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Issues of blight, eminent domain spark sharp words in McKee trial

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2010 - The most emotional issues surrounding Paul McKee's $8.1 billion redevelopment plan for north St. Louis -- eminent domain and blight -- were the focus of sometimes contentious testimony Wednesday in the trial challenging how the project was approved.

On the stand were Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, whose 5th Ward makes up a large part of the redevelopment area, and Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development. Ford-Griffin, who once had been vocal against McKee's purchase of property in the ward, later worked with him to develop the plan.

Asked why she changed, she responded: "I never changed." She said that McKee began working with the community instead of being unreachable, and that cooperation helped bring his vision more in line with what had been projected for the area.

On the subject of eminent domain, attorney Eric Vickers pressed Ford-Griffin on why the redevelopment plan and ordinance do not specifically say that the project will not take owner-occupied homes or churches, as she and other officials have stated repeated.

Before the question could be answered, Vickers and Paul Puricelli, an attorney for McKee, had a heated exchange over that issue as well as the question of whether the area is truly blighted Finally, Circuit Judge Robert Dierker's exasperation boiled over.

"Wait a minute!" he said sharply. "We're going to have a question and we're going to have answer."

Eventually, Ford-Griffin was able to discuss the issues, which she elaborated on later in an interview on the courthouse steps. On blighting, she said:

"The conditions are there, whether you say it's blighted or not."

Geisman also was questioned about eminent domain and said there was no need to spell out the exceptions for owner-occupied homes or churches. She said eminent domain cannot be used unless further ordinances are passed by the Board of Aldermen.

She also defended the city for not hiring an outside consultant to determine whether the project area met the definition of blight.

"I think it would have been a waste of money," Geisman said, "because it was clear to anyone who looks at the area that it was blighted."

One curious feature of the project map is a small notch cut into area that excludes the property at 900 N. Tucker Boulevard -- the building owned by the Post-Dispatch. Asked whether she talked to executives at the newspaper about exempting it from the redevelopment area, she replied:

"When you take the news media and put them into a plan like this, it makes sense to go and talk to them."

In testimony earlier on Wednesday, an author of the redevelopment plan said that some of the homes to be built in the area are projected to sell for as much as $750,000.

Larry Marks, a principal in the firm Development Strategies, went through the process used by the company to determine what kind of residential, retail, office and services would be built in the area over the plan's 23-year term.

For each sector, he said, the firm conducted what he called a gap analysis. He determined what was available now, then projected what would be needed as the development proceeded.

In terms of residential construction, Marks said, the plan calls for an average of 500 units a year, or about 10,000 total. Of those, 53 percent would be for sale -- either single-family homes, townhouses or condominiums. The rest would be rental property, with about 3,500 of those going at market rates with the rest being subsidized.

Marks said projections showed that the price of the homes would range from less than $200,000 to more than $750,000.

That last figure prompted attorney Vickers -- who represents the property owners in the area who have brought suit seeking to stop the project -- to ask rhetorically whether anyone living there now could afford such an expensive home. He also asked what would happen to residents who were displaced because of the development.

The suit was brought by property owners who say the city did not act properly in approving the redevelopment plan or approving tax-increment financing that McKee says is needed for the project to occur.

Under questioning by Puricelli, the attorney for McKee, Marks said the North Side redevelopment plan conforms to requirements in both the overall city land use plan, from 2005, and a plan for the city's 5th Ward, which makes up a large part of the project area. That ward plan was developed in 2000.

Comparing the McKee plan with the 5th Ward plan, Marks said, "What's being proposed is a way of implementing the 5th Ward plan."

Marks said he took place in weekly meetings with city officials to put the proposal together before it was submitted and approved last year.

Tax-increment financing for $390 million won approved for use in the first two phases of the plan, which include the western end of the Gateway Mall and the area north of downtown where a new Mississippi River bridge will reach the city. The TIF will not be fully implemented until further legislation is passed; there is an April 1 deadline for that to occur, but Ford-Griffin acknowledged that may be extended.

Marks said the TIF money will be used for infrastructure costs, including streets, sidewalks and other facilities. "The sewer system is shot," he said.

The estimated cost of infrastructure improvements is more than $1 billion, he said.

Testimony in the trial ended Thursday. Dierker, who is hearing the case without a jury, gave attorneys time to file additional written arguments, after which he will make his ruling.

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