Over the past four decades Richard Baron has made a name for himself as a pioneering developer of blighted urban neighborhoods. Baron’s firm, McCormack Baron Salazar has completed scores of projects in St. Louis and across the Midwest. As a native of Detroit, Mich., Baron came to Missouri in the late 1960s.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Adam Allington sat down with Baron at a housing conference of the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he asked him to elaborate on some of the development challenges—and similarities—between Detroit and St. Louis.
Allington: What are some of the immediate differences you see between the situation faced by St. Louis and Detroit?
Baron: You don’t have the same kind of rural-urban division in Michigan, because you have other large cities—Lansing and Flint, etc. The legislature in Michigan has been much more understanding of urban areas than the legislature in Missouri has ever been. So, the city of St. Louis has really had no help of any consequence from the state of Missouri and there’s always been this animosity between the rural and urban legislators.
Allington: What do you think the development priorities should be for St. Louis in 2012?
Baron: The important thing is that the communities begin to plan for alternative development strategies and not simply be paralyzed with the prospect of all this vacant land that stops them from thinking about what to do now over the course of the next 40 or 50 years.
My general impression is, both in Detroit and in St. Louis, is that the political and private sector leadership has stopped thinking about these issues and simply kind of shrugs its shoulders and says, “Well you know, there’s not much we can do.”
I think what really needs to happen at this point in time is there needs to be bold leadership, trying to think through how to repurpose these communities and I’m not sure that the political leadership or the private sector leadership is really up to the task.
Allington: It sounds like you’re not very optimistic, just talking about St. Louis in terms of the scope of the challenges and what our leaders are actually able to get done.
Baron: Well I think that it’s mixed. Obviously the deterioration of the City of St. Louis didn’t happen overnight. Very frankly, there are other communities in the United States that went through this same kind of transition, from an old economy to a new that have done much better—Kansas City and Pittsburgh for instance.
The whole demise of the steel industry in Pittsburgh and the pollution of all the rivers there, the business community in Pittsburgh in the 50’s and early 60’s made a decision to completely repurpose the city. They held the downtown core, there was a lot of investment that went in there and companies, rather than leaving and going to the suburbs, stayed and created new campuses…PNC, Mellon Bank, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Alcoa.
Allington: For several years now the developer Paul McKee has been trying to develop a large area of North St. Louis, over two square miles, are you optimistic about his chances for success?
Baron: Well I think Paul is to be commended for his vision and his energy to try to do something constructive in North St. Louis. I think history, certainly in this city and most places where we work, suggest that smaller would have been better. That it would have made a lot more sense to start out and get some things going.
The land that he acquired from the city was not going anywhere. The problem is that rather than taking, for example, what’s left of the old Pruitt-Igoe site and redoing it into something, Paul set out to have this vision of taking in all of this land and trying to get development going in that huge tract…and I think is going to be very, very tough.”
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington