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Jun 2004 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

Preserving the Virginia Mansion
By Steve Patterson

For more than a year, residents of the Dutchtown and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods have been fighting an uphill battle against money and power. The struggle is over the fate of a much-maligned building, located at 4242 Virginia, that is known locally as the Virginia Mansion. A not-for-profit group serving the entire St. Louis region wishes to expand its presence in the neighborhood, while residents want to preserve the existing building and current zoning.

The History

Virginia Mansion Over the years the building has changed, and in the early 20th century it received a unique front that, despite neglect, survives today. In 2001, Our Lady's Inn purchased the building for an undisclosed sum of money and announced plans to rehab the building for us as transitional housing for mothers and their newborn babies. OLI proceed with renovation plans by hiring Heine & Croghan Architects, Inc., for renovation plans. During 2002, extensive drawings were done for renovation purposes. Structural calculations were performed by McGinnis & Associates Engineering. A general contractor gutted the interior of years of "remuddling" and shored up the structure. By their account, OLI spent roughly $20,000 stabilizing the building. However, in late 2002 the architect, engineer and contractor were all fired.

In January of 2003, OLI announced their intention to demolish the building and construct a new seven-unit building on the site. This announcement shocked neighbors and raised eyebrows. OLI made claims the building was unsafe, but documents from the architects and engineers show otherwise.

The Proposed Project

With a budget of $700,000, the building represents a substantial financial investment. The seven-unit building will contain six one-bedroom units ranging from 602 square feet to 622 square feet, and one two-bedroom unit with 1,230 square feet. (The two-bedroom unit is for the caretaker while the six one-bedroom units are for a mother and child.) The houses on either side of the site are modest owner-occupied, single-family residences. A major contributor to the project is the charitable wing of the Home Builders Association, HomeAid. Their web site talks about building shelters for the homeless, but OLI claims this is not a homeless shelter.

The Zoning

In December 2003, OLI applied for a building permit that was denied based on zoning. The site is located in the "B" Two-Family Dwelling District. This means properties not grandfathered are limited to at most two units. (The code makes an exception for four-family buildings if 40% of the block contains four-family buildings, which doesn't apply in this case). OLI appealed the building commissioner's decision to the St. Louis Board of Adjustment for a hearing. The hearing was held in February 2004, but due to insufficient public notice, a second hearing was held in March 2004.

The Board of Adjustment ruled in favor of OLI, stating, "It is the decision of the Board of Adjustment that there exists an unnecessary hardship with respect to the subject application making it difficult to comply with the strict letter of the zoning code. The Board, therefore, grants a use variance to the Zoning Code to permit the Appellant to construct a multi-family building with seven units at 4242-44 Virginia; however, the Board strongly suggests that the Appellant attempt to save the existing structure at this location."

During the first hearing, testimony from one person drew the most reaction. Mr. Forest Miller, the new owner of Giuseppe's Restaurant at Grand and Meramec, had this to say about the neighborhood: "Now, the area in which these folks are asking you to give them a variance for is not, in my judgment, a historic neighborhood. It is not Lafayette Square; it is not Lindell Avenue; it is not Holly Hills." With opponents still shocked from the insult on the neighborhood, Mr. Miller attempted to say opponents had little or no experience in rehabbing: "I know there are people that are opposed to this but they have never remodeled — maybe they have, maybe they have remodeled an old building and some old buildings, yes, I would agree with that." Next, Mr. Miller attempted to imply that a rehab of the existing building would be unsafe: "But this building is going to put peoples' lives in jeopardy if it's not fire safe and up to code with the proper fire alarms and security alarms that businesses can be given today."

For decades, laws have prevented municipalities, through boards or legislation, from creating "spot" zoning — a single parcel shown favoritism. However, the law also provides for very limited exceptions — unnecessary hardships, to grant a property owner an exception when their property, if limited by the strict letter of the code, would be useless.

You Can Help

Our legal fight against the Board of Adjustment over their decision is costing thousands of dollars. OLI, with annual revenues in excess of a million dollars, has joined the case as a defendant. We are not powerful or wealthy. We are simply property owners trying to send a message to the board of adjustment and not-for-profit groups — you must follow the law and respect our neighborhoods. You can help our fight by sending a check to our attorney. Any amount can help — $5, $50 or even $500. Please make your check payable to "Elkin Kistner" and reference #5153-001. You can mail your payment to:

Jones, Haywood, Bick, Kistner & Jones, P.C.
7700 Bonhomme Avenue, Suite 450
Clayton, MO 63105-1924

You can also leave your check with the staff at People's Coffee on your next visit.

Final Thoughts

I'm the last person to advocate reducing density. When others talk of converting a two-family to a single-family property, I cringe. I believe we need more people in the city of Saint Louis — about 100,000 or so. We need people to make our city more pedestrian friendly, to support neighborhood businesses and to make public transportation more viable. Reducing density may serve well in the short term but in the long term it will leave St. Louis short on affordable housing. So why am I opposing a seven-unit apartment building? Simple — it represents an alarming increase in density. The density of buildings in St. Louis is ideal and should serve us well in the coming decades as we repopulate the city.

Steve Patterson is a Realtor in St. Louis.

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