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The future of Pruitt-Igoe rests with Paul McKee

Grace Baptist Church, on Cass Avenue, as seen from the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Grace Baptist Church, on Cass Avenue, as seen from the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.

Developer Paul McKee has held a $1 million option to buy the former Pruitt-Igoe site from the city of St. Louis for three years.

That option was set to expire later this month.

But the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority extended McKee’s option for the second time in three years during a closed meeting. It was part of an agreement the city made with McKee to buy land he owns within the proposed site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on St. Louis’ north side.

"As we negotiated back and forth each of us had deal points, and yes, this was one of them," said Otis Williams, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, which is heading up the city’s bid for the NGA.

That deal is contingent on the NGA actually landing on the city site, Williams said. NGA director Robert Cardillo will choose from among four possible sites this spring. That includes nearly 400 acres of farmland near Scott Air Force Base that St. Clair County officials have offered the federal government free of charge.

St. Louis officials have estimated the cost of buying out property owners and moving businesses within its 100 acre-site, as well as remediating the land, will cost at least $130 million. Just what the city will pay McKee for his land will not be made public unless the NGA chooses the site and after the final sale takes place.

What is known is that McKee and his company, Northside Regeneration, did not have to pay a $101,700 option fee required in its last contract with the LCRA.

"There was a one-time fee that we did charge, but because all of this has been about negotiations, the fee was not invoked," Williams said.

As part of the original agreement back in 2012, McKee paid 10 percent of the $1 million option fee. That money is held by the LCRA and will be applied to the total purchase price for Pruitt-Igoe if McKee exercises the option. LCRA allowed McKee to extend the option for two years in 2014, without paying the required option fee that time either.

Banking on the NGA

The original Pruitt-Igoe development included 57 acres and 33 high-rise buildings that were each 11 stories.

ThePruitt-Igoe federal housing project included 33 high rises built for low income families in the mid-1950s. Over the next 20 years financial problems, maintenance issues, and the complex’s demise into poverty, drugs and crime led the federal government to abandon it. By 1976 all of the apartment buildings had been demolished.

Forty years later McKee holds the option to buy about half of the original site from the city. The 33 acres is covered with trees and the remnants of former high rise buildings. During a recent bus tour of the proposed north city NGA site, Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay pointed out Pruitt-Igoe.

"It was a federal disaster," Clay said. "We think bringing in the NGA would help right that wrong."

It’s a sentiment the city highlighted in its second briefing book to the NGA.

"One of the largest pieces of that land, the former Pruitt-Igoe site, is one of the first logical sites for the development of community services and amenities," the briefing stated.

The report goes on to talk about Northside Regeneration’s plan for a 3-bed urgent care facility. The state approved a Certificate of Need for the hospital two  years ago.

Credit (St. Louis 2nd Edition Briefing Book)
A map of the proposed NGA development in the city's second briefing shows the amenities officials expect will follow the federal agency.

"This effort is underway for final approvals and development, with a proven successful health care organization to operate the facility," the report said.

The identity of that operator has not been made public yet.

Meanwhile, a bill to rezone the area to commercial went before the Board of Aldermen’s Housing and Urban Development Committee last month. Officials with the St. Louis Development Corporation said the rezoning was needed to limit buildings to three stories, a requirement of the NGA.

While the bill passed easily, several aldermen questioned the wisdom of relying on McKee, who has not developed a project since buying more than 2,000 parcels on the city’s north side.

"My concern is that when it comes to this Northside Regeneration project and this developer we’ve been promised a lot over the years," said 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French. "We’ve been shown concepts a lot over the years, but it’s never been very strong on substance."

Williams assured the committee that the agreement with McKee includes performance requirements within certain timeframes.

Yet all of that agreement is contingent on whether the NGA chooses the city.

(Check out a 2009 report St. Louis Public Radio did on Northside Regeneration as the city still grappled with  Pruitt-Igoe's failure.)

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.

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