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Economy & Business

Board of Aldermen approves McKee's NorthSide development and financing plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 30, 2009 - The $8.1 billion effort to revive north St. Louis took a big step forward Friday morning when the Board of Aldermen approved two bills approving a redevelopment plan and tax-increment financing for the first two phases of the proposed four-step project.

Now, more legislation has to be passed, after the first of the year, with specific plans for the NorthSide Regeneration project. Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, whose 5th Ward contains most of the land in the plan from developer Paul McKee, said after the vote that the approval gives the project momentum and will show the rest of the city and the financial world that change is possible in an area that has long suffered from neglect.

"When you look at the plan," she told her fellow board members before the vote, "it really is creating a blueprint to market this part of the city."

Aldermen voted to suspend the rules and pass the bills after Ford-Griffin detailed what they do and do not include. She emphasized once again that they do not authorize any use of eminent domain to take property, though they do say that the process can be used if further legislation authorizes it.

Nor do the bills include a guarantee from the city for part of the $391 million in tax-increment financing, a guarantee that McKee has said he needs for the project but that some city officials have said they would not approve. More than half of the TIF sought by McKee would go to the first two phases of the project.

Ford-Griffin said that any such guarantee from the city would be part of the negotiations set to begin soon on the new legislation needed to advance the project further.

She said she understood the reluctance to approve the guarantee. "We've had experience where the city has been at risk," she said, "and that didn't go well."

But she praised the overall scope of the plan, calling it a "holistic approach" that will mean more jobs, improvements in education and health care, a greener environment and better infrastructure. She hopes advancing McKee's plan helps draw the interest of other developers.

"For there to be big change in north St. Louis," Ford-Griffin said, "we have to have everyone who can help on board. This is the first time that has happened."

Passage of the bills will achieve one goal that McKee had sought -- being able to take advantage of $20 million in state tax credits for assembling the land needed for the projects. To get the credits, the bills approved by the aldermen had to be passed by the end of the year.

Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, was the only vote against the proposal at Friday's meeting. When the bills won approval from an aldermanic committee last week, Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, voted against them.

In both cases, the opponents said they were concerned about the ill feelings created by the secrecy McKee used in buying the property in the affected area. "In the short run," French said during discussion of the bills Friday, "doing it the way it has been done over the past five years damages the community."

Noting that someone else has begun buying up parcels of north St. Louis property outside of the McKee project area, French said the new effort makes it "very important that we do our due diligence here and make sure this is done in the proper way" in future legislation.

McKee has said he is not buying other property outside of the 1,500 acres in his NorthSide plan.

The first two phases of the project will concentrate on two areas: the western end of the Gateway Mall, near the 22nd Street exit from Highway 40, and the area where the new Mississippi River bridge will enter the city north of downtown. Most of the early tax-increment finance money will go toward rebuilding streets, sewers and other infrastructure.

The aldermanic vote caps a week of activity surrounding McKee's project. On Wednesday, he spoke to a lunch meeting at Union Station of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, where he reiterated the highlights of the plan:

  • Creation of up to 22,000 permanent jobs and 43,000 construction jobs.
  • Putting together a community where people can play, live, work, pray and learn.
  • Reviving an area that has seen 60 years of neglect.
  • Creating green space and environmentally sound energy sources, including wind, solar, cogeneration and power from the current of the Mississippi River.
  • Increasing the amount of tax money the city schools will receive.

Saying that the project has reached "the end of the beginning," McKee urged the representatives of downtown businesses to get involved.
"Please find your way in here," he said. "What can your business do, what can your church do, what can you do?"

On Thursday, a suit aimed at stopping the project was heard in St. Louis Circuit Court. Opponents of the plan say the TIF commission acted improperly when it recommended the tax plan to the Board of Aldermen because not all property owners affected were notified; there was not enough room or time for anyone who wanted to speak about the plan to do so at its hearing last month; and the commission does not have the required information about the financing commitments that McKee has so far.

Attorneys for the TIF commission and for McKee say the suit is without merit and the plan should be able to proceed.

Attorney D.B. Amon, representing the plaintiffs, says the ownership of the land involved is unclear because of the interlocking entities used to buy the property, and the amount of assets that McKee's Northside Regeneration LLC has is equally hazy.

After rulings by Judge Robert Dierker, both sides have 25 days to submit more filings in the case.

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