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Fans of Del Taco plead to save it; aldermen pave way for demolition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29 2011 - St. Louis aldermen on the Housing and Urban Development Committee voted 5-2 in favor of passing Board bill 118 that would approve tax abatement for any developer who takes over the Del Taco site on South Grand -- a step that could pave the way for demolition.

The measure still has to go to the full board.

Rick Yackey, the property owner who says he has invested $60 million in developing the surrounding area, said he is currently looking into negotiations with national chains that might be interested in using the building.

However, controversy revolved around the phrasing of the bill -- and who has the authority to approve any demolition. Alderman Marlene Davis said that only the Cultural Resources Office and Preservation Board would be able to determine future action regarding demolition.

There are currently no plans to demolish the building, but Yackey said if no one is interested in renting the property, that could be the next step.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

One of Missouri's two Del Taco's lives is at risk, and it is not because of the saturated fat and grease that come with fast food.

The controversy now swirling around the Del Taco at 212 S. Grand Blvd. has nothing to do with the food -- and everything to do with its spaceship-like architecture. The structure is part of a group of four buildings making up Council Plaza. All four buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, a subcommittee of the Board of Alderman will hold a hearing on the developer Rick Yackey's request to demolish the building. No final decision will be made at this hearing; the measure must then move to the full Board of Aldermen, which has the final authority to vote on the matter. Typically, though, the subcommittee hearings offer the public the best opportunity for commenting on an issue.

On Monday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay weighed in on his blog, urging a more thorough review. "I will ask Cultural Resources Office director Betsy Bradley to review the permit and make a professional recommendation to the Preservation Board about further action." He also encouraged the developer to find alternative uses for the UFO-like building.

The movement to save Del Taco gathered momentum and visibility when Michael Batchelor, a former radio broadcaster with an interest in architecture, made a "Save St. Louis Del Taco" Facebook page last week.

"I created this group to let people know that one of the neatest buildings in St. Louis was endangered and to try and see if something might be done to save it," he said.

By Monday night a week ago, the page had been "liked" by more than 11,500 people and consisted of wall posts pleading with the city not to demolish the historic landmark.

"In less than 24 hours, we (had) over 1,000 people join the site and have garnered interest from all the major news outlets in St. Louis including KMOX, KSDK-TV and the Post-Dispatch," he said last week.

Blast from the Past

Modern St. Louis President Michael Allen said the Del Taco building was originally home to a Phillips 66 gas station. It and the other three buildings making up Council Plaza were built in the 1960s as part of a housing development for senior citizens.

It was a time when labor unions were starting to make larger investments, and the local Teamsters 688 took to the task of creating Council Plaza, he said.

"It connects us to something that was happening nationally," he said, noting St. Louis was not alone is this architectural movement.

For Del Taco regulars like customer Richard Voss, the building is home.

"It's my home away from home," Voss said. He lives nearby and has been eating at Del Taco regularly for over seven years. "It's my second home."

Voss said he thinks the restaurant itself does a good business with its reasonably priced food and gets most crowded around lunchtime.

Del Taco employees refused requests for comment.

Though the Del Taco building is right near St. Louis University, across Grand from the Reinert Hall residence, some students say it is not a common hangout for college students.

"I haven't really seen that many students (there)," SLU senior Phillip Reyes said. "It's not a student hangout."

Some students would like to see the Del Taco restaurant -- but not the building -- go.

"I think it's a good building that adds to historic aspects of St. Louis, and I'm in favor of them changing it to something else," Reyes said. "I wouldn't mind them keeping the building."

The Continued Effort

Ryan Reed, preservation specialist for the Landmarks Association for St. Louis, said he is working with other organizations to present a united front in favor of preserving the building.

"It's amazing, the amount of support that people have given," he said.

But popular opposition isn't always enough to stop the demolition of historic buildings, Reed noted, citing the demolition of the mid-century De Ville Motor Hotel, more recently the San Luis apartments, a few years ago in the Central West End.

"It was torn down just a handful of years ago and that was in a historic district as well," Reed said. "Sadly, some of these buildings have been demolished over time."

Allen said it is fortunate that St. Louis has procedures in place for evaluating buildings' historical traits.

"We're fortunate that as many (buildings) have been listed in the national register or have local landmark protection, but some of them don't have any protection at all," he said.

Reed hopes that Wednesday meeting at City Hall provides a forum for community opposition to tearing down the building.

If the Del Taco has any chance of being saved, "ultimately, it's up to the public," Reed said.

Allison Prang, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon.

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