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Browne looking to move quickly on Sunset Manor redevelopment


May 18, 2005 - Sunset Manor residents must be out by October to avoid the bulldozers of the No-vus Development Co., according to Novus President John Browne.

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen last week approved Novus' request for $42 million in tax-increment-financing, or TIF, to help fund a $165.2 million shopping center at Interstate 44, Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard.

The project will raze 254 homes and several businesses. Only the Hampton Inn and Denny's restaurant will remain. Some owners have signed contracts with Novus and welcomed the deal. Others did not and now face eminent domain.

"We'll be closing on property in 90 days," Browne said after the board voted last week. "We'll exercise our contracts this week and we can close within 90 to 120 days. That's what the contract says. We'll try to keep it to the shorter 90 days.

"It could be as late as October before we get in and actually start taking down homes," he said. "The 90-day notice that we gave to the people under contract — simultaneously when we give notice to exercise our contracts, we'll also begin the process of eminent domain on none-under contract properties. Each process is 90 days, so we should end up closing at the same time. That was the design of the contract. Whether it's through closing on a contract that's been executed already or through eminent domain, it will be that August or October date."

Residents holding out have one more opportunity to reach a deal before their homes are acquired through eminent domain. Some speaking at the May 10 board meeting said they want Browne to base his purchase price on 2005 appraisals, not 2003. He was making offers of 175 percent of the value of homes based on 2003 appraisals. But re-assessment notices were sent out in March and some Sun-set Manor residents said their property values increased by more than 20 percent.

"We have to make one final contract offer before we go to eminent domain," Browne said when asked if he'd use 2005 appraisals as the base for his offer. "Quite honestly, if someone is not in agreement with that offer, I begrudge no one of profit. If their house is worth more than that and I haven't offered it, I don't want to buy anybody's home for less than it's worth. So eminent domain, through that process there's three appraisers that render a value. I have to live with that."

Through the eminent domain process, the appraisers set the fair-market value of the home but they do not require Browne to offer 175 percent of that price, as he did with those already under contract.

Ward 1 Aldermen Michael Sawicki and John Tipton, who represent Sunset Manor, led the charge toward approval with Tipton reading a brief statement on why he supported the project followed by Sawicki moving to suspend the rules to move the matter to final passage.

Only Ward 3 Alderman Jan Hoffman voted against making the area a TIF district for redevelopment, saying her constituents overwhelmingly disapproved of the plan.

"I have had two or three calls in favor of it and everybody else has been hands down against it," she said. "Some were against the TIF. Some were against more retail. Some didn't want more traffic. Some felt that we had too many store fronts. Some were against putting people out of their homes, which I have to admit, I would not want to be put out of my home and I would have a real hard time with that as well. And I also feel for the small business owners ... who have been here for as long as I have. They serve the community well, and I feel for them. I don't think it's right."

The board took a second vote to approve Novus as the developer and execute a redevelopment agreement with the company. Ward 3 Alderman Robert Brockhaus, while supporting the redevelopment of Sunset Manor, voted against the redevelopment agreement with Novus, as did Hoffman.

"I would not like to see this happen," Brockhaus said. "I received my copy of this last night. I don't feel that I have had time to fully understand it and some of the issues that are in there I do have some questions about. And I think it would benefit all of us if we had a week or two to examine."

Opponents of the redevelopment cheered Brockhaus' statement, although they'd already lost the battle. The second vote only named Novus the developer. The first vote approved the TIF and granted eminent domain authority.

During a public comment period, more than 40 residents spoke, repeating many of the arguments of a previous public hearing.

Opponents wanted to keep their homes and stay in the Lindbergh School District. They say eminent domain was meant for public projects like schools, hospitals or highways, not for private developers.

Supporters, meanwhile, wanted out to avoid the constant threat of buyout. They've neglected the upkeep of their homes, fearing more developers would come along seeking eminent domain. They called themselves the silent majority and said Novus was the last chance to get a de-cent price for their homes.

And others said the city needed the economic boon offered by what Browne described as a unique shopping experience.

The "lifestyle center," he said, includes outdoor, high-end shopping with a commons area for entertainment. The development also will include some restaurant and office space. Main Street at Sunset should open in April 2007, Browne said.

Reading from a statement, Tipton said: "I would like to express my empathy for all the long-suffering owners and occupants of properties in the proposed buyout area. I can only imagine your agony and upset with dealing with years of uncertainty and potential loss of your homes and businesses to redevelopment. I can relate from long-ago personal experience the sense of futility that takes over when a government or developer comes to you and seeks to take the property in a seemingly arbitrary manner. I believe sincerely that all members of this board recognize the ordeal and feel compassionate for you and what you have been through.

"As for the opposition to the redevelopment, it has be-come increasingly apparent to me that they are the classic vocal minority with apparent funding help from corporate outsiders that worked terribly hard by accusation and innuendo to characterize this board in a very negative manner before we were even allowed to address this whole manner," he said. "I'm no expert on PR, but I would think such an approach would tend to provoke the opposite reaction of those desired. By far, the majority of letters and phone calls received from the residents of Sunset Manor have been sincere and eloquent pleas for us to vote in favor of the redevelopment. They have made it clear that for most of them, this is perhaps their one opportunity to achieve the dream of a nicer home and a better life. There's no doubt in my mind that at least 75 percent of the property owners are eager to sell and go on with their lives.

"In regard to the taxing districts, especially the Lind-bergh School District in which I have a personal stake, I feel strongly that this redevelopment will ultimately be in their best interest," Tipton continued. "I feel the decline of the Crestwood Mall is close to irreversible and the diminishing sales tax revenue will continue to have a increasingly adverse impact on the various taxing districts, especially Lindbergh.

"It's time to move on and focus on visually a great and exciting future facing Sunset Hills as we've worked closely with Novus to realize a regional lifestyle center that will be a mecca for people from all parts of the area as well," he said.

The city's TIF Commission voted 6-5 last month to reject Novus's proposal, with the city appointees favoring the project and representatives from the county, Lindbergh School District, and fire protection district opposing the deal.

One city appointee was absent from the meeting, and Ward 2 Alderman John Smith said afterward the missing member favored the TIF. If so, the vote would have been deadlocked 6-6 and the commission would not have been able to make a formal recommendation. By law, the Board of Aldermen could not have considered the matter without a recommendation from the TIF Commission.

  • Pitch It & Forget It
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