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Economy & Business

McKee plan passes committee vote, now goes to full Board of Aldermen

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2009 - Despite lingering concerns over the use of eminent domain, a committee of the Board of Aldermen voted Thursday to send the $8 billion plan to develop north St. Louis -- and nearly $200 million of tax-increment financing to help finance the opening phases -- to the full board.

The plan by developer Paul McKee could win final passage in the board as early as next week.

By votes of 13-1, the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee advanced two bills for the project; alderman Terry Kennedy cast the lone "no" vote in both cases.

After the votes, McKee called the committee decision "an incredibly crucial step. To get the kind of support that we have been getting is very gratifying."

But McKee sidestepped commenting on the continuing worries expressed by some residents of the redevelopment area about whether their property would be subject to being taken by eminent domain, saying: "Leave me out of it. It's up to the aldermen."

The first two phases of the NorthSide Regeneration project would redevelop areas near the Highway 40 exit at 22nd Street, near Union Station, and where the new Mississippi River bridge would enter the city north of downtown. Most of the tax-increment financing for those two parts of the plan would pay for improved streets, sewers and other infrastructure.

The overall size of the project includes 4,600 parcels of land on 1,500 acres. Development is scheduled to begin next year and continue until 2030, with plans calling for homes, shops, job centers and more. It is projected to create up to 22,000 permanent jobs and 43,000 construction jobs.

In addition to receiving tax-increment financing, McKee is seeking other government assistance, including $20 million in tax credits for assembling the land; that program, approved by the Missouri Legislature, requires that the redevelopment plan be approved by the city before the end of the year.

Further legislation, spelling out the project in far more detail, will have to be passed after the first of the year.

McKee also wants the city to guarantee up to half of the amount of the TIF, but that guarantee is not part of the legislation that was advanced by the board committee on Thursday. Comptroller Darlene Green has indicated she would oppose any such guarantee.

Also not included in the bills sent to the full board is authorization for McKee to use eminent domain. What the bills do say is that for eminent domain to be used, new legislation would have to be passed by the Board of Aldermen.

April Ford-Griffin, the alderman whose 5th Ward contains much of the redevelopment area, said repeatedly during Thursday's hearing that eminent domain should not be a worry. She also said that though the bills declare the area blighted, that designation is not the same as condemnation but is needed to get public incentives.

McKee has said previously that he does not expect to have to use that power to take any property needed for the project.

But such assurances by the aldermen and by McKee did not mollify several opponents of the project who spoke up during the public comment portion of the aldermanic hearing.

Keith Marquard, who owns property in the affected area, put his objections this way:

"By including any possibility of eminent domain in this bill, you are stripping wealth away from people who live in this area. You're signing away their rights forever."

Other speakers called for the aldermen to seek a definite list of any property that might be taken by eminent domain, then put a time limit on how long that process could be open for use. Barbara Manzara, a resident of the area, said she was not satisfied with assurances that eminent domain would not be used.

"Intentions are not legal guarantees," she said.

Compared with a hearing on the McKee proposal before the TIF Commission last month, Thursday's session was relatively tame. About two dozen people signed up for three-minute speaking slots, divided roughly evenly for and against the project. Committee chairman Fred Wessels cautioned the crowd about clapping and other expressions of support.

The room was nearly filled, but not to overflowing as last month's hearing was in the same room at City Hall. By the time the session ended about three hours later, only a smattering of people remained.

Ford-Griffin opened and closed the session, first introducing the two measures to her fellow board members, then responding to many of the public comments. She said that because the current legislation involves only the first two phases of the project, the aldermen and city residents should be able to get a good idea of how serious McKee is on following through on his proposals.

"That will give us experience with the developer to see if things go as we were told they would," she said, adding later:

"This is a vision. It's pretty pictures. I don't know if all of it will happen the way it's supposed to happen. But if only half of it happens over 20 years, we will be a lot better off than we are today."

Frustrated because of the continuing concerns about eminent domain and frequent criticism that she has changed her view of the project to get more in line with McKee, Ford-Griffin said that it is McKee's plan that has changed as he has met with city residents and heard their thoughts about the project.

"I've been consistent in saying that if Paul McKee wants to do development, he has to come to us and talk to the community," she said.

McKee emphasized that the main point of the redevelopment is to revive north St. Louis and bring employment to the region.

"In the real estate business," he said, "we talk about location, location, location. I want to add to that jobs, jobs, jobs. That's what we are about."

Giving new details about the project, he said by the time the redevelopment is complete, the city schools would receive $80 million as opposed to the $3.2 million they are getting now. And he said plans for refurbishing of the Clemens House, now in a bad state of disrepair, are progressing and a formal announcement should be made by the beginning of next month. But his reassurances were not enough for many in the audience.

Thomas Duda voiced opposition to the "staggering amount" of TIF money sought for the project, saying:

"Nobody opposes development. People oppose the mechanisms employed by Paul McKee. We shouldn't pretend this money will come from magical new revenues."

Alderman Kennedy, the only vote against the two bills, said he was mainly concerned about the process used to reach this point in the redevelopment project. But he made it sound as if his negative vote won't necessarily hold up when the full board considers the plan.

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