This featured article has been split into multiple sections to better organize the ideas discussed and the many moving parts of the story. Thank you for your patience and I hope that you find it to be informative. I invite you to engage in the conversation either in the comments below or on our Twitter page.
Just after announcing its latest apartment development in the Central West End at the Optimist International Building (intersection of Taylor and Lindell), developer LuxLiving released its big plans for the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. Those who have travelled on Kingshighway any time over the last two decades have witnessed the steady decline of several multifamily buildings owned by Drury Development Corporation. As Drury’s plans for a two-tower hotel adjacent to the CWE stagnated and faltered, their properties declined significantly with little to no maintenance. Missouri Metro covered their “Demolition by Neglect” strategy last year.
The blighted properties contrasted the stunning growth and evolution of the Forest Park Southeast and Central West End neighborhoods, even as housing inventory in the neighborhoods remained low. The highly visible location, so close to the highly sought after amenities of some of the City’s most expensive neighborhoods, stood out for long-time residents and visitors alike. Residents hoped for action for years, but faced stiff resistance from Drury Development Corporation and a lack of transparency as the corporation continued to acquire more properties.
After nearly two decades of this prolonged process and limited neighborhood approval for a two-tower design and a surface parking lot that would replace handfuls of historic residential homes, Drury finally announed it had cancelled its hotel plans in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. This year, they begun selling some homes to residential buyers and investors alike, while also choosing a large developer to take on the most notable parcels facing Kingshighway. That developer is LuxLiving.
DISCLOSURE: Brian Adler is the current Vice President of the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association and will have some say in the community engagement process. He also lives on the 4500 Block of Oakland, which will be directly impacted by this proposed development.
LuxLiving is proposing a 7-story, 163-unit apartment building to replace these structures. While I generally am in favor of preserving many of the city’s historic brick structures, the buildings facing Kingshighway have been open to the elements for years, lack walls in some cases, and have foundations that are crumbling significantly. The proposed structure would activate a stretch of land with significant density that has not been occupied for two decades. While the design is still in preliminary stages and far from finalized, the current plans call for the usage of 15 parcels and the construction of a 177 space parking garage that will be partially underground and concealed.
On Oakland Ave and Arco Ave, LuxLiving plans to construct two-story buildings with 14 units and amenity spaces to fill in the gap between the various other residential homes on the street and the larger, 7-story structure. The designs of the two-story buildings seem to be similar in materials, massing, and overall design to the other homes on the two blocks. With that said, to accommodate these additional buildings, a few currently occupied and vacant structures would have to be demolished. LuxLiving states that they are in various late stages of disrepair and while they may not be entirely unusable, this very author lives within this stretch and agrees for the most part on that assessment.
This article cannot be as neutral as I would otherwise hope for it to be because of my very close proximity to the site, but I do want to emphasize the kind of feedback that I have been hearing from the community. For the most part, community members have few, minor qualms with the overall design, density, and massing. In fact, many (including myself), are downright excited at the prospect of removing the blight that has FREQUENTLY contributed to visible crime and dangerous drag racing across the 4500 block of Oakland and Arco.
Causes for Concern: Safety, Fraud, and Bad Practices
With that said, there are significant concerns about LuxLiving itself as the selected developer for the site. While LuxLiving has been generous with information and access to its developments including the SoHo, Hudson, and Chelsea covered frequently on this website, it has a troubling reputation that has consistently dogged the company. Surprisingly numerous reviews from tenants at even their newest buildings suggest lackluster property management, shoddy building materials, thin walls, and various issues. LuxLiving also allegedly utilizes Airbnb to rent out vacant units for short-term visits. While Airbnb is not inherently bad, it can pose security concerns for actual residents of the building or pose challenges in terms of trash, noise, or usage of the building’s amenities.
There are also potential issues relating to various other business practices of the organization. The CEO of LuxLiving, Vic Alston, previously defrauded investors in a revealing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) document. Alston reportedly omitted key information from investors and submitted SOX certifications that “were materially false and misleading“. He was banned from engaging in similar investments for five years following this judgement.
While financial accounting requirements can be complex and perhaps it would be unfair to make judgements off of one case, Alston has repeatedly led business practices that are at best scorched earth-competitive, and at worst, deeply and fundamentally dishonest and dirty. For example, LuxLiving is currently wrapping up the nearly completed apartment building in DeBaliviere Place, dubbed “The Hudson” – poised to become another luxury, amenity-packed community. I have reported on its progress multiple times and lauded how it adds significant density to a well-trafficked transit corridor. Those facets of the project are unabashedly positive, and additional units online relieves pent-up demand that would otherwise raise rent prices.
Unfortunately, LuxLiving worked to undermine their competitors and the neighborhood itself at the onset of the development. While praising their contribution to a transit-oriented district, Alston and LuxLiving sabotaged the under-construction apartment just across the street. The Expo at Forest Park would offer hundreds of apartments at a similar price range and with similar amenities. In response, as first reported by the St. Louis Post DIspatch, LuxLiving had their lawyer Ira Berkowitz “reincorporate a long-dormant property owners association that claimed to hold review rights over the competing apartment development and declined to support the project.”
The complaint resulted in a lawsuit against the Expo at Forest Park developers and then, of course, a countersuit alleging that resurrecting an organization that had not existed for 30 years was nothing more than a means to denying a competitor’s approval. LuxLiving and the other firm ultimately settled, but another legal battle ensued – this time with LuxLiving suing the City of St. Louis’ Development Corporation, SLDC. Lux claims an entitlement to tax incentives including tax abatement and a tax break on construction materials. They allege that they must receive this support due to a letter of support from Alderman Shameem Clark-Hubbard from the 26th ward. The suit has not yet been resolved, and the decision to grant tax breaks was tabled at the June 22 meeting.
This context is important because Lux has gained some positive publicity from not requesting tax incentives for its proposed project at the Optimist International site in the Central West End, just minutes away from Forest Park Southeast. While the development will ultimately lead to a large and noticeable property tax receipt that will benefit St. Louis Public Schools, it would admittedly be awkward for Lux to request incentives from the same organization that they are currently feuding with. Notably, Lux has been mum on its intentions for tax incentives at the parcels in question in Forest Park Southeast.
Unfortunately, tax breaks, lawsuits, and fraud cumulatively barely scratch the surface of the controversy surrounding the company and its owners. LuxLiving is but one name of many for the company and its principle actors. Some St. Louisans might remember their apartments under the portfolio of Asprient Properties, CityWide, and others. They are all the same buildings, the same company, and the same team. Lux tends to rebrand when controversy hits a fever pitch, like when Asprient mishandled residents’ security deposits.
Even more worrisome, at one of the Central West End properties under the STL Citywide brand, residents had to be evacuated for a structural collapse at the Euclid + Pine building. Residents interviewed by KMOV reporters, while horrified, expressed not being surprised due to the general conditions that the building was kept in. Perhaps you may have been urged to give the company the benefit of the doubt, choosing to assume that the company surely has improved since then. That would be unlikely, however, because this happened this last May.
The proposal is likely going to go through a community engagement process facilitated by Alderwoman Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl, Park Central Development, and the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Although Park Central Development and its Development Committee often led the process in years prior following former Alderman Roddy’s decades-long design, Alderwoman Pihl is looking to reshape the process and involve more members of the community.
There will likely be community engagement sessions in the next couple months to inform both the community about the developer’s plans and the developer on the community’s concerns. It will ultimately then receive the approval or denial from the Alderperson.
A Nuanced Conclusion
While some might have expected my take to be one of pure opposition based on the sizable list of concerns outlined above, it might surprise you to know that I am still begrudgingly, mostly in support of the project. It is difficult to shake the feeling of “ick” that surrounds LuxLiving and it feels wrong to reward the company with my support, especially as a member of the FPSE Neighborhood Association. Remember, and this is important, the association itself is a neutral party and will not lend its support or lack thereof to any project, and the views of its members and board members are diverse.
That said, I am also a current resident of the 4500 block of Oakland that I presume that I will one day share with LuxLiving and the many residents who will occupy the community. I am writing this piece with little to no distance at all between myself and the anticipated consequences. As a resident of this block, I know all too well the damage and hardship currently caused by the derelict Drury-“maintained” buildings facing Kingshighway. The alley is littered with broken glass, impossible-to-count bottles of spent liquor, drift marks, and more. The majority of nights feature speeding down Oakland and Arco in unlicensed vehicles opting to not use their headlights. Recognize that this is not a short-term problem: this has been the reality on this block for decades. It is not as though we have been given the choice of various optimal developers, or even that matter for residents to buy up these individual buildings facing Kingshighway. Drury has selected LuxLiving, and I know well that what we will get is better than what we have.
There are other benefits I look forward to including a prettier streetscape, way more neighbors, density that will at some point add to our tax base our students, and a bit of relief for a rental market very short of inventory in this neighborhood. Perhaps I speak from a point of privilege in a multitude of ways as well, in that I am not one of the few families that will likely have to move for the project. I also am keenly familiar with development and have a hand in the community engagement process. That heightens my responsibility and that of my fellow neighborhood volunteers to ensure we don’t let LuxLiving skate through this process without answering for its reputation and demanding a robust community engagement process that allows for real concerns to be given real answers.
What’s your take?