To Preserve the Future of Historic U-City Buildings, Vote NO on Prop H

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University City Prop H feature

It’s not possible to cover all the issues on the ballot tomorrow across the St. Louis region (we wish we could). But some stand out more than others. For instance, we suggest a NO vote on both Prop S and Y. University City has its challenges, and while it’s not nearly as dysfunctional as some would like to betray, its ability to function politically is important as its 35,000 residents mark it as a major St. Louis County municipality. We urge a NO vote on Prop H.

The city is has recently debated fire and ambulance service, the Loop Trolley, development of city-subsidized free parking, and more. The city’s also seeing $800K+ single-family infill and moving forward with a plan to invest in Olive Boulevard. And despite perpetual concern about the The Loop being so crowded that no one goes there anymore, things are going well there.

Anyway, this success seems to have spurred preservation efforts, not just historic preservation, but the preservation of how things are, of the status quo. NIMBY isn’t the best term for what’s happening in U-City, but for lack of something more descriptive, we’ll use it here. Those who have invested in U-City, own an historic home, and consider it their town aren’t very excited about change.

The quick summary of real issues at play is as follows: a developer has envisioned a residential development for the long vacant Delmar Harvard school and adjacent parking lot. Some people think this is a terrible idea. The proposal we wrote of has seemingly gone nowhere, in part due to opposition from some neighbors. Also, the U-City city council just voted to build a new police station, vacating the historic and unsuitable 1938 City Hall annex.

So you lump the Trolley, other changes in U-City, a development proposal and people who don’t like seeing things change, and voila, Prop H. The purpose of Prop H is to prevent U-City from doing much of anything with the following buildings without requiring a popular vote: City Hall at 6801 Delmar Boulevard, the Annex (police station and old firehouse), Old Public Library at 630 Trinity Avenue, the University City Public Library at 6701 Delmar Boulevard, the Sutter-Meyer house at 6826 Chamberlain Court and, The Gates of Opportunity (Lion Gates).

What’s wrong with Prop H? The intent is to preserve select buildings and structures. If passed, Prop H would present an enormous impediment to reuse. Preservation requires reuse. Prop H would require an election for any lease or sale of the buildings listed above. Municipal elections are held every two years. Holding a special election at another time would be expensive. What tenant or developer would engage in work knowing a popular vote would delay and ultimately determine the project’s future?

What tenant would seek to lease a small office space in the Annex if it required a popular vote? At what point in lease negotiations would it be determined a vote were necessary? Not to mention, who is going to buy or lease the Lion Gates? Is there a threat of the city selling them?

According to U-City Mayor Shelley Welsch, there are no plans to either sell or demolish any of the buildings listed in Prop H. This doesn’t mean that concerned residents shouldn’t be vigilant, but does mean Prop H is a hurried, inarticulate solution that attempts to guess at a worst-case scenario possible future problem.

Some residents may not like every development in U-City, but there is a public process that is used and available to them. The U-City city council hasn’t been shown to be deaf to public input. No project has been pushed through without public input and extensive discussion. What Prop H would do is make a few people feel as though they’d preserved their U-City, while placing a burden on future development and the voices of residents.

Removing the word “lease” from Prop H would solve a significant flaw. The 138-year-old Sutter-Meyer House, the oldest in U-City, is currently leased to a non-profit dedicated to its preservation. The lease is for $1/yr for 25 years. Should such a lease be sent to residents for a vote? Still, even if only pertaining to the sale of buildings, Prop H should not be supported.

Prop H ignores the challenges of repurposing historic buildings. For the same reason the city chose to build a new police station, the future of these historic structures is uncertain. Reuse is expensive. What can be assumed is that these buildings are likely to need historic tax credits and other incentive only accessible to private developers to preserved long term. U-City itself cannot utilize tax credits, and will almost certainly not have need for more space for municipal functions.

The residents of U-City will always have the opportunity and right to weigh in on developments and changes in the community, and certainly any changes to historically important civic buildings. What Prop H would do is harm the future viability of these buildings and remove the opportunity for the city council and residents to fully consider future uses.

Prop H Official ballot language:

PROPOSITION H: Shall the City of University City amend Article XI Public Improvement Generally by adding a new section to be designated Section 97 stating that the following land and structures, to the extent now or hereafter owned by the City or any agency or instrumentality of the City, shall not be sold, leased, given away or otherwise disposed of unless such sale, lease, disposal or gift be approved by a majority of the qualified electors voting on an ordinance to be submitted by the council in the manner prescribed in Article XII, Section 122 of this Charter, (a) the land and buildings on the site described in the general warranty deed of May 15, 1930, deed book 1088, page 113, including City Hall at 6801 Delmar Boulevard, the Annex commonly known as the police station and old firehouse, and the Old Public Library at 630 Trinity Avenue, (b) the University City Public Library at 6701 Delmar Boulevard and the land described in the general warranty deed of June 20, 1968, deed book 6333, page 2313, (c) the Sutter-Meyer house at 6826 Chamberlain Court and the site described in the general warranty deed of October 22, 2003, deed book 15429, page 3043, (d) The Gates of Opportunity, commonly known as the Lion Gates monument on the public right-of-way near Delmar Boulevard and Trinity Avenue?

YES NO

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  • Adam

    or, if you’re actually concerned about saving historic buildings from the wrecking ball rather than just preserving your little corner of the world under glass, you introduce a bill that gives U. City’s preservation committee some actual power to deny demolitions. to have a public vote on every sale or lease of every civic building is absurd and a waste of public money.

  • Jen Yarrington

    Our current administration here in U City has proven themselves to be untrustworthy when it comes to public works. They are unwilling to listen to their constituents and underhanded in their dealings time and time again. Is the Bond measure perfect? No. I have concerns about unintended consequences. But I don’t trust the Mayor and the City Manager when they say there are “no plans” to sell any of the properties in question. Prop H if it ends up being a problem will be far easier to fix or overturn than to undo a sale of our historic building to a developer who will then be free to do anything they want, even tear them down. I am voting yes.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I know that some people feel that way, but I don’t. If there’s distrust of the current administration, that should be addressed at the ballot box directly, and not by throwing up proxy ballot initiatives that won’t achieve was supporters say it will.

      • Jen Yarrington

        We are trying…you know there is a recall effort going on right? Until we can get them gone, a lot of damage could have been done. Anyway, it passed by a large margin. Paulette and Terry are staying, and Ward 3 has a new councilperson to replace Rod Jennings. Now lets see if we can take care of U City the way it needs to be taken care of- which means both stewardship of our old structures as well as new development.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Yes, as a University City resident I’m well aware of the various efforts underway.

  • Judith Gainer

    Funny how folks need labels! It makes it so easy to avoid complexity. So we in University Heights, who aren’t happy that UCity ignored its own zoning codes and the Trust Indenture that governs what you can put within the boundaries of University Heights, a private subdivision in which the Delmar Harvard playground is located, are parochial and just plain old-fashioned and opposed to change. Really? That public process Mr. Ihnen wrote about? Would have liked to have seen that when the city rezoned the playground property. And a U City Council not deaf to citizen input is something many of us long for. Must have been something wrong with our input. Prop H wouldn’t be necessary if we had a city administration and a developer that played by the rules.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Is this the playground you are referencing? And just because an idea or belief doesn’t prevail in a public process doesn’t mean that the process doesn’t exist.

      • Robert F Molitor

        Yes Alex, this is the blacktop parking lot which doubled as kickball area for the now closed Delmar Harvard school. The playground for the school (with playground eqipment) was on a grassy area next to the school, and has since been dismantled. This blacktop area now serves overflow parking for Ciy Hall and other area events.

        I understand the concept that in a representative democracy not all of the people can be satisfied with representative determined decisions all of the time. Agree, the ballot box is the tool we have been given. Why make things more complicated?

  • Robert F Molitor

    Alex, thank you for articulating what you see happening in U-City. As a resident of University Heights I couldn’t agree with you more. NIMBY, parochial thinkers are the voice of happenings here. I consider myself more of a regional progressive. When I moved to U-City from Seattle 18 years ago, I felt Locating in this part of the area was a good fit. U-City professes to be an open inclusive, liberal city…the current annd loudest vocalizations no longer represent this status. You’re right, “change” is hard.

    • Ben

      Also as a resident of U Heights, I couldn’t agree more. This has turned into a situation where people want to attack personalities rather than issues, where if you’re not with them then you’re against them and in league with the mayor, etc.

      And yes, it is most definitely about NIMBYism. It’s not even about the parking lot, it boils down to the proposed apartments in lieu of Delmar Harvard School and that people don’t want apartment-dwellers near them.

      • Robert F Molitor

        Thanks Ben, I too feel very ostracized (in the neighborhood) because I have a contradictory opinion to the vocal pressure.

  • rgbose

    The St. Louis County sample ballot is 71 pages long.

    • matimal

      Nothing is too good for St. Louis! We should have the best government money can buy! None of those cut-rate cheap ballots for use!