McKee urges patience, activism to get Northside plan accomplished
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2011 - Paul McKee says his multibillion-dollar plan to redevelop a large swath of north St. Louis has hit several snags, including one recently at Clemens House, but conditions in that part of the city are too bad for him to back away.
In a document titled "An Open Letter to the People of St. Louis," released Wednesday, McKee sought to address the current status of his project. A judge's ruling threw a big roadblock in its path last year, and McKee has sought repeatedly to respond to criticisms about the scope and the motivation behind the plan.
In the letter, McKee said that far from being too ambitious and too far-reaching, his Northside Regeneration initiative is just what is needed for an area that has been allowed to deteriorate for far too long. (McKee was unavailable to comment on his letter for this story.)
"A panoramic approach is the only really sensible solution," McKee's letter said. "Piecemeal or pocket developments will not work because they will become isolated islands and targets because they will be surrounded by a sea of urban decay.
"It takes a large area of contiguous prepared land to create the development space needed for real JOB growth. Soon all the land will be assembled and cleaned up, including all the environmental issues!"
The letter said McKee wanted to respond to four fundamental questions people often ask about the project:
- What is the Northside Regeneration Initiative?
- Why not redevelop the Northside area a block at a time?
- Have the interests of the area's current residents been fully considered?
- What is the motivation for the development?
Responding with the words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, McKee wrote that to do nothing in the affected area is unconscionable.
"Large scale neglect, broken infrastructure and a hazardous environment (are) the current condition(s) in much of north St. Louis," his letter saids.
"This is the evil that exists in the midst of the good people of north St. Louis and the larger community. It is not acceptable."
The $8.1 billion, 1,500-acre Northside project appeared to be moving forward steadily until last summer, when St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker Jr. issued a 51-page ruling in favor of plaintiffs who had filed suit to stop it.
Dierker's ruling, which is now being appealed, essentially said that in granting McKee development rights, and approving nearly $200 million in tax-increment financing for the first two of the project's four phases, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen did not act properly.
The judge said that the "fatal flaw" in the process resulted from the fact that the plans in the McKee proposal were more vague than the law's requirement for specific projects.
Residents of the affected area who had brought the suit also expressed concern about the possible use of eminent domain to take occupied properties. The redevelopment agreement says that the process would not be used unless additional legislation that authorizes it is passed, and McKee has said repeatedly he does not plan to use eminent domain.
The plaintiffs also pressed their case that many parts of the area McKee seeks to redevelop are in good shape and do not need his help.
In his letter, McKee addressed those concerns again. He said the project does not intend to take anyone's home or business. He also noted that parts of the area have been declared blighted as far back as 1947, and he wanted to step up to bring jobs, homes, infrastructure, schools and other services to an area long neglected.
He referred repeatedly to what he called the required backing of "The Coalition of the Willing" -- "the neighborhood people, churchmen, civic groups, educational institutions and elected officials of the city and state -- all of whom want only the very best for the northside and for our entire area."
The plan, McKee wrote, is not one project but many, to be done not by one developer or one family, but a private-public partnership.
He acknowledged that the planned redevelopment of the Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue into senior apartments for low-income residents was unable to meet a deadline at the end of 2010 and had to surrender $2 million in tax credits from the Missouri Housing Development Commission. The Clemens House is the historic home of James Clemens Jr., who was either an uncle or cousin of Samuel Clemens -- better known as Mark Twain.
But, McKee said, the structure has been stabilized and hazardous materials have been removed, and his firm plans to move forward and restart the renovation process.
Besides, he added, the delay at Clemens House did not affect other parts of the project. He said work continues on an office/warehouse site, renovation of a school, demolition and environmental clean-up of more than 187 buildings and 2,800 sites and more.
Late last year, McKee was awarded another $8 million in tax credits as part of the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage program, passed in 2007. He had earlier been granted nearly $20 million in tax credits under the program, which is being challenged in the courts.
Eric Vickers, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in the suit in Dierker's court, said Wednesday he had written to the Missouri Department of Economic Development, saying that unless the latest $8 million in credits is rescinded, the earlier suit would be amended to challenge them as well, and seek monetary damages against officials who awarded them.
In his letter, McKee concluded by calling for community support for the Northside project, which he said will help the entire St. Louis area.
"There are three clear choices," he wrote. "Sit quietly on the sidelines, or take pot shots at our efforts as the area continues to slide into the abyss, or become part of The Coalition of the Willing and pitch in to make a difference.
"We have no secrets or hidden agendas. We'll show you how we can bring JOBS and businesses to the area. Let us show you our vision for state-of-the-art infrastructure, land utilization, preservation of existing homes and historic buildings, the creation of new homes, schools and workplaces and most of all JOB GROWTH."