Then-council chairman Sam Page listens to Police Chief John Belmar during a committee meeting last summer. Now County Executive, Page will renegotiate the lease for The Crossings, formerly Northwest Plaza mall. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.
By Gloria Lloyd
The owners of The Crossings at Northwest, the revamped former Northwest Plaza mall, said last month they are willing to renegotiate their contract with St. Louis County to give taxpayers a better deal.
In one of new County Executive Sam Page’s first acts in office, he wrote a letter asking brothers Robert and David Glarner, the owners of the space the county rents for the more than 100,000 square feet of custom-built space in the North County Government Center, to come back to the table. The 20-year, $50 million lease was one of the documents requested by federal prosecutors in the subpoena they sent to the county for documents related to possible corruption by former County Executive Steve Stenger, and last year the County Council officially asked federal authorities to investigate the lease.
Critics of the lease the council approved in 2016 believe it was a gift to Stenger’s biggest campaign donors, brothers Robert and David Glarner, who own the former St. Ann mall that now houses Class A office space for the county, Charter Communications, Save-A-Lot and American Family Insurance. The Glarners were Stenger’s largest campaign donors, giving him $345,000 of the record more than $4 million he raised for his re-election campaign last year.
Stenger pleaded guilty May 3 to federal corruption charges of bribery, theft of honest services and mail fraud, admitting that he had accepted campaign donations in exchange for county contracts. But the indictment only outlined contracts relating to businessman John Rallo and didn’t mention Northwest Plaza or the Glarners.
The county consolidated offices into the space including the county election office, the North County satellite assessor’s office, Workforce Development and the Missouri Jobs Center. Some of the offices the new space replaced were filled with mold, but the county still pays for some of those leases too.
At the time the council approved the lease, Page was one of its biggest backers and agreed with Stenger that the lease would save the county $10 million, despite detractors like 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and University City resident Tom Sullivan warning that it was a terrible deal for the county.
But Page later changed his mind, saying that Stenger hadn’t given him all the information at the time.
Among the terms of the lease that Harder, Page and Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, have objected to are its 20-year length, stipulations that the county has to pay the taxes for the space and a clause that states that even if at some point the county doesn’t have the money to pay the lease, the council can’t get out of the deal because it can’t relocate any of the offices elsewhere for a certain number of years.
Trakas said he wants to see the lease changed to a “significant decrease in the amount paid per square foot,” get five-year renewable terms instead of a 20-year term, and strike a clause that states that if maintenance is required, the county has to hire an outside contractor and can’t use its own employees.
“All of that is something that should be easily obtainable given there’s serious questions as to whether or not the agreement’s even valid anymore,” Trakas said. “It’s a good opportunity for the Glarners to avail themselves of a one-off chance to do right by this and get this back on the proper footing. The square feet anywhere around there is nowhere near what the county is paying in this lease. Let’s get into that reality.”
Stenger argued that the county going into Northwest Plaza revitalized a dying mall and the entire area, creating 2,500 new non-county jobs, spurring surrounding development and injecting economic activity into North County. He said the longer lease and other terms were in exchange for $10 million of custom build work the Glarners put into the space to customize it for the county.
He told The Call last year that the terms of the deal were not unprecedented and were in fact a great deal for the county: “Twenty-year leases happen in St. Louis County, and it was our opportunity to anchor and get a better price at 20 years, otherwise we’d have to move and have all the moving expenditures that we’d otherwise have. We have totally built-out space, and right now it’s $18 a square foot, which is the average cost in North County for space. We have Class A space at an average cost. That’s not the cost for the Class A space, that’s the average cost. Class A would be much more, and we have Class A for $18.”
In his first county executive’s report delivered at a council meeting May 7, Page said that he asked the Glarners to agree to change some of the terms of the contract so that “terms are reasonable and fair to the taxpayers.”
The lease was negotiated in an “unorthodox and overtly political way, bypassing the employees who would ordinarily negotiate leases. This was not right when it was done, and it’s not right today.”
In Page’s letter, sent the same day Stenger pleaded guilty, he said the county Charter forbids any county employee from receiving direct or indirect benefits for their work for the county, and any contract that violates that clause can be voided by the council. Page noted that the council could consider throwing the deal out completely.
“I am concerned that county operations at The Crossings could be uncertain or even chaotic if the leases were invalidated,” Page said. “In recognition of these potential operational challenges, I am hopeful that you will agree to renegotiate the leases to make the terms fair and reasonable for St. Louis County.”
The Glarners sent a letter back to the county May 7 calling their relationship a “vital partnership” and said they “welcome” the opportunity to sit down with county officials.
In the letter, the brothers said they began talking to the county about the site in 2013 as the county sought expanded space for several county offices.
“Our goal has always been to create a great government center that is valued by St. Louis County,” the Glarners wrote on the letterhead of their company Raven Development LLC. “Throughout this process, we believe we have had an open, transparent and meaningful dialogue with you and many other officials and staff in St. Louis County government. We are a family-owned business and care about the happiness and satisfaction of our partners. With everything that has happened recently in county government, we want to help you move St. Louis County in a positive direction… We stand ready to discuss our current lease with your team as outlined in your letter and will be in touch with the appropriate staff.”