Developer not giving up; looks to close on Sunset Manor homes by Sept. 30


Executive Editor

Novus Development Co. is looking to close on contracts for more than 200 homes in the Sunset Manor subdivision by the end of the month, according to President Jonathan Browne.

Novus is proposing to construct MainStreet at Sunset, a $165.2 million lifestyle shopping center at Interstate 44, Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard.

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen in May approved Novus’ request for $42 million in tax-increment-financing, or TIF, assistance and $20 million in transportation development district, or TDD, reimbursements to help fund the shopping center. The project will raze 254 homes and several businesses. Only the Hampton Inn and Denny’s restaurant will remain.

Closings on the more than 200 homes were scheduled to begin Aug. 22. But Novus learned Aug. 18 its lender had withdrawn its funding for the development and the closings were delayed until a new lender could be secured.

Browne told the Call Friday he’s not given up on the project and is looking to close on the contracts by the end of the month. Dur-ing the interview, Browne was highly critical of media coverage of his project.

“In general, I don’t think we’ve gotten a fair shake in this and more so, it’s not just me, I don’t think the people of the neighborhood, the 91 percent that were in favor of this thing, have gotten a fair shake,” he said, referring to the 91 percent of property owners who have agreed to sell their homes to make way for the development.

Noting what he termed “the bias of the general reporting” on MainStreet at Sun-set, Browne said, “It’s been anything but positive and when something is so right from a planning standpoint, so right for the city from a revenue standpoint, so right for the (Lindbergh) School District from a revenue standpoint and supported by 91 percent of the neighborhood, the people who are directly affected — not the people who have an opinion about something philosophically, but are directly affected — yet the reporting is so overwhelmingly negative, why is that? Is that fair and accurate and unbiased reporting? I don’t think so.”

In a news release issued when Regions Bank withdrew its funding, Brown stated, “Our lender informed us two days ago that it has withdrawn its financing for the development, which is necessary for the home purchases. They cited the existence of lawsuits against the city of Sunset Hills regarding the project, which we know to be funded and orchestrated by Westfield America, as the primary reason they no longer want to finance the project.”

Two lawsuits have been filed against the city by opponents of Novus’ proposal.

One lawsuit was filed by 11 Sunset Hills residents and seeks to have the city’s Board of Aldermen consider initiative petitions to repeal two enabling ordinances for the project. The second lawsuit was filed by residents and commercial property owners along with Missouri Residential I, an affiliate of Westfield America Inc., which owns the nearby Westfield Shoppingtown Crest-wood. The suit contends the city violated the state’s TIF statutes and the U.S. and Mis-souri constitutions in approving the TIF assistance and redevelopment agreement.

Novus and the May Department Stores Co. announced Aug. 25 that a 160,000-square-foot Famous-Barr department store will be the development’s first anchor tenant at MainStreet at Sunset. Because of the merger between May and Federated De-partment Stores Inc., Famous-Barr department stores will be converted to a Macy’s beginning in fall 2006.

Browne told the Call that he believes Westfield’s neglect of the Westfield Shop-pingtown Crestwood was a major factor in the decision to relocate Famous-Barr. West-field purchased the shopping center in 1998.

“The current owner has spent 10 years chasing the tenants away. We did not cause them to leave ..,” Browne said, noting that Westfield’s “style is to litigate, not negotiate.”

Of Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood, he said, “It is unquestionably a functionally obsolete project. Just by its age and what it was and what the industry has become. What it cannot be is reinvented because a regional mall — show me a regional mall that isn’t on an interstate that’s doing well. If it’s not there, it’s probably on a closure list. And that’s unfortunate for the city of Crestwood. It is and I understand their plight. I’ve been twice chairman of the Special Business District in Kirkwood. I know the difficulty of cities that don’t have a huge sales tax generator. But it is what it is and I mean you just can’t wish it away …

“We have an interstate location. I didn’t build the interstate. The interstate happened 30 years ago and it’s a miracle that the change hasn’t happened any sooner and I will tell you why. The Zorenskys (former owners of the mall) were a local company, not the big, corporate monster. They were a local company that loved and cared for and worked their property and they kept Crestwood Plaza — it’s been an anomaly for 20 years. But they kept it viable through I would just call it love and attention,” Browne said.

“What has been done since then?” he asked, referring to when Westfield purchased the Crestwood mall. “Nothing. Now if you can blame the decline that began 10 years ago on my project that doesn’t even exist yet, isn’t that a stretch?”

The Novus president also said the media’s characterization of him as “a big, rich developer” is inaccurate.

“I’m a little local guy. I’m not a big, rich developer and I’m grateful for Westfield in this respect: Anybody that’s reading and anybody that understands who I am and who Westfield is and I’m not sure that maybe the public understands either one — they are the corporate giant. Not me, and yet when I’m the only guy … people stereotype, you know, the developer’s always the big corporate giant. Well, I’m grateful for Westfield stepping up and at least by comparison now, I don’t fit the definition of the corporate giant and only by the presence of Westfield is that comparison maybe been favorable to me.”

The Board of Aldermen in July authorized the use of eminent domain to acquire properties Novus did not have under contract, but Browne said in the public’s mind eminent domain is associated with taking something for nothing.

“Taking in my mind — I grew up in the grocery business, my dad was a retailer — taking, it was somebody who took something and didn’t pay for it … The connotation is you’re not even being compensated. Well, what if you were not only being compensated, but you were getting a premium? And, in general, why would 91 percent of the people — are they so stupid that they can’t figure out they’re getting a bad deal? I don’t think so. And I will stand by — one of the miracles of this thing, even if it goes all wrong — was that I’ve been bowled over by I think the support and the attitude and spirit of the people over there in whole. Now are there a few bad apples? Yes there are. But I don’t know, if a politician came up with something and got 91 percent of the vote, he’d be the next president of the United States and I don’t know how that has been kept out of the media … How do you ignore 91 percent? But they have been ignored. They haven’t gotten the headline and we’ve been in the majority for over a year — year and a half we’ve been in the majority. It’s gone from 51 percent to 91 percent. But that’s not the story … The reality of it is there are 200 wonderful stories that could have been reported had we closed Aug. 22. You know, people did find homes, replacement homes … If the premium that we paid over the normal market value and the good fortune at being at a historical low ebb of interest rates enabled people to step up to a house that they couldn’t have otherwise afforded, that’s a good thing.

“I went into this with one approach — if it’s good for everybody, what’s the opposition? If it’s good for the school district, good for the city, good for us, good for the homeowner, it’s a good thing … If you can make it good for everybody, then why not everybody be in support of it? But when somebody who is for the wrong reasons controls the media and hurts the 91 percent, the school district, the city, how is that a victory?” he continued.

“… So as a result, I’ve not given up, neither have the people. They’ve extended our contracts. We’re bent on getting this closing done by the end of this month and making this thing what it should be and that’s a success for everybody,” he said.