Friday, November 17, 2017

What happened to the Penrose Project?

It was our most ambitious project in our ten year history. We proposed to take a long vacant police station and turn it into an asset of empowerment for the community. The property is located at 1901 Penrose in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. It sits across the street from Windsor Park. We proposed a facility that would house our woodshop, sewing center, maintenance services and our main offices. We would add to that a computer lab, an audio and video recording studio, a metal shop, an auto shop and common space for the development of art and technology programming for the community by providing the space at cost for other community groups to use.

The City of St. Louis offered the property through an RFP (Request for Proposal) in the summer of 2015. We answered with our proposal and were selected to purchase the building. Over the course of the next year and a half we put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into the Penrose Project. We developed the plans, wrote dozens of grant proposals, lined up hundreds of volunteer hours and spent time and money stabilizing the property. We met with the city building division for the details of the plan. Everyone was helpful and excited for what we were doing.

As the plan came into focus, we took on a couple of private investors to help cover the costs we were incurring through the project. We cleared one hurdle after another. The only hurdle we could not clear was the purchase price of the building. So Plan B was proposed: the city would lease the building to us for 99 years for a dollar a year. We would invest the money needed to improve and repair the building.

Then the obstacles came. The local developer that had written the RFP objected to the lease terms. Then the Alderman changed the terms. Our agreement for a 99 year lease was reduced to a 20 year lease that would have to be renewed every 5 years. Other restrictions were added as people tried to use their influence to take control of the facility. A community oversight board would be required and have say in how we used the building. All of these terms were imposed on the project after we agreed to the 99 year lease.

Our goal was to have a place that would benefit the community. We were taking all the risk. The building was vacant (and still is). We were the ones investing the time and money into repairing the building. There was no guaranty in the new lease that we would retain the building for more than six months. It could be taken away at any time and for any reason with six months notice.

Our Board of Directors considered aborting the whole project. Our desire to empower the residents and rebuild the neighborhood outweighed our concerns over the powers that were souring the deal. We were willing to risk much because we felt the benefit far outweighed the negative possibilities, so we proceeded with the plan.

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