Demolition Sought for Missouri Belting Company Building at Pevely Site

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Missouri Belting Company - St. Louis, MO

The city’s Preservation Board on Monday will hear a request to demolish one of the two remaining historic structures at the Pevely site just north of Saint Louis University Hospital. This action seeks to appeal the denial of a demolition permit by the city’s Cultural Resources Office (CRO). The threatened 30,000sf structure–the Missouri Belting Company at 1021-29 South Grand Avenue–was built in 1911.

In its heyday, the Missouri Belting Company was the city’s premier manufacturer of leather belting used in industrial drive-shafts. Surrounded by the Pevely Dairy historic district, the Missouri Belting building was never owned by Pevely and is not within the historic district. It and the adjacent Pevely building are all that remains of a once walkable urban neighborhood.

In 2012, St. Louis University sought to demolish the Pevely complex in order to clear the site for what it said would be an Ambulatory Care Center. Then President Lawrence Biondi threatened to move the existing hospital and university medical school to St. Louis County if demolition was not approved. At the time, Biondi stated that financing was in place and groundbreaking was imminent.

SLU Pevely rendering - 2012{this rendering presented by SLU proved to be a ruse}

The city’s Preservation Board denied SLU’s request to demolish the Pevely complex. Upon appeal, the Planning Commission reversed that decision, allowing all but the corner Pevely building to be demolished. It soon became obvious that the school wasn’t near beginning work on a new facility, and internal communications to university staff later stated that no firm plans existed for the site.

The site was left covered in piles of demolition rubble for more than a year. SLU had sought demolition, in part, because it viewed the vacant buildings as an eyesore. The school had initially hoped to use the mounds of debris to fill the hole left from what they hoped would be the imminent demolition of the corner Pevely building. The “Pevely” sign atop the building was simply cut down and remains lying on the building’s roof.

Pevely 9-19-2013{the Belting Co. building seen behind rubble from Pevely demolition}

The 2012 decision gave the university a year to present construction plans and receive a building permit in order to demolish the remaining Pevely building. That date having long passed, a demolition request would be required to restart the process with the CRO, and if denied, proceed to the Preservation Board, and possibly appealed to the Planning Commission again.

According to nextSTL sources, more than one developer has approached SLU with an interest in purchasing the Pevely building in recent months. The school has replied that the building is not on the market, and is being held for future unspecified development.

SLU_Pevely demo{the Pevely site, and Belting Co. building were once envisioned as a residential community}

Father Biondi announced his retirement in 2013, after 26 years at the helm of the university. No stranger to controversy or detractors over his tenure, the resignation of Law School Dean Dr. Annette Clark, and ongoing disputes with the Faculty Council of the College of Arts and Science, erupted just prior to his retirement announcement.

During his time at Saint Louis University, Biondi was credited with enhancing the national reputation of the school, growing the student body, and building a nearly $1B endowment. The school also grew in size, from 113 acres in 1987 to 286 acres in 2009. SLU’s penchant for demolition and vacant lots has been unpopular with some, and removed significant land from city tax rolls. The school’s expansion has been so significant that when asked at the Pevely complex demolition hearing if SLU had received input from the neighborhood, a representative, almost without irony, could respond, “what neighborhood?”

In 2011, the university demolished three city blocks of structurally sound, and overwhelmingly well kept homes adjacent to the its medical campus. The demolition of approximately 40 homes was approved and completed without review or community input as the city’s 17th Ward does not require demolition review, and the homes were not located in a designated historic district. The Vanishing STL blog has a excellent write up on what was lost.

Pevely 9-19-2013{the rubble has been removed – the Pevely and Belting Co. buildings still stand}

The Landmarks Association listed the Missouri Belting Company among its most endangered in 2012. The brick and limestone classical revival building was designed by noted architect Otto Wilhelmi.

Wilhelmi also designed the home of the company’s owner and president, George Engelsmann. Engelsmann was the son of German immigrants Franz L. Engelsmann and Katherine Drach. Born in Washington, DC but educated at a gymnasium in Bad Kreutznach, Germany, George moved to St. Louis in 1881, initially working as a clerk for Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company. As he grew his belting business, he became an active Scottish Rite mason and a Shriner.

3446 Hawthorne Boulevard - St. Louis, MO{3446 Hawthorne Boulevard, designed by architect Otto Wilhelmi}

Engelsmann was a member of the St. Louis Railway Club and lived in a mansion at 3446 Hawthorne Boulevard (c. 1916) in what was originally the classy German ghetto of Compton Heights–an enclave of Germanic culture and a counterpoint to the teetotalling, English-speaking and still fairly southern Protestant society in the Central West End.

Engelsmann previously had lived at number 10 Shaw Place. Engelsmann died at the age of 78 just hours before New Years Day 1942–and just weeks after the United States and Germany went to war for a second time. He is buried in Bellfontaine Cemetery.

The Preservation Board agenda lists the owner as Bill Rainen of MCOD Investments LLC, a division of Mid-Continent Office Distributors of Prairie Village, Kansas. Reached for comment earlier this year, the owner at that time indicated that SLU had not contacted him about purchasing the property. An attempt to reach Rainen for this story was unsuccessful. The applicant for demolition is Charles Gaines of Gaines Demolition.

Missouri Belting Company ad - St. Louis, MO

{the Belting Co. building (left) prior to demolition of much of the Pevely complex}

{the view of the Pevely site has remained unchanged since demolition in 2012}

Biondi - Before and After{the 3600 blocks of Rutger and Hickory Streets were demolished by SLU in 2011}

*update with Preservation Board agenda – Alex Ihnen, ed.

The City’s Cultural Resources Office is recommending the Preservation Board uphold denial of demolition, “unless it determines that the consideration of neighborhood effect and reuse potential warrants approval.” Counting against the viability of the building, ironically, is the extensive land holdings of Saint Louis University.

In short, SLU is allowed to remove the context for historic buildings, land bank acres of the city, depress property values and development potential to the point that more demolition is made possible as a result of its actions. Traditionally, this is called blockbusting. Though the building could so clearly serve many practical purposes beyond as a “reminder”, the agenda below offers a succinct choice: “There are two ways to consider the effect of the loss of the Missouri Belting building…an acceptable loss based on the transformation of the area, or a resource that should be kept as a reminder of earlier development.”

Missouri Belting Company Demolition – City of St. Louis Preservation Board by

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  • Presbyterian

    Preservation Board tonight unanimously upheld the denial of a demolition permit. I believe the owner’s next recourse (should they choose to take it) is to appeal to the Planning Commission.

  • Brian

    Vandals. SLU is as bad as McKee. If I hit the lottery, I would use the money to buy this property, if for not other reason than to poke SLU in the eye. It is high time to reform the property tax structure. What would happen if the tax rate on land was raised and the rate on structures built on the land was lowered? Would this lower the incentive to acquire and bank land for years, even decades, at a time? Have any studies been done of the impact of raising land tax rates?

    It is also time to adjust the exemptions granted to religious, educational and non-profit institutions. They should be permitted exemptions only for the land, structures and activities that are directly related to their mission. SLU would be granted exemptions for clinical and instructional space, but not for dining halls and dorms. The Botanical Garden would be granted exemptions for their green houses and pagodas, but not for the gift shop, restaurant and banquet spaces. To be sure, some of these spaces serve both educational and non-educational purposes: the undercroft at SLU’s church can host a wedding reception on Friday and a religious meeting on Saturday. The tax assessment would be based on the proportion of non-educational (-religious, -eleemosynary, etc.) uses of the structure.

    SLU’s scorched earth policy around the medical center has retarded the redevelopment of the area. Despite the fact that thousands of people work and visit the medical campus every day, there is not a decent restaurant (Captain D’s does not not count) or a place to get a drink (buying a Colt 45 tall boy at the BP doesn’t count either) within walking distance. They have shown that they are poor stewards of the land, and they will not change their behavior so long as they can hold the land at basically no cost. One way to change this is to revoke their tax-exempt status for property that is not specifically used for clinical or instructional purposes, and, further, to reapportion the tax burden so land is taxed at a higher rate than it is currently, while buildings are taxed at a lower rate.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’ll add that McKee hasn’t torn down 1/50th of what SLU has demolished. Of course in NorthSide he hasn’t built 1/1,000th of the SLU has built. If SLU knew, or at least though there was a good chance, that it wouldn’t be allowed to demolish any and every thing it wants, perhaps its appetite for building and land assemblage would be lessened. This demolition request appears to be an attempt to acquire land without being the entity to destroy what sits on it. We’ll see if it works.

  • Catherine

    To clarify, has a plan for the demolished buildings/site been identified by SLU? Other than going into the massive bank of vacant land they already have…

    • Presbyterian

      Not that they have made public.

  • Its also sad that when SLU demolished the homes on hickory and the Pevely building the alder person nor SLU even spoke with the Tiffany neighborhood association as these are within our neighborhood boundaries. Its all about greed.

  • rgbose

    You can see the Pevely sign, minus the P, which they dropped and broke, laying on the roof of the building on Google Maps.

    These buildings are simply in the way of the SLU brand. They want you to see SLU on Grand and from the highway, not some other thing.

    • tbatts666

      And don’t you love how they slap their brand on these desolate properties?

      They put these suburban fences on the corners of their vacant lots on the corners of Chateau & Grand and Park & Compton with their labels on it (picture below).

      Are they so proud of these desolate properties?

      A lot of their employees utilize bus stops near this corner. They don’t even have raised sidewalks and are littered with trash.

      What signals does this building pattern send to people? Does it make people feel worthless for taking public transport?

  • Justin

    This is disappointing, I had always hoped that some use would be made of that building and it wouldn’t meet the same fate that many others have in the area because SLU doesn’t own it. Although, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

  • tbatts666

    You guys have to remember that Slu is a government subsidized non-profit.

    They’ve bought up a this land and are just sitting on it. Has anyone walked around the blocks they own? It’s terrible! Filled with trash and debris.

    They are in the process of turning the area around the south campus into a wasteland not worth caring about.

    They don’t pay taxes right? And they acquire as much land as they can just to sit on…it has almost no cost to them because they are a non-profit.

    SLU has a responsibility to the taxpayers to uphold urban form. And they’ve failed us.

    Just walk the intersection of chouteau and grand and see how demeaning and demoralizing it is.

  • DB Bear

    Is it commonly accepted now that the reason SLU is getting demo permits for this site was because they agreed to move the law school downtown? or is it just me?

    • Alex Ihnen

      I think that’s incorrect. Some downtown boosters saw the Law School move as a win, but it wasn’t a gain for the city. What’s happening here is that the land around the SLU medical campus is quite cheap. The school can acquire it and sit on it. Without a ward or city plan, the school has free reign to land bank and implement poor land usage all they want.

      • tbatts666

        You’d think they would have some social responsibility to not do that….

        • Mike F

          As a recovering Catholic, I can attest to the fact that many Catholics wouldn’t know social responsibility if Jesus himself came calling with hat outstretched for alms. The embodiment of perfect, Christ-like Catholic charity in the person of Dorothy Day is lost on most Catholics these days. Well, to be fair, most religionists of every creed are hypocrites.

          • tbatts666

            Is there anyone working on combating or reporting on SLU’s land banking and desolation around the health campus? I am a student on the health campus. It’s been bugging me more everyday.

            How an institution that is supposed to bring good health to the community is devastating the surrounding neighborhood. They are right?

            If a dedicated group of people were to raise their voices and say “Hey, this isn’t cool.” I am sure SLU would listen.

  • I hope they contact the Tiffany Neighborhood Association as this is within our neighborhood boundries.. They didn’t have the common sense or courtesy to present to our association when they destroyed the Pevely buulding and were bought off by Biondi.

  • Adam

    “According to nextSTL sources, more than one developer has approached SLU with an interest in purchasing the Pevely building. The school has replied that the building is not on the market, and is being held for future unspecified development.”

    How recently? Have they been approached since Pestello took over? If so, then that is very very discouraging. I’ve been holding out hope that he would take a new direction with Pevely…

    • Alex Ihnen

      Our understanding is that inquires have been made in recent months, well after Father Biondi announced his retirement, though the exact date is unclear. Pestello was announced in March, but not inaugurated until October 3. In my opinion, the demolition request here makes it very clear that SLU will be adding this property to its holdings. I would bet that there is already an agreement to sell, but that SLU preferred the current owner to request demolition instead of the school purchasing the building and then requesting demolition.