Bowing to protests from its north St. Louis County neighbors, the University of Missouri-St. Louis has backed away from plans to demolish the former Incarnate Word Academy convent on its campus.
Instead, UMSL said in a statement Monday, it plans to consider other options for the property over the next three to six months, although a spokesman added that the campus does not plan to spend any money on whatever project results from its study.
“After conferring with several community leaders representing Bel-Nor and Incarnate Word Academy,” the university’s statement said, “we have decided to stop the contract to demolish Normandie and St. Agnes halls [former Incarnate Word Convent] and seek other options during the next three to six months for the buildings and property.
“We believe this is the appropriate action to continue our positive relationship with the surrounding community, which has demonstrated a strong desire to preserve these buildings.”
Dan Riley, who has led the protest over the demolition plan, expressed delight over the latest decision.
“We have been working for over a year now towards this,” he said. “It feels great to have some acknowledgement from UMSL that their relationship with the community is on kind of unstable ground ...
“We’re thrilled to hear that the university is finally listening to the overwhelming number of community members — both here and all around the world — who still consider Bel-Nor and St. Louis home, and that they’re taking our actions and our voices seriously, and that they want to really honor that and to rebuild the relationship with the community.”
The former convent was built in the 1920s and acquired by the university 70 years later. UMSL first announced plans to knock it down last year, citing a backlog of more than $300 million in deferred maintenance projects on the campus. It said it would address the problem with a plan that called for “removal of non-strategic buildings.” It said renovating the convent and a companion building, St. Agnes Hall, to proper shape would cost $11 million.
But when community leaders protested the demolition plan, UMSL agreed to seek proposals to rehab the property instead.
That decision led to just one response from Kevin Buchek, a developer who also is mayor of Bel-Nor, where the property is located. He wanted to convert the building into apartments for older residents plus create commercial space, but the university rejected his proposal as inadequate.
After that rejection, the university once again said it intended to knock the building down and even said in a statement issued in late May that the work had already begun, with fencing erected around the site. The demolition contract was for $854,000, the statement said.
“UMSL believes the best option for the campus and community is to return this location to green space,” the university statement said.
But there was no fencing around the building a few days after that statement was issued, and the work apparently never began. Meanwhile, Bel-Nor passed an ordinance that would require a permit from the town before the demolition could begin.
University attorneys concluded that the ordinance did not apply to UMSL-owned property, because of the university’s status as a state public institution. Spokesman Bob Samples said Monday that the ordinance played no role in the university’s decision to stop the demolition and seek other uses for the property.
That decision comes in the wake of an online petition that had more than 1,650 signatures as of Monday afternoon, calling for a halt to the demolition of what the petition called “a St. Louis landmark, a key piece of architectural and culture history in the ‘Little Rome of the West,’ and a source of pride for the Bel-Nor and Normandy communities.”
In addition to the petition, opponents of razing the building have held a number of rallies at the site.
Since being acquired by UMSL, the former convent has served several purposes, including the home of the campus Honors College. But it has not been used for several years.
The convent sits next to the Normandie golf course, which UMSL bought earlier this year with $1.4 million in private funds from an anonymous donor. The university has pledged to maintain the site as a golf course, signing a 10-year lease.
The convent is in Bel-Nor but it sits across the border from Greendale. The mayor there, Bill Hunot, echoed Riley’s satisfaction with the decision.
“I assumed that saving that building was a lost cause,” he said. “I’m happy to see that I was wrong. It is a beautiful building. I am keeping my fingers crossed. It sounds like UMSL isn’t 100 percent sure about preserving the building. I hope a developer or someone steps up with a viable plan to use it.”