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Article updated: 11/12/2013 12:19 AM

Key part of downtown St. Charles project on thin ice

By James Fuller

The developers of arguably the most visible portion of the First Street project yet to be built repeatedly referred to their prime downtown St. Charles land as "a novel that's not yet written" Monday night.

But comments from aldermen indicated they view the project as a five-year horror story with an end they are prepared to write themselves.

SMN Development owns the former Manor Restaurant site. The group also has a purchase agreement to acquire 52-foot-wide piece of land right at the corner of First and Main streets. That agreement will expire Nov. 19 unless the city council extends the contract next week.

Aldermen, meeting as a committee Monday, sought reasons why the pages of the property's development story are still blank after five years.

"This has been going on for years now, and we've seen nothing there," Alderman Ron Silkaitis said. "I just don't think you're moving fast enough. We've granted several extensions, and nothing has happened. You have a plan, which is nice, but you have no financing."

Attorney Joe Klein said aldermen should not hold SMN Development to a higher standard than any other project in the city. Klein said city officials would be hard pressed to name any other project in town that flourished during the recent economy.

"The demand for retail and office space just stopped," Klein said. "Office space, retail lease space, build-to-suit space, there was just no demand for that product."

But Alderman William Turner said that's not what city taxpayers want to hear when they ask about why the downtown isn't bustling.

"We have to look at this as what about the (52-foot-wide parcel)," Turner said. "Could that be given to (another developer)? Get an appraisal, condemn it, and give it somebody else. That's out there."

Klein said local taxpayers need only look as far as their own declining home values and rising taxes as reasons why development hasn't progressed. He asked aldermen to put sand back in the hourglass and treat SMN as a new developer coming onto the project in an emerging economy.

New plans, new rental and lease pricing, new construction cost estimates -- all that must be redone now that the economy is changing, Klein said. And that work takes time.

"We don't want to build a building that's going to sit vacant," Klein said. "I would love to give you a time frame, but I don't know that I can."

Aldermen indicated they may give Klein until February to get a rough estimate of whether his project is still viable or can be somehow altered to become viable. But the actual vote on the extension won't come until next Monday.

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