Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
How a flying saucer ended up at the nexus of local politics and real estate development this summer
One St. Louis developer is learning an important lesson the hard way: Don’t mess with Del Taco.
It’s not that people in St. Louis take their late-night burrito drive-throughs so seriously. This particular Del Taco, located in the Midtown section of downtown St. Louis, is not even a Del Taco any more. But the vacant Del Taco building is an iconic example of Googie architecture—the space-age, mid-century-modern architectural style that originated in Southern California in the 1940s.
The St. Louis Del Taco, which started out as a Phillips 66 gas station as part of the late-1960s Council Plaza development, is shaped like a flying saucer. Though the businesses that occupied the saucer never took, the high-flying design has won its share of hearts over the years—not least among them the developers lately proposing its demolition.
It was the Bruce Development Co. and developer Rick Yackey who nominated the Shwarz and Van Hoefen-designed Council Plaza, including the Del Taco saucer, for historic designation. The Council Plaza, which includes two commercial high-rises, made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, earning federal tax credits for the developers.
The developers had an apparent change of heart. Bruce Development and Yackey announced plans to demolish the building at 212 South Grand Boulevard in late June. Moving quickly, they got approval for the demolition from the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and won the support of Ward 19 Alderwoman Marlene Davis.
But high-flying saucer supporters moved just as fast. The week the development plans were announced, a “Save Our Saucer” campaign emerged on Facebook. In a month’s time, the Save St. Louis Del Taco page garnered more than 12,000 supporters. Critics questioned whether the developers, in describing the Council Plaza as a whole historic but in pieces blighted, were earning tax credits coming and going.
The Landmarks Association of St. Louis and other preservation groups mounted a calling campaign to ask the City Board of Aldermen to take action. And when they considered Board Bill 118, the redevelopment ordinance for 212 South Grand, the conversation turned to flying saucers. Ward 23 Alderman Joseph Vacarro said he supported the blighting study, but wouldn’t support Alderwoman Davis’s bill—he’d simply heard from too many constituents upset over the doomed Del Taco. Another Alderman went further. According to the St. Louis Beacon, Ward 8 Alderman Stephen Conway described preservationists as “brick-kissers” but nevertheless opposed the redevelopment ordinance. “The unfortunate thing, is that I open the Post-Dispatch and those people with the spaceships on their head, they live in the 8th Ward.”
Yackey may have since had another change of heart. He has acceded to the public outcry over the South Grand Spaceship—or so he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On Aug. 12, Yackey and Alderwoman Davis announced a meeting on Aug. 17 at the Del Taco building to discuss the planning process and take public comments. The St. Louis Beacon reports that Yackey said that he has hired an architect to restore the building in order to make it suitable for adaptive re-use. Though local St. Louis shops Kaldi's Coffee House and Pi Pizzeria have expressed interest in the building, Yackey hopes to sell a national retailer on the overall site—one that he previously described as lacking suitable parking to attract such interest.
Late yesterday, guardedly optimistic brick-kissers got an opportunity to see Yackey's preliminary designs for the building and site. (Those plans still have to pass before the Cultural Resources Office.) Does St. Louis still care? Despite the “Save Our Saucer” parties put on by the likes of local city bloggers STL-Style, the Aug. 17 meeting—an important one in determining the shape of the flying saucer to come—saw just 12 people show up.