Schlink doubts Centrum’s cost estimate of mall redevelopment

Rally by Metropolitan Churches United before board meeting draws about 70

By Gloria Lloyd

In light of new information on the environmental report Centrum Properties relied on to calculate the $121 million cost of its plan to redevelop Crestwood Court, Mayor Jeff Schlink said he now has doubts about the project’s predicted cost provided by the developer.

At a Board of Aldermen meeting July 23, Schlink announced that Centrum Properties partner Sol Barket informed him by email that Centrum was withdrawing its proposal, which Barket confirmed in an email to the Call on July 26. Four weeks later, Centrum has not formally withdrawn its proposal from the city and is still in talks with officials, Schlink said.

Despite the “tremendous amount of posturing” going on, he said at the board’s Aug. 13 meeting, it is too early for the board to issue another request for development proposals and too late to continue to try to hire the city’s longtime planner Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets, or PGAV, to conduct a study of Centrum’s proposal, as Ward 4 Alderman Dan Tennessen again suggested.

The planner withdrew its proposal for the study the day after the last board meeting and the third rejection of the study in the past year. Given the repeated rejections of the planning study and PGAV’s withdrawal of its services from consideration, a planner is no longer common ground for the developer and the city, Schlink said, but an environmental study could be, if the developer agrees to it.

Missouri will pay for an environmental study conducted by a private engineering company and issue tax credits that would pay for the entire cost of demolition of structures on property contaminated by asbestos or other toxic substances, former Ward 1 Alderman Gregg Roby noted at the meeting.

“Centrum has before them the opportunity to get that money that they want from us in TIF (tax-increment financing) to tear down their building and remove all the asbestos, and it’s there for them — and they don’t have to get it out of our sales tax,” Schlink explained.

Centrum, which bought the former Crestwood Plaza property from the Westfield Group in 2008, acknowledges that asbestos remediation on the site will be costly. At the board’s July 9 work session on the redevelopment project, Barket agreed to an environmental study of the property, conducted by the state of Missouri through the Brownfields environmental program.

A month later, however, he has backed off that promise in emails to Schlink, the mayor said.

“When it came down to it, when the rubber hit the road — then all of a sudden it was conditional,” Schlink said.

In an email last month to Schlink, Barket said he would only agree to the environmental study if the city hired PGAV. In later emails, as recounted by Schlink, Barket said Centrum would hire its own contractor to perform the study at a later date.

The mayor declined to speculate about why Centrum would want to pay for its own study rather than take advantage of the state’s free environmental remediation program, but the cooperation of Centrum for accurate environmental remediation costs is crucial, Schlink said, since those costs can be extremely expensive and could add to the total amount of subsidies Centrum is asking for its proposed entertainment complex.

“I want to see if this is a $34 million project or if this is a $50 million project,” Schlink said. “I don’t see how that is an unreasonable request to move this forward. Those are significantly different numbers.”

As proposed, the total redevelopment cost is roughly $121 million, with economic assistance in the form of tax-increment financing, or TIF, a transportation development district, or TDD, and a community improvement district, or CID, reaching roughly $34 million.

“We’re still so focused on the planner — we don’t have a planner right now, so we should stop focusing on the planner. What we should focus on is: How do we take the next step?” Schlink said. “I didn’t think it was unreasonable, because (Barket) agreed to it when he was sitting here, to participate in the state of Missouri survey to see whether there is hazardous material on there. And I don’t see why that is an unreasonable next step to try to move this project forward.”

In Centrum’s proposal, the company notes that it includes costs for environmental abatement of the property, as determined by an environmental study the company previously conducted on the property. Schlink said Barket forwarded an email from former Centrum representative Vic Pildes that makes Schlink question whether the true costs of the environmental hazards present on the property are accounted for in that prior study.

In a July 23 email Pildes sent to Barket that Barket forwarded to Schlink, Pildes said the environmental report was just the preliminary planning study already conducted by PGAV for Centrum.

“The mayor is playing with half a deck again,” Pildes wrote. “The report he’s talking about is the preliminary memo PGAV did in response to our request. The city wouldn’t engage them to do a full blighting analysis, so we asked them to do an advisory memo to get the city to act.”

Through the Brownfields environmental assessment program, Crestwood would apply to Missouri on behalf of Centrum for a study at the former Crestwood Plaza site.

Roby outlined the phases of the environmental study to the board, noting that the process includes determining whether contaminated materials exist at a site, taking samples of the site and cleaning up any contaminated materials. The state contracts with three private engineering firms for the services and does not charge the city that requests the study or the owner of the property. Two of the engineering firms are in St. Louis.

The cost to conduct the studies is substantial, Roby said, and can include tax credits issued to the owner of the property to cover the entire cost of demolition of structures. The 20-year tax credits are transferrable to new owners.

“If $33 million is what’s needed to tear that down and make it safe to build on, why would that not be something they would jump on and then sell those (tax) credits?” asked Ward 2 Alderman Tim Trueblood.

Ward 1 Alderman Darryl Wallach questioned why the amount of the requested TIF would matter, since the board could cap the amount of TIF it would provide. Any additional environmental cost would fall on Centrum, he noted.

For the second time in a month, the meeting was standing room only, after another rally sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United. The rally attracted more than 70 participants. Schlink thanked the speakers at the meeting, saying they adopted a friendlier tone than in the past.