Developers question why aldermen don’t OK Helen’s/hotel plan

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Photo by Erin Achenbach

The new Comfort Suites development next to Helen Fitzgerald’s under construction, as seen July 17, 2020.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

A Sunset Hills bill that would establish a new sales tax at Helen Fitzgerald’s and the neighboring hotel to fund parking has been postponed for months after city officials said they would drop a related tax abatement that could have funded a second hotel.

The 1-percent Community Improvement District sales tax hoped for by HR Sheevam, owner of the Comfort Suites under construction at the former Days Inn location at 3660 S. Lindbergh Blvd., has been postponed since July. He is partnering on the project with Syberg’s, the owner of popular hangout Helen Fitzgerald’s.

After pushback from aldermen, Mayor Pat Fribis and a board committee met Aug. 17 with Helen’s owner Kirk Syberg, Syberg’s Chief Financial Officer Jim Daerda and Sheevam, agreed to drop the Section 353 tax abatement altogether, but continue pursuing the CID to fund facade and landscaping improvements around Helen’s and the hotel.

“Our residents don’t like the 353 — we don’t want to hurt our school district,” Lindbergh Schools, Fribis told The Call.

A planned public hearing for the 353 tax abatement did not proceed as planned Aug. 11 after Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong pointed out that a development plan was not included in the documents provided to the aldermen or posted online for the public, requiring that the public hearing be pushed back to a special meeting later in the month.

During later discussion on the abatement, tempers flared between the aldermen and business owners.

The developers told the board that significant changes had been made to the 353 tax abatement request and that they were no longer requesting a 10-year, 100-percent abatement, then a 15-year, 50-percent abatement. Instead, the request had been changed to a 100-percent abatement the first five years, and a 50-percent abatement the next five years, with no abatement beyond year 10. In addition, the CID that was originally a 1-percent sales tax and $4 room tax per night had been changed to just a 1-percent sales tax.

Plans for the parking garage were scrapped and instead, Syberg’s will tear down two residential homes that they currently own near Helen’s to use for employee parking and help alleviate parking concerns for the restaurant.

“I can’t get past tearing down two residential homes to put in a parking lot. I just can’t get past that. … That actually turns my stomach to see you tear down two residential homes to put in a parking lot,” said Ward 1 Alderman Ann McMunn, who lives in the Court Drive neighborhood that has also been targeted for commercial development.

“Those two homes are currently surrounded by commercial … to me, this plan designates very specifically the beginnings of the residential areas going east on East Watson and completes the commercial area by Ameren,” countered board President Thompson Price. “I’m not too concerned about two homes and why that would upset you when we’re improving the entire area.”

Syberg personally called out Wong, accusing the alderman of having a “personal vendetta” against Helen’s and Sheevam. He said he and Sheevam hadn’t complained when the city approved the Tidal Wave car wash nearby.

“What do you want us to do? You’ve been … against this the whole time. I feel like you have a personal vendetta against Syberg’s and HR. … You’ve complained on every plan we’ve brought to the board, and you’re the one doing all the complaining but you’re not giving us any solutions,” said Syberg. “Why don’t you come up with a solution for us and let us know what we’re supposed to do here. Do you not want a nice restaurant and a nice hotel here? I don’t understand.”

“Once upon a time I was not only supportive but a cheerleader of this project. When I made the comments that the initial CID request was a bit too high — that’s because there was a lot of pork added on like the $570,000 in demolition that HR was already obligated to do,” replied Wong. “I never thought the parking structure was a bad idea. … There was just a lot of pork put on. … It was objectively too high, and the fact that no one gave feedback to get rid of the parking structure and use the residential lots … I appreciate your comments but please don’t mistake me being demanding and fighting for what I think is right on behalf of the city as complaining.”

McMunn suggested collaborating with commercial real-estate agency Sansone, which owns a portion of the shopping center next to Helen’s, to use some of that lot for Helen’s parking. Much of the shopping center is empty after the city’s Toys “R” Us closed in 2018. McMunn said she was far more likely to park there than walk from any back parking lot.

But Syberg said that Goldman Sachs now owns 95 percent of that shopping plaza and has told Helen’s that the lot isn’t an option for people looking to go to the Irish pub.

“They’ve told us, ‘We’re gonna get somebody in here, you better secure your parking,’” Syberg said.

“We seem to be chasing our own tail. We’re trying to solve everyone’s concerns, but we keep coming back to square one,” said Sheevam. “Why are we wasting time talking about this? We want to develop this site … but we aren’t getting clear-cut directions.”

After further debate back and forth among Sheevam, Syberg and aldermen, the hotel owner suggested the city create a committee comprised of himself, Syberg, three aldermen and a resident to review what exactly the city would like to see at the property.

“I want to know what I can put on the table that you guys are going to approve, so I don’t keep going in circles,” said Sheevam. “I ask each and every one of you to look at this picture from a broader standpoint — do you want success for the long term, or do you want to worry about a parking garage, two houses leveled down?”

Since the project is in Ward 2, Fribis reviewed the proposal with Wong and fellow Ward 2 Alderman Steve Bersche, Ward 3 Alderman Cathy Friedmann and resident Deb Wilke.

The committee narrowed the request to just the CID, but a vote on the sales tax hasn’t happened yet. At the developer’s request, the plan was postponed Aug. 25 and Sept. 8.

It is not yet known if the matter will be taken up at the meeting in October.