent, the medical facility rendering was a joke. Elected officials, the Planning Commission and the public were lied to.

      • Presbyterian

        I remember one member of the planning commission afterward described Biondi as a “wolf with a collar” because of what he perceived as a lack of integrity about SLU’s real intentions for the site. It was disappointing. But by that time, it already was clear that forces from within SLU were being mobilized to force a leadership transition.

      • Jeff Leonard

        So what was the motivation then to tear down the buildings? Avoidance of maintenance costs? A hatred of all things historic? A desire to sell off “build-ready” property to someone else, eventually? I’m still unclear on this point.

        • rgbose

          I think it was simply SLU wanted you to see its brand along Grand and from the highway. The Peveley was in the way of that goal, so it had to go.