A University City preservationist group called Heritage Sites Protection Initiative handed over petitions to the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners last week with what it hopes to be enough signatures to take its cause off the streets and front porches of U. City and onto the ballot in April 2016.
The initiative wants to beef up protection for seven historic structures in this inner-ring community.
All but one of the buildings has or did have a public function and sit in the shadow of the city’s wedding cake city hall, in a quarter called "Civic Plaza." The exception is the 1873 Sutter-Meyer Farmhouse, 6826 Chamberlain Court, not in the plaza but not too far away.
The 266 sheets of petitions were turned in Friday. The board is expected to announce its tally at the end of this week. Although initiative organizer Don Fitz and his wife and fellow organizer, Barbara Chicherio, expect some signatures to be stricken, they are confident they have more than enough for approval from the election commission.
Fitz said the petition drive was staffed by about 50 residents of University City who gathered 3,538 signatures. A total of 2,324 signatures is required to get the initiative on the ballot.
University City has a historic preservation commission that acts in an advisory capacity to the zoning administrator. Matters it might consider include: applications to designate structures as historic; applications to review proposed changes within a historic district; applications for permission to demolish and for conditional use permits for a historic landmark or a building within a historic district; or to establish other rules and regulations consistent with the intent and purpose of the Historic Landmarks and Districts ordinance.
Fitz said his group is concerned that University City’s government and its residents don't fully understand potential threats to several structures, edifices of significance that could be sold to developers for purposes that could prove antithetical to the maintenance of the historic quality of the city and the architectural integrity of the its Civic Plaza, the area surrounding City Hall.
He said, for example, that a tall building or parking structure behind the modestly scaled and architecturally fascinating city hall would “ruin the architecture of the whole area.” He is also worried about the lack of maintenance of buildings of historic significance.
Esley Hamilton, the author, historian, advocate and dean of historic preservationists in this region, is on board with the Heritage Sites group.
“The St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission has been actively concerned about the future of the Civic Plaza for several years, and I have attended many meetings about it on its behalf," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the issue of extra protection was raised after the University City School Board decided to sell the Delmar-Harvard School.
“They set a price for the building that was so high,” he said, “it precluded the adaptive reuse of the building or even the construction of a new building of compatible scale and materials, as required by the ordinance establishing the Civic Plaza Historic District.
“The mayor and city manager have supported (the school board) and the proposed developer Henry Warshaw … and now, even though the project has not obtained the necessary city approval yet, the school board has spent the anticipated revenue on the construction of a new library for the high school.
“The present effort would not prevent the Delmar-Harvard project, but it would keep the developer from adding the City Hall Annex and Old Library sites to the proposed development,” Hamilton concluded.
A corollary concern now is assuring that the public will have influence when decisions are made about University City’s historic buildings.
University City City Manager Lehman Walker said that he has no position on the initiative one way or the other officially. A call made to the Community Development Department on Tuesday was not returned. The latter lists historic preservation as one of its responsibilities.
The buildings Fitz’s group is most worried about are:
- City Hall, 6801 Delmar Blvd.
- The old University City Public Library, 630 Trinity Ave.
- The police station and the old firehouse, both adjacent to City Hall
- The monumental gates – called the Lion Gates – on Delmar at Trinity
- The new University City Public Library (1969) at 6701 Delmar
- The Sutter-Meyer Farmhouse, circa 1873, at 6826 Chamberlain Court.
Fitz said, “We want to make certain, with regard to any of these buildings, that the public can comment on changes or on demolition.”