University City leaders try to reassure residents, business owners about redevelopment plan
Residents and business owners in University City are split over whether the city should spend taxpayer money on a plan that would bring a big-box retailer and other amenities to Olive Boulevard.
The divide was apparent at a Wednesday meeting, where city leaders tried to make a case for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to revitalize the area known as Olive Link.
Months ago, talk surfaced among University City residents and businesses owners around the Olive business district that the city had put out a redevelopment request. Novus Development responded to the request for a proposal with plans to bring in a large retailer — rumored to be Costco — a hotel, apartments and other amenities to the area known for its ecclectic mix of Asian eateries and other businesses with international flavor.
It would be the first of a three-phase proposal city leaders say will revitalize the Third Ward. The second and third phases of the project would address residential and commercial improvements, supporters said.
All in all, about 800 acres of land are earmarked for redevelopment — areas the acting University City Community Development Director Rosalind Williams has said are blighted.
Costs: Phase One: $189.5 million Phase Two: $14 million Phase Three: $5 million
At the meeting, Ward Two residents Dennis and Helen Fuller both stood to say they want the benefits of what a commercial project of this size could bring. Dennis Fuller added that while he understood they didn’t live in the affected area, "This will not just benefit the Third Ward."
Third Ward Aldermen Stacy Clay and Bwayne Smotherson called on the Tax Increment Financing Commission to recommend the council approve the plan.
“The recovery economically in the Third Ward hasn’t been the same that it has been in the First and Second Wards, and due to that, what the city has decided and this council has decided is to take advantage of what the TIF subsidy will bring,” Smotherson told St. Louis Public Radio.
Residents have had questions over eminent domain concerns, relocating and gentrification, all issues that surfaced during public comments. Third Ward resident Sonya Pointer urged the council to delay a recommendation for more discussion.
She added while council and commission members are lauding the economic benefits of the commercial project, that higher property values would lead to higher taxes and mortgages. She stressed her concern over gentrification.
“Being able to afford your homes later on is very important,” Pointer said.
Residents also said they appreciate the cultural diversity of the neighborhood and worry a large shopping center would detract from that. The developer has assured skeptics that it, too, wants to retain diversity.
City manager Gregory Rose attempted to allay those concerns, saying that millions of dollars would be available to homeowners in the form of low-interest loans and home-improvement loans. He also repeated that “eminent domain will not be used for any owner-occupied residential properties anywhere in the redevelopment area.”
Charles Berry Jr.’s family has owned a 18-unit apartment building on Olive for decades. He wondered what would happen to renters in the area.
Berry was also one of many who asked a more existential question: Why?
Why bring in a large retailer when some big-box stores are struggling to compete with online retailers? He also questioned the fiscal prudence of adding to urban sprawl, when the next generation of renters and homeowners are showing interest in walkable, urban environments.
“This idea, 10 years from now? Who's going to foot the bill?” Berry asked.
For now, University City leaders have agreed to continue holding meetings for public comment.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.