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Grand vision collides with neighborhood mistrust at meeting on north St. Louis redevelopment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2009 - After developer Paul McKee presented his grand vision for regeneration of a large chunk of north St. Louis (see map at the end of this story), residents of the area and others attending a public meeting Thursday night broke up into small groups to discuss the project.

There, one man quickly focused on what may be the biggest obstacle that McKee faces: "What kind of guarantees can you give us that this isn't just a fantasy?"

Such skepticism was common among the 150 or so people in the crowd, about evenly divided between black and white. McKee himself acknowledged that he owed people who live in the area an apology for keeping his acquisition of property under the radar for so long. As he explained his approach, a heckler shouted denunciations laced with f-bombs, but the developer stood his ground.

"I didn't believe I could have purchased the land we did unless we did it the way we did," McKee told the crowd.

"I was not going to stand up in front of you unless we had purchased enough land. I didn't want to bring it to you unless we had enough land to do something with it."

The something that McKee presented is a $5.4 billion redevelopment project that he says could bring thousands of jobs, thousands of new homes, commercial space, green space, transportation and badly needed new sidewalks, streets and sewers.

The area would stretch from the intersection of Highway 40 and 22nd Street, east and north to the new bridge over the Mississippi River, then north to Natural Bridge and west past Jefferson.

McKee stressed that the philosophy that his McEagle Properties has brought to areas such as WingHaven in St. Charles County - build, fill, protect, sustain and share - would be key to whatever plan is finally developed for the area. The watchword, he added, would be creating a space where people can live, learn, work, play and pray.

"If St. Louis is to be great again," he said, "to really grow, what does it take? It takes jobs.

"We believe the north side is the gateway to the future of greatness in this city. We believe the north side is going to lead, not follow."

He noted that some of the projects he has developed in the area, including the 55-acre MasterCard complex in St. Charles County and the Express Scripts headquarters, on 25 acres east of Lambert Field, could not have been located in the city because there was not enough land available. But he also said that his new project would not try to replicate those developments.

"We are not going to try to bring something from St. Charles County or St. Clair County into the city of St. Louis," McKee said. "That doesn't work."

McKee, who lives in west St. Louis County, noted that his grandfather was a conductor on the Cass Avenue streetcar. But he and his colleagues acknowledged that he still has to overcome a reservoir of mistrust. "We are a bunch of white people from West County," he said. "I am white. I get it."

The need for such an admission became clear in the small group session run by McKee's son, Christopher, who is president of McEagle. Asking the group for concerns about the presentation, he got an earful: poor maintenance of property that McEagle already owns, a cavalier attitude toward long-time residents and a fear that the Power Point portrait of what the area could become was simply what one participant branded "lollipops and mochas."

Barbara Manzara, who is active in a group called Neighbors for Social Justice, said one person she knows -- who she said was a disabled veteran from Desert Storm -- was evicted from a home owned by McEagle after his utilities were shut off in February. McKee needs to go a long way to win over her and her neighbors, she said.

"It's either deliberate neglect or criminal incompetence," she said of how the company is handling properties it owns.

"My part of the neighborhood is very suspicious of these people. They want them to start mowing lawns and maintaining property."

Asked about the issue, Paul McKee said he has spent nearly $1.4 million in the past four years on property maintenance. He complained that he is being subjected to more scrutiny than other property owners in the area.

"Nobody paid attention to maintenance for 60 years," he said. "All of a sudden, a foreigner is buying property and they're holding me to a new standard."

Resident Natasha Ramey said she felt a little better about McKee and his colleagues after the presentation, but she remains wary.

"I'm glad they are trying to reach out and hear what people have to say," Ramey said, "but I don't know if they have their plans already. People have been kept in the dark for so long."

Alderwomen April Ford-Griffin and Marlene Davis, whose wards make up most of the redevelopment area, told the crowd that this was the first in a long line of public meetings that will be held until a formal plan is presented, possibly by this fall.

"We're not about to see cranes, shovels and hard hats tomorrow, next week, probably not even next year," Davis said. "We've had many thoughts and desires; what we're about tonight is to move past that."

Ford-Griffin added that McKee is going to have to make sure his vision is tempered by the many plans that have already been hammered out in her ward. But she appeared ready to move forward with the process.

"There's never a guarantee," she said. "But if we're not trying, then we are going to fail."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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