Concerns about Viking proposal will be addressed, Sunset Hills mayor says

Sunset Manor snafu ‘in the past,’ Hunzeker tells Call

By BURKE WASSON

Sunset Hills Mayor John Hunzeker said consideration of the proposed redevelopment of the Holiday Inn-Viking Conference Center will be delayed into next year to provide time to address residents’ concerns.

Hunzeker said last week that the decision to delay the proposed Sunset Crossing redevelopment of commercial office space and retail hinges largely on city officials’ desire to provide more information concerning the proposed use of tax-increment financing, or TIF, for the project.

The Sansone Group is seeking more than $12 million of sales-tax assistance at the proposed retail parcels to help fund the $47 million project that would redevelop the 8.18 acres on and around the Viking — near the intersection of Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard.

As proposed, Sunset Crossing would include a 90,000-square-foot, five-level office building; 360 parking spaces in a five-level parking structure and 180,450 square feet of five retail parcels.

The Sansone Group estimates that all buildings would be completed by 2010.

The company has requested tax assistance of $5 million for construction of retail and parking, $4.5 million for acquisition costs and $2.5 million for site preparation, which includes the Viking’s demolition, site work, landscaping, grading, signage and utilities.

Tim Sansone previously told Lindbergh School District officials that the Viking’s current owner, Roger Kreutz, had conveyed it would be too costly for him to pay for facility improvements required to keep the Holiday Inn franchise tag at the hotel, which the Sansone Group reports has had a “stagnant” occupancy rate.

Because of those costs, Kreutz instead offered to sell the property to Sansone. But concerns about the necessity of the TIF from the Sunset Hills TIF Commission, residents and Lindbergh officials have pushed city officials to delay consideration of the project until 2008.

The push to decide on the redevelopment proposal comes partly as a result of an action this year by the state Legislature to establish new TIF commissions in 2008 in St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County. That legislation approved the establishment of a new 12-member TIF commission for projects proposed in cities in each of those counties.

Because of the looming confusion over “what TIF commission should do what,” City Attorney Robert C. Jones has said the Sansone Group wanted to have the proposal reviewed before the end of 2007.

Despite those concerns about the new TIF law and possible delays in tax-incentive projects throughout the area, Hunzeker realizes it would be best to first address residents’ concerns with the project and the use of TIF.

“As a result of that uncertainty (with new TIF legislation), we were trying to move forward and get it complete before the change in the statute,” Hunzeker said. “While we were moving forward under that plan, we had to move with some degree of speed.

“And I thought that it would be better to take the risk of the uncertainty after the first of the year and make sure we get this thing right because there appears to be some resistance due to the fact that the last time we used these redevelopment tools, it didn’t work out so well.”

Hunzeker referred to the city’s efforts in 2005 and 2006 to redevelop the Sunset Manor subdivision into the MainStreet at Sunset shopping center through the use of tax tools as well as eminent domain.

In 2005, the Board of Aldermen approved the Novus Development Co.’s request for $42 million in TIF assistance and $20 million in transportation development district, or TDD, reimbursements to help fund a shopping center at Interstate 44, Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard. The project called for razing 254 homes and several businesses.

But that project was killed after Novus President Jonathan Browne said his company’s lender had withdrawn funding for the shopping center.

Hunzeker reiterated that the Sunset Crossing proposal is vastly different from Sunset Manor as Kreutz has agreed to sell his property to the Sansone Group instead of forced through eminent domain.

The mayor added that based on projections completed by consulting firm Peck-ham, Guyton, Albers & Viets Inc., the city would receive “between $275,000 and $325,000” annually by 2012 in new sales-tax revenue.

“The range that I’ve seen is between $275,000 and $325,000 in the year 2012,” Hunzeker said. “Well guess what? That just happens to be what our deficit is these days.

“I think we collectively as a city said we don’t think it’s a good idea to use eminent domain to kick people out of their houses.

“And so the whole Sunset Manor thing was set aside. The municipal government was counting on that as it looked forward to how do you support the current level of government and how do you support an expansion of services towards parks and public safety and all those sort of things. They were all looking for the revenue coming out of Sunset Manor. Well guess what? It didn’t happen,” he said.

“So now if we all agree that we’re not going to move forward with things like Sunset Manor, you’ve got to figure out a way to pay for it. So that’s why we’re kind of in this deficit thing right now, and here’s a way. One seller, one buyer, nobody’s using eminent domain, it’s already commercial. I mean, there’s a thousand reasons why this thing makes sense.”

But during a recent meeting with Sansone officials, Lindbergh Board of Education President Mark Rudoff said that if the Holiday Inn-Viking Conference Center is demolished to make way for redevelopment, the area would lose hotel and banquet accommodations that residents have enjoyed for years. His worry is that if efforts to construct new centers to fill those voids are proposed, developers would feel entitled to tax assistance if Sansone receives the $12 million it has requested.

But Jim Sansone believes that without some form of tax assistance, the Viking property cannot be redeveloped.

And without that redevelopment, Sansone said that property would only see a “downward trend.”

Hunzeker, who has referred to the proposed Sunset Crossing as “the most important redevelopment issue in the 50-year history of Sunset Hills,” believes it is imperative that the city follow through on the proposal to maintain a competitive, viable future.

“It’s all new and it allows us to remain competitive in the very core of our city at the corner of ‘Main and Main,'” Hunzeker said. “It’s arguably, historically the most important intersection in our city. We should have a say in this. We as a municipal government and as the residents, we should be involved in this process. And I will tell you that there are those out there that because of the snafu that occurred in the past, they are absolutely opposed to the use of these legitimate, valuable, reasonable tools … Those people that don’t want to use it, they don’t want to use it because last time somebody got hurt. It was terrible. And I don’t mean to demean what happened there. It was terrible.

“But damn it, that was the past. Somebody was silly and made a mistake. People are human. They make mistakes. Things happen. I can’t help it. I can’t change the past. All I can worry about is the future, which is where we all ought to be thinking about.”