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Economy & Business

Thoughts from the trenches: Urban developer says U.S. cities need a plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - St. Louis urban developer Richard Baron doesn't waste words summarizing what he believes the nation's cities need to start fixing decades of neglected blight: A plan.

Baron, the chairman of McCormack, Baron and Salazar, was to deliver the keynote address Feb. 27 at a Saint Louis University symposium on the complex relationship between property ownership and economic stability. His topic: "Urban Neighborhoods: Can the Stimulus Package Reverse the Course of the Last 40 Years?"

When the Beacon put that question to Baron earlier this week, his response was immediate and emphatic: "No."

Baron, a former legal aid attorney, co-founded his development firm that specializes in mixed-income communities and large-scale developments in historic structures and central-city sites. Among his most notable St. Louis accomplishments: founder of the Center of Creative Arts (COCA).

With project experience in 33 U.S. cities dating to the firm's founding in 1973, Baron offers a candid, street-level perspective on urban redevelopment. He voices a deep frustration with what he describes as a lack of leadership in establishing cohesive plans for the use of land and resources. That void, he says, has stalled progress on both a national and local level.

"You know, politicians have come and gone. Mayors have come and gone, and basically St. Louis just sits there," Baron said.

As an example, he points to the site of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex that was razed in the mid-1970s.

"North St. Louis doesn't look a hell of a lot different than it did 30 years ago - unfortunately," he said. "We took Pruitt-Igoe down in 1975, and that land is still sitting there."

Baron said the jury is still out on whether the new administration of President Barack Obama will change the course.

"Hope springs eternal, and my hope is that if we can get a little more energy coming out of Washington about these issues maybe they'll catalyze local leadership to get more engaged," Baron said.

Here are more of Baron's thoughts on key development topics:

Urban Investment

Baron points to a lack of public investment and focus on neighborhoods in blighted areas of cities, such as St. Louis, that have suffered from out-migration and population loss for 40 years. He also stressed the relationship between good public schools and redevelopment - and also his concerns about the closing of churches and of parish schools that served as neighborhood anchors.

Baron: "In certain cities like Detroit and other places where there were riots in the late '60s, those places are still sitting exactly as they were then. Newark, Camden [N.J.] There's been no investment either at the federal level or at the state level to try to reclaim these areas and rebuild them.

"The real point of all of this is that administrations have come and gone and have really never spent the time or the resources to try to find a way to reclaim these areas. With all of the re-do that has happened in places like Washington Avenue in St. Louis, where you have had a lot of loft redevelopment, it's the neighborhoods that have really been largely ignored. There really hasn't been any kind of major capital investment that has gone into these areas.

"In a lot of cities, these areas are adjacent to downtowns where there have been a lot of major sports venues built, casinos built, but the neighborhoods themselves continue to languish."

Infrastructure

Baron described the United States as "languishing'' from decades of failure to fund vital infrastructure projects.

"One of the things I'm particularly interested in is creating a national infrastructure bank. Sen. [Chris] Dodd has legislation that's intended to do this. It is something that must happen if we're really going to stay competitive as a nation. There isn't another industrialized country in the world that budgets capital expenditures the way the U.S. does, out of an annual operating budget. It's just absurd that we don't have for large capital projects -- ports, water, fast trains, airports -- a specialized kind of institution that finances these kinds of major projects that transcend state boundaries, that cut across regions of the country.

National Housing Policy

Baron said the Obama administration appears to be trying a new approach to coordinate the work of various agencies that currently operate independent of one another, and with little coordination.

"Obama is trying to initiate some new approaches, but I think that - and this is not a criticism - there is so much to do." Baron said. "The reality is the country hasn't had a housing plan for decades. There is no organized approach to deal with the issues of land use in the U.S., how we're going to begin to treat areas of cities and exurban areas. What are we doing in terms of integrating transportation with housing policy with issues related to the environment and all of the rest of it."

"Many years ago, under the [Lyndon] Johnson administration, a national housing policy, was developed, but that was the last time.

"Since the tax reform act of 1986, there really hasn't been any kind of major federal role in providing funds for housing development. The low-income housing tax credit, for example, is administered by Treasury, not HUD. HUD has very little role in development anymore, other than public housing."

Lack of a Local Plan

Baron said that Missouri officials and city officials in Kansas City and St. Louis have for decades neglected to develop a plan for reclaiming blighted land. He believes the location of Lambert Field has exacerbated the problem in St. Louis and that the city missed an opportunity to develop retail and housing around train stations during the building of the Metro transit system.

"I think that probably the most significant thing that did not happen for the city was when the proposal to relocate the airport to Waterloo, Ill. -- promoted by (Mayor Alfonso) Cervantes in the late '60s -- was killed," according to Baron. "That was the death knell in a certain respect because it would have changed the entire dynamic of the city had they been able to get that airport over there, much as the way they did in Cincinnati, where the airport is in Kentucky. It would have changed the whole loci of downtown, and it would have made it a much more attractive place for businesses to be close to the airport to locate in downtown rather than out in the county.

"We've had a real problem in St. Louis - sort of a vacuum of both public and private sector leadership. It just hasn't been a very creative community in dealing with a lot of these challenges that we have, and we're suffering now like everybody else with the downturn in the economy. Obviously, some positive things have happened in terms of reclaiming a lot of the historic infrastructure of the city -- Washington Avenue and a lot of the other projects that have gone forward. It's good that they have happened, but there's never really been an integrated plan that the city's had to really go after this in any kind of an orderly way.

"There was the situation with Metro. When all of that started back in the '80s there was no plan to take advantage of these transit stations -- to build housing around them, retail around them. To use them as an economic driver, as was done in many other cities around the U.S. when light rail went in. Here was this enormous investment that was made, and look at the stations, and they're bleak.

"You reach a point where you get terribly frustrated because the lack of leadership in this town is palpable -- both on the public side and the private side. Go to Atlanta or Minneapolis, and the energy level and the effort on the part of the public-private side -- partnerships, foundations -- everybody is pulling together and have had a much better success than in St. Louis. We've had passive leadership, a watering down of the executives of corporations that have left. We have had executives who have no real identification with the city -- who came in from out of town and live in the county and don't relate to the city much. And it's just a lot of little things that have exacerbated the problem."

About Richard Baron

His firm: Baron is co-founder of McCormack, Baron, Salazar, which since1973, has developed more than 100 projects in 33 cities. He is the firm's chairman and chief executive officer.

Professional achievements and honors include: 2004 recipient of the Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development; member of the executive committee of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association; member of the board of trustees, Saint Louis University; serves on the advisory board for the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy of the Brookings Institution; co-chairman of the Vashon Education Compact, which targets seven low-performing St. Louis public schools for transformation.

Education: undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio; master's degree in political science from University of California-Berkeley; law degree from University of Michigan.

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