Business Owners In 'Unofficial Chinatown' Remain In Limbo As U City Ponders New Development | St. Louis Public Radio

Business Owners In 'Unofficial Chinatown' Remain In Limbo As U City Ponders New Development

Apr 18, 2019

As the University City City Council decides whether to pass a proposal to redevelop a section of the St. Louis region’s “unofficial” Chinatown, business owners who would be displaced are deciding whether to begin relocating.  

The city council had planned to vote in January on Webster Groves-based Novus Development plans to redevelop the area at Olive Boulevard and Interstate 170 — often referred to as Olive Link.

But the proposal returned to negotiations in February after a University City resident found a roughly $24 million miscalculation in the development’s projected sales-tax revenue. The real estate developer’s plans include building a big-box store — rumored to be a Costco — luxury apartments and a senior living facility.

Novus Development is seeking tax increment financing (TIF), which would allow future sales and property taxes generated by the project to help finance it.

Business owners in and around Jeffrey Plaza on Olive Boulevard would need to relocate if the plan passes. However, many say they haven’t been told about when the University City City Council plans to vote on the proposal, or when they would need to move.

"What If?"

“If we have to move, I’d rather know if it is six months from now, then I can backtrack and pry our ties,” said George Kidera, whose family owns Nobu’s Japanese Restaurant. “Without a certain timeline, or a specific date, it just makes everything a 'What if?’”

On April 3, Kidera attended a panel, hosted by the St. Louis Green Party and Gateway Green Alliance, during which community members expressed concerns about the proposal. He was hoping to find out whether officials set a date for when affected businesses would need to move if the plan passes.

He left still in limbo.

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Nobu’s Japanese Restaurant rents its space from Novus. Kidera said his family has been concerned about continuing to sign leases with the redevelopment plan under consideration. He said whenever he’s asked a Novus representative about the proposal’s status, the answer is always the same: “We’re not sure.” He said a Novus representative told him it could take months, or years, before the city approves the project.

But University City’s City Manager, Gregory Rose, denies it will take much longer before the city council votes on the project. He said the council will decide on the plan in the next 45 to 60 days.

“At this point, there is no agreement between Novus and the city. So there is no project,” he said. “We’ve stated multiple times that we hope that each business will continue to remain in University City and that we intend to work with the business owners and work with Novus to that end,” he said.

Rose said that his team is recommending that the city council and mayor provide funding to Jeffrey Plaza business owners. A draft of the city's relocation proposal would give displaced business owners "$3,000 or actual moving costs approved by the city" and up to $10,000 for reestablishment costs.

The relocation plan also calls for the city to consider allocating TIF funds to businesses that remain in the area. The added incentive would be based on what improvements a business needs at its new property, how many employees it has, what services it provides and how it might benefit the city's tax base. 

Stay Or Go?

Carl Walker, owner of Klippers Barber Salon, signed a lease in August to relocate to a location in nearby Overland. He said he initially planned to extend the lease at his current spot for another five to 10 years with the previous landlord. But he said once Novus took over in January 2018, it started limiting leases to up to six months. He plans to open his new shop this summer.

“I’m the type that can’t wait until last minute. I’m not going to get caught with my pants down, looking goofy,” Walker said. “I got too many people that depend on me.”

He said it will cost him $25,000 to open the new site in Overland Plaza.

“It’s a strain on your pockets for a minute. But everything works out,” he said.

Dao Tien co-owner Sunny Dinh (pictured far right) takes a lunch break with co-owner Matt Brannon (pictured far left) and a few of his employees.
Credit Andy Field | St. Louis Public Radio

If the city council approves the plan, Vietnamese restaurant Dao Tien would also not relocate to another part of University City. Instead, the family running the restaurant would focus on their downtown location, which they opened last year. Sunny Dinh, Dao Tien’s co-owner, said he is worried about losing their clientele.

“I would say the biggest impact is the loss of customers, because a lot of people think that we have moved because of what’s going on in the area,” said Dinh.

University City leaders will decide whether or not to move forward with the redevelopment plan. But Dinh feels the plan threatens more than his business.

“It is taking away from St. Louis’ culture. It’s taking away from the ‘little Chinatown’ that a lot of people see it as. When you go to U City, when you think of that road,” he said. “There’s Asian, African, Jamaican food. It’s very diverse in that area.”

Follow Andy Tsubasa Field on Twitter @AndyTsubasaF

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