St. Louis Public Radio News
7:33 am
Wed September 16, 2009

Uncertainty over development plan raises concerns in the community

St. Louis – Developer Paul McKee wants to spend $8 billion to revitalize two square miles of north St. Louis near downtown. He's already spent millions buying up property. Still, he controls just a fraction of the land he needs, and he wants the city to grant him the right to redevelop the rest.

That has some people who live and work in the area concerned about their future, and the possibility of eminent domain.

The building that houses Trojan Ironworks is - by owner Andy Lowrey's admission - nothing fancy. Just four brick walls, some grates over the windows, and a painted metal sign. Among other things, Lowrey's company makes steel beams - a key part of modern construction. In 2005, Lowrey received a letter. Someone - it didn't say who - wanted to buy his building. He called the number and got an offer for $10,000

"I [told the real estate agent] I wouldn't be interested in that," Lowrey said.

Today, Lowrey finds Trojan Ironworks on a long list of properties Paul McKee wants the city to declare blighted. The developer wants to tear down old buildings in this area to make way for a planned community. McKee says it's still in the conceptual phase, but the idea is this: three "job hubs" for more than 20,000 workers, plus 10,000 new homes, parks, schools and churches.

Andy Lowrey said he is willing to relocate if St. Louis aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay green-light this plan. But with the recession, Lowrey said any new expenses could upset a delicate balance sheet.

"Here at Trojan Ironworks, everything is paid for," Lowrey said. "The building is paid for. All the equipment is paid for. So the overhead is pretty small."

Lowrey said permit fees or a new mortgage could spell the end of his family's enterprise. But it's not just business owners who are concerned about their property rights. Lilly Cage still lives in the north side home where she raised 13 children.

"I've seen four generations come through that house," Cage said. "It has plenty of room in it, high ceilings. It's well kept."

Cage said she planned on retiring in the home, and is concerned about the future of the neighborhood if her home and others are claimed by eminent domain.

Publicly, McKee has said he prefers to buy property from willing sellers. Eminent domain would cost him a lot of money and time. In July on St. Louis on the Air McKee said one of his goals is to keep the community intact.

"There's roughly 8,900 people who live within these boundaries," McKee said. "We want everyone to stay and not leave. It's very important. These people are pioneers. It's their community."

But later, in an interview he declined to let us record, McKee said he needs the power of eminent domain before bankers will give him financing. Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin's ward covers a much of the proposed redevelopment zone. She supports McKee's plan, but said she understands her neighbors' concerns about property rights.

"There will be no eminent domain for sure on any residential [property] or churches," Ford-Griffin said. "There may be some eminent domain on commercial property."

McKee's initial proposal, submitted last week, does not request eminent domain rights at all. But that same document indicates developers could ask later. At this point anything McKee wants to do faces a lengthy approval process at city hall.

All that is no consolation to metal shop owner Andy Lowrey. The mixed messages he's heard about this project have made him uncertain about the future of his own business.

"What do we do?" Lowrey asked. "I think we look for another building if we can."

At the same time, Lowrey said he would like to stay and be part of a revitalized north side. As a maker of steel beams, metal hand rails and other building materials, he'd welcome the construction boom Paul McKee is promising.