2/18/2007

Frenchtown developer is 'in this for the long haul': St Louis MO Post-Dispatch, 2/12/07

By Mark Schlinkmann

Acquiring property [in St Charles MO) for a mixture of new homes, shops, restaurants and offices in the city's historic Frenchtown area has gone more slowly than planned, but the developer still hopes to carry out the project.

"We're in this for the long haul," said Kim Paris, project manager for New Melle-based Griffey Construction. "If people are willing to sell at a price that keeps the project viable, it will happen. If they feel they all need to be millionaires, it won't happen."

The City Council voted last May to declare the 15-acre site, along and near the north end of North Second Street, blighted.

Griffey had hoped by now to be on "the verge of breaking ground" on the project, Paris said. However, the company so far has acquired only two properties, both vacant.

Paris said the delay was due partly to the council's decision last year to limit the use of eminent domain for the project.

A key restriction exempts several existing businesses from being forced to sell under threat of city condemnation. That, Paris said, has made it difficult to come to agreement on sale prices with their owners.

Eminent domain can still be used if needed to acquire some other property, such as buildings considered nuisances or beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the developer has yet to submit a formal redevelopment plan to the city.

The plan, which needs council approval, could include property tax breaks. Other developers are allowed to submit alternative proposals for the site, but none has done so.

Paris said Griffey is waiting until after the April 3 municipal election to submit its plan. Voters will choose a mayor, and eight of the 10 seats on the council will be contested.

"We've come too far to hold this out as a political pinĂ£ta," she said. "We're waiting to see what the lay of the land is (politically) and to let things calm down."

Last year, the Frenchtown blighting issue drew crowds of supporters and opponents to City Council meetings.

Members of a neighborhood booster group called CPR — Citizens Promoting Redevelopment — said a large-scale, city-aided effort was needed to combat long-festering problems of blight and that a piecemeal approach won't work.

Opponents, a mixture of business owners in the redevelopment area and eminent-domain foes from other parts of the region, said forcing anyone to sell property would be unfair. The council approved the bill but added the restrictions on eminent domain.

The redevelopment site includes vacant lots and buildings, including some owned by the city, but also businesses such as auto-repair shops and used car lots.

The southern end of Second, which is dotted with restaurants and antique shops is outside the redevelopment area.

Councilman Rory Riddler, whose 1st Ward includes the area, said he's eager to see the project go forward.

"I had pushed them a little bit," he said. "They asked if they could have the first quarter (of the year) to finish putting something together."

One CPR member, Mark Nitchman, said he and other supporters in the neighborhood remain hopeful that the project will be built.

He said he has faith in the developer's commitment to the area, which was established in the 1700s and is known for the remaining French flavor of some of its architecture.

"Hopefully, it's not dead," Nitchman said of the project. "It's standing still for a minute."


St Louis MO Post-Dispatch: http://www.stltoday.com