As Costco construction begins, small U City businesses feel left behind
Last month, the beloved Jamaican restaurant De Palm Tree closed its doors in University City — even as construction began to transform the area into a Costco. For Easton Romer, De Palm Tree’s owner, the decision to leave Jeffrey Plaza was a heartbreaking one.
Jeffrey Plaza was much more than a low-key strip mall, hosting restaurants with cuisine from around the world. On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Romer described the plaza as a spot where people could experience culture in a way offered by few other places in St. Louis.
“People could come in and show off their culture, introduce people to their food,” Romer said. “Whether it’s artwork, or food, live music — it was all about the small business. And that changes now.”
It’s not just Romer’s restaurant that’s gone. With De Palm Tree closing after 18 years, Jeffrey Plaza’s era of hosting a dense collection of international restaurants is effectively no more. For the past three years, University City has facilitated developers buying up the strip mall and surrounding properties in order to transform the area into a $190 million project, Market at Olive, with a Costco as its anchor.
In 2018, the developer behind the project, Novus, purchased Jeffrey Plaza. Soon after, the tenants learned that their leases were restricted to month-to-month. Although University City and Novus officials pledged relocation assistance for businesses and residents, no timeline could be presented until the financing for the project was confirmed. The years ticked by, and the city and developers offered few answers as businesses waited for the next shoe to drop.
“I never even considered leaving,” Romer said, explaining his mindset after meeting his new landlord in 2018. “I'm just gonna stick it out until somebody says, ‘You gotta go.’ Because I'm supposed to be here. And when it's time to leave, then I'll go on.”
One by one, Jeffrey Plaza’s businesses left until De Palm Tree was the only eatery left. Then, just after getting final approvals from the city last year, Novus sold the whole project to a different developer. It’s a partnership called U City LLC, led by the CEO of Seneca Commercial Real Estate and the CEO of Clayco and developer CRG.
This time, when Romer received a notice from his new landlord, it came with a deadline. He had to clear out by Feb. 18. It was only on the restaurant’s last night in business, Romer recounted, that a U City councilman visited and brought up the subject of De Palm Tree relocating within the city. Romer said he had one thought: “That’s kind of late.”
Romer’s experience is different from that of Max Tsai, whose family owned multiple properties within the Costco redevelopment footprint — some across the street from Jeffrey Plaza.
Like the plaza’s tenants, Tsai said he received virtually no communication from Novus about the status of the Costco project, even when it was clear that the developer was taking action to buy up properties and clear the site for the coming big-box retailer. In May 2020, U City announced it would deploy eminent domain, which allows governments to condemn privately owned properties and force their sale. At the time, the city claimed it had to use eminent domain because “the negotiation process failed.”
One of the properties targeted for eminent domain was AccuHealth Urgent care, which was owned by Tsai. He said the city’s process included no true negotiations.
"They never really gave us the opportunity to negotiate," Tsai said on Wednesday. "It was a very unpleasant process."
Amid the confusion of the project’s timing, some businesses simply picked up and left. Carl Walker, owner of Klippers Barber Salon, left Jeffrey Plaza in 2020, ultimately moving his shop to Overland.
Walker maintains that U City and Novus failed to keep their 2018 promises to provide funds for relocating Jeffrey Plaza tenants. He said he only chose to move because of the Costco project and points out that Novus made it clear the strip mall was in the path of demolition, even if the developer couldn’t tell him when that would be.
Looking back, Walker considers himself fortunate to be able to relocate on his own.
“I understand the greater good of the Costco coming, but at the same time, for the small business owners who were not in my position to just go out there and find a location … it was an eerie feeling,” he said. “It’s just the not knowing — that it can be tomorrow. And that's what's happening with a lot of people in that plaza right now. They're stuck.”
Earlier this week, St. Louis on the Air reached out to officials with U City, Novus and the new ownership group that bought the project from Novus last year. Novus declined to answer questions about its previous pledges to help relocate Jeffrey Plaza tenants to a “south phase” of the project and referred questions to Caroline Saunders, an attorney at Schott Hamilton and spokeswoman for the new ownership group.
Saunders said in a statement: “With respect to Jeffrey Plaza tenants, many of the previous tenants have chosen to relocate elsewhere (and not in the south phase) for a variety of reasons. For those that are, we plan on working with them to the extent that it makes sense for such tenants both from a continued operations perspective as well as financial.”
She added that it is not clear when the “south phase” would be available, explaining “construction sequencing and timing is complicated.” Saunders referred specific questions about the number of tenants who have received relocation assistance to Doug Marshall of Development Resource Partners, a “relocation specialist” approved by U City to work with residents and tenants in the project footprint by the developer. He did not respond to questions Wednesday.
U City’s city manager, Gregory Rose, supplied a statement that did not directly address how many businesses, if any, have received relocation assistance, saying only that two former tenants of Jeffrey Plaza are working with the city to stay within its borders.
As for Romer, he’s still figuring out his next move — but he’s committed to restarting De Palm Tree. He’s just not sure where it will be.
"De Palm Tree is going to be bigger and better," he promised.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.