A group of downtown Clayton property owners turned in petitions at City Hall on Wednesday to try to force a public vote on the use of eminent domain for the $190 million Centene Plaza redevelopment project.
"Eminent domain for the enrichment of a private party is wrong," said David Danforth, one of the property owners and the president of Mint Properties Inc. "We have not been offered fair prices, and many of us would rather not move at all."
Members of the group - called the Clayton Committee to Stop Abuse of Eminent Domain - presented the petitions to acting City Clerk June Waters. The petitions ask the Board of Aldermen to repeal two ordinances passed Dec. 13, one allowing the Centene Plaza redevelopment project and one allowing use of eminent domain to obtain properties in the 7700 block of Forsyth Boulevard for the project. Should the board refuse, the petitions seek to force the city to hold a referendum.
City Manager Mike Schoedel said the Centene project had unanimous support from the board. Centene provides managed health care for Medicaid recipients and for children whose family income is too high for Medicaid but not sufficient to afford private insurance.
"We remain convinced that the project to keep Centene's headquarters in Clayton and generate 800 new jobs is in the best interests of the people of Clayton and the entire region," Schoedel said. "It will ... revive an area that has suffered high vacancy rates and plummeting economic performance over the past decade."
Schoedel said the property owners would be paid at least 105 percent of the market value of their property. "The city is obligated to make certain that existing property owners are treated fairly, and we will do that," he said.
The five property owners whose properties would be taken say their properties are well-maintained and house viable businesses. The properties - from 7716 through 7736 Forsyth - include the Dolan and Edward L. Bakewell realty offices, the Kohner Building and a spa, among other businesses. The project would not affect Cafe Napoli and a few other stores immediately east of Napoli.
Both Dolan and Bakewell would have to go, and the companies do not want to move.
"We have been part of the Clayton community for a long time, and we've supported it for a long time, and we would like to continue to do so - at this location," said Daniel F. Sheehan Jr., president of Dolan Realtors and owner of the properties at 7716-18. Dolan has been in Clayton since 1951 and at the site since 1977. Bakewell, one of Sheehan's tenants, has been in Clayton since 1930 and at that site since 1981.
Centene plans to build a new corporate headquarters in a 16-story building at Hanley Road and Forsyth Boulevard, renovate its existing office building, buy a city-owned parking garage and build a new strip of retail stores. Centene is asking for a tax abatement.
The property owners in opposition said they support the Centene project, except for the retail strip.
"Just look across the street. I defy anyone to tell me they see blighted buildings," said Laura Dierberg Ayers, a lawyer representing the Clayton Committee to Stop the Abuse of Eminent Domain. "Clayton voters do not support the use of eminent domain in such an abusive manner ... not tax abatement giveaways."
She said the group gathered about 270 signatures of registered voters, five times as many as needed for a referendum. The next step is for city officials to turn over the paperwork to the county election board to verify that the signatures are valid.
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