Steph Kukuljan – St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Mar. 28—ST. LOUIS — Copper thieves cruised downtown St. Louis’ underground tunnels to gain access into the Railway Exchange Building. Others lived in the ceilings between floors of the property’s 21 stories. Security officers hired to patrol the building never went alone.
Emails from Kenneth Knackstedt of Citizen’s Guard Security to St. Louis officials provided continuous updates of what the private firm encountered while on patrol at 615 Olive Street and what changes the absentee owner, Hudson Holdings, which hired the security firm, should make to improve safety.
“I think we are in a dire situation,” Knackstedt wrote in a February email. “I think we are on the brink of catastrophe.”
The emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch further detail the dangers security officers, first responders and utility workers faced at the Railway Exchange Building — as well as the growing frustration among officials over the lack of communication from Hudson’s Andrew “Avi” Greenbaum, even after the city condemned the property in January because of public safety concerns. Greenbaum did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is all due to the fact that the owner of this building has created this mess by not properly maintaining and securing the structure,” John McLaughlin, of the Public Safety department’s Problem Properties Unit, wrote in response to Knackstedt. “His inattention has now caught up with him.”
The nearly century-old building served as the headquarters of Famous-Barr parent May Department Stores before Macy’s acquired the company in 2005. Thousands of St. Louisans shopped there over the years before the retailer closed.
But Hudson has faced challenges with the property since acquiring it in 2017.
The company planned to redevelop the property into offices and apartments but a water main break that occurred just before Hudson closed on its acquisition complicated those efforts. The company was later sued by contractors, including top architecture firm CannonDesign, over allegations Hudson failed to pay them for work performed regarding the building.
A St. Louis Circuit Court judge last year ruled in contractors’ favor, saying Hudson owed them over $3.2 million, as well as attorneys’ fees. Hudson is appealing that decision. Hudson’s lender also is suing to foreclose on the property.
Although the last commercial tenant left nearly a decade ago, the Railway Exchange Building has become a destination for criminal activity and for homeless people seeking shelter after officials cleared encampments elsewhere in the city, according to the emails. The 1.2 million-square-foot building’s considerable size — it occupies an entire city block — also complicates efforts to secure the building and keep people out.
Knackstedt warned McLaughlin in a February email that a fire in the building could kill hundreds of people in a worst-case scenario, given the condition of the building and how people were now living in ceilings in between floors.
“There is going to be human loss of life and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent it at this point,” Knackstedt said in the email. “At this point, it’s gone too far.”
Just a few weeks after Knackstedt and McLaughlin’s exchange, a St. Louis Fire Department search and rescue dog was killed at the Railway Exchange while assisting homicide investigators in a search for a possible victim. The dog “hit” on a scent and fell about 90 feet through a fifth story window, the department said.
In a later email, Knackstedt told McLaughlin that trespassers were “coming and going freely” due to underground tunnels that led to the building. Ameren Electric workers encountered copper thieves while employees were working underground.
The workers told Knackstedt’s security officers that they felt unsafe and wanted to carry pepper spray, according to the email. Knackstedt said he advised against it because the tunnels had poor ventilation and the gas would also affect the workers. He recommended the tunnel’s entry into the building be closed to stop trespassers.
An Ameren spokesperson did not comment on the email, but said in a statement that it disconnected the Railway Exchange Building at the request of city officials after it was condemned, and that employee safety is always a priority.
In the same email, Knackstedt also recommended that a concrete wall be built on the pedestrian bridge connecting the building to its parking garage to eliminate that entry. City officials instead moved to demolish the bridge last week, with Hudson bearing the costs.
Knackstedt told the Post-Dispatch in text messages that his officers never entered the building alone because of the danger and that he staffed two security officers during the day and three security officers during night shifts. The number of trespassers dropped a few months after his security firm began patrolling, he said. But Greenbaum, who also does business under Triple Double Real Estate, recently replaced Knackstedt’s officers with another company called 3AM Security.
“It was a very, very dangerous job,” Knackstedt said.
He also lauded his interactions with the city and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, who were called when felonies occurred. He said it was difficult to reach Greenbaum, the owner, and that the owner never made the changes Knackstedt recommended in emails to McLaughlin, including closing the underground tunnels’ access into the building.
Nick Desideri, a spokesperson for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, declined to make McLaughlin available for an interview and requested questions in writing.
Nicole Franklin, a public information officer for the public safety department, said in a statement that the city is responsible for “upholding the minimum requirements established by the building code.”
“Like any property in the city,” Franklin said, “we hope the owner maintains the building in a responsible manner that does not jeopardize the health, safety or peace of the community as a whole.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify the ownership of the Railway Exchange Building.
Katie Kull of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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