ST. LOUIS — Chris Stritzel thought they were kidding at first.
After all, it’d be a bad look for the company if any of the six vacant buildings along the 1000 block of South Kingshighway suddenly collapsed or caught fire.
He shared that sentiment with the buildings’ new owners, who are looking to construct a 155-unit apartment complex on the site. Those owners, Victor Alston and Sid Chakraverty, the brothers behind prominent developer Lux Living, appeared to back off the idea, Stritzel said later.
Still, Stritzel said he was part of conversations with the brothers that made him worried they had been considering going around the city’s building division to take down the properties.
At one point, Stritzel said, Chakraverty used “technical” language to throw out the idea of having crews compromise roof supports so the buildings would collapse under the weight of winter snow.
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Stritzel, a prolific local development blogger whom Lux Living had hired as a consultant, was concerned enough that he went to the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Stritzel’s allegations are part of the reason the neighborhood group declined to endorse the project, stymieing the developer in a ward where Alderman Tina Pihl had empowered the association to review the project.
In a July 5 letter addressed to city officials, the Board of Adjustment and Cultural Resources Office, posted on its website and shared via social media, the neighborhood association withheld its support for the project, citing “a prevailing distrust of this developer.” The letter also quotes an anonymous employee alleging Lux’s leaders had considered illegal means to take down the structures.
The association did not identify Stritzel in its letter or to a reporter, but Stritzel confirmed to the Post-Dispatch he was the anonymous employee with whom the group spoke.
Lux Living on Thursday said it “categorically denies the veracity” of Stritzel’s statements.
“It is incredible that the (neighborhood) association failed to inform Lux of these salacious allegations until they published them in their July 5, 2022 decision,” the company said in a statement sent by their attorney, Ira Berkowitz. “The allegations were presented to the association and Alderwoman Pihl back in October and November 2021, yet no one from Lux was notified for comment or response.
“Instead, for the next 10 months, the association pursued the process of asking for changes to the plan and holding neighborhood meetings,” the statement continued. “If the association and the alderwoman believed Mr. Stritzel, clearly, they would have terminated the process and reported it to the police. They did neither.”
‘Blown out of proportion’
A Lux affiliate applied for city demolition permits to take down the boarded-up brick 2- and 4-family flats in September, a few months after purchasing them from an arm of Drury Hotels that had owned them for over a decade. The city never granted those demolition permits.
Instead, Lux began trying to work with neighbors to win over the alderman, whose cooperation is needed for many aspects of the development process in St. Louis.
Before Pihl became the alderman in 2021, reviews of development projects in the fast-growing 17th Ward had been handled by Park Central, a community development corporation. But Pihl, who espouses the need for robust community engagement, turned instead to the neighborhood association.
The association’s five-page letter on the project included the unnamed employee’s allegations that Alston and Chakraverty had considered sabotage to “rig the buildings to collapse.” It also said the employee alleged Lux considered suing other developers in the neighborhood, such as Green Street St. Louis, to slow competing apartment projects.
In a text message to the Post-Dispatch, Stritzel confirmed he was the employee.
“I spoke with the neighborhood board last fall about what I believed to be potential illegal actions that were being considered, but such actions were dropped and later blown out of proportion,” he said.
“Since that time, efforts were made to integrate neighborhood feedback into the plans, which it was, and the talk about buildings being burnt down or rigged to collapse were dropped.”
Stritzel’s allegations fed into the distrust some neighborhood residents already had about the developer, even though it was proposing a plan to finally remove buildings that neighbors have long considered nuisances. Last September, the vice president of the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association, Michael Browning, wrote a critical essay of Lux Living for NextSTL, a local development blog, arguing the city should to vet the business practices of developers.
Neighbors who opposed Lux’s project voiced concerns that had less to do about parking, density and aesthetics, or even the project itself. Many said they liked the project, just not the developer, which had faced bad publicity due to tenant allegations of poor management.
In a statement to the Post-Dispatch, the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association said it was asked by Pihl, the alderman, to review this particular project while she formed an official development review committee to handle future proposals.
“The letter released on July 5, 2022 was what the Alderwoman has asked of us since September 2021: an account of the community’s feedback on this project for her, the City, and its officials,” the neighborhood wrote in response to questions.
The understanding among leaders of the group was that the informant wanted some of the information to be shared with the community, and it was included because “it spoke to the character of the developers,” according to the neighborhood association.
Lux Living, in its statement, sought to cast doubt on Stritzel’s credibility. It pointed to past “inflammatory accusations” Stritzel has posted on comment boards accusing Pihl of taking payoffs and the neighborhood association of being corrupt and violating its bylaws. It shared a July 5 email from Stritzel after the letter was released in which he says the neighborhood association leaders were “taking my words and twisting it.”
Stritzel had forwarded an email to Lux officials with different wording than the one quoted by the neighborhood letter. Lux officials pointed to the passage that read: “as far as fire goes, he says it was never an option.”
The neighborhood shared the original email, which showed Stritzel had actually written, “as far as fire goes, he says it’s not an option anymore since the risks were just too high.”
Stritzel confirmed he had changed the email to Lux in an attempt to smooth things over after the association’s letter was released.
Lux presented its Forest Park Southeast proposal to the neighborhood association in September, and Alston and Chakraverty personally outlined the proposal to the neighborhood in subsequent meetings, most recently in June.
Many residents indicated they were supportive of developing the site but felt forced “to choose between dilapidated buildings and a developer that has proven to be duplicitous and vindictive,” according to the letter signed by the board.
“If this was being proposed by anyone else, I would be a strong yes in support,” said one resident, according to a copy of neighborhood comments released by the group.
“I am not opposed to the development itself, but rather am opposed to the developer due to its deplorable track record,” wrote another.
Lux said its initial plan “required no variances, no zoning changes and could be built without neighborhood approval.” Nor is it seeking incentives.
“Nevertheless, over the next 16 months, Lux worked diligently” with Pihl and the neighborhood association to “improve the project” and spent “considerable money to change the plan to their liking,” presenting multiple designs based on resident feedback. Many residents applauded the plan, the company said in a statement.
“However, the deck was stacked,” Lux wrote.
Leaders of the neighborhood association “had already made up their minds in April of 2021 and it did not matter what we did, they would not approve our project. What further disappoints us is this decision was made without transparency, with hearsay, innuendo, and defamatory lies.”
According to the neighborhood association’s July 5 letter, 20 people voted against the development, while 14 voted in favor. Forest Park Southeast has about 3,500 residents.
Brian Adler, who lives near the houses and was a member of the neighborhood association board last year, said he’s no fan of Lux Living’s business practices. But he has broader concerns about neighborhood groups, often led by just a small number of very involved members of the community, blocking new housing. If a developer follows the zoning and codes they should be allowed to build, he said, regardless of their reputation.
As a nearby resident, he personally feels just about anything would be an improvement from the vacant structures that have been nuisances for years.
“There’s an assumption that if you deny Lux, that they will be a good neighbor and go and sell the properties to a wonderful company,” Adler said. “I don’t know why there isn’t an assumption that they won’t simply landbank the buildings … for 15 or 20 years.”
Indeed, the project’s future is now unclear. In an interview last week, Pihl now says the neighborhood group’s review was only one step in a larger process, and she would be forming a dedicated development review committee shortly. A request for applications for the new committee was posted on the neighborhood association’s website this week.
“The process is not done,” Pihl said of the neighborhood review of Lux’s project. “That’s just one component.”
Whether Lux will go along is another question. But it still plans to pursue the project.
“The buildings still sit vacant, condemned, and blighted,” the company said in its statement. “The development process in the 17th Ward is broken and will deter development and progress. We have the right to build at our site, and we want to build something that St. Louis can be proud of and that adds economic value day one to our City.”