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Commentary: McKee's chance for a historic do-over

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 7, 2010 - It may seem like a setback, but St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker's ruling against Paul McKee's grandiose $8.1 billion North Side vision could be a blessing for the developer, residents in the proposed revitalization area and the entire region.

In his ruling, Dierker accurately noted the overzealous efforts of city officials who blighted 1,100 acres of land and threw $390 million in tax increment financing toward a project largely based on unspecific, smoke and mirror projections. McKee pledged to build 10,000 homes and bring 20,000 new jobs over the next two decades. The "pledge" didn't pass Dierker's smell test. TIF statutes demand more than dispensing taxpayer dollars to "favored redevelopers whenever the city feels like it," the judge wrote.

Some have speculated that Dierker's ruling could force a rethinking of the entire project. One hopes that McKee and political officials will not only re-think the plan but retool an outdated and elitist redevelopment template.

McKee can't really be blamed for using his wealth and influence to persuade politicians to direct almost $400 million in city TIF money and more than $83 million in state tax credits. As with the crippled Ball Park Village project, local politicos have trouble expanding their vision beyond tax breaks and tax dollars to rich developers with trickle-down promises of job creation and increased tax revenue. Politicians backed by local media condescendingly sell these short-sighted scenarios as gifts to taxpayers. Residents and small developers who invested in the target areas are bullied and made to feel insignificant for opposing these profit-driven plans.

McKee can be blamed, however, for playing the old-style, clandestine game that enraged at least three plaintiffs enough to take him to court. For years, through various holding companies, the O'Fallon, Mo.-based developer quietly bought hundreds of properties across two square miles of north St. Louis -- properties that residents say McKee neglected.

Mckee alone must shoulder the responsibility for not articulating a shared vision before regional skepticism cemented. He failed to take into account St. Louis' history, including the demolition of Mill Creek Valley in the late 1950s and the 57-acre Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in the early 1970s that transported thousands of poor, mostly black people, away from their homes and businesses in the name of urban renewal.

Use of a powerful but singular revitalization vision might have blinded McKee and the politicians who support his plan to the potential of community involvement, collaboration and empowerment. They seem to have missed the new federal template the Obama administration has endorsed for urban revitalization. Stressing that "strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America," Obama has directed federal agencies to coordinate services and target resources that impact struggling metropolitan and rural areas.

No longer are urban dwellers seen as government-fed albatrosses. Obama has called on private, nonprofit and grassroots organizations and agencies to collaborate and provide intricate details defining how local, integrated approaches with government assistance can revitalize distressed communities. More than $1 billion has been proposed in Obama's 2011 budget for initiatives such as Promise Neighborhoods, Healthy Food Financing, Sustainable Communities, Social Innovation Fund, Choice Neighborhoods and other programs. Each of these, based on proven models, was developed to ensure that distressed communities have access to good jobs, quality schools, affordable homes, reliable transportation and healthy food choices.

A prime example of this integrated approach is Obama's Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI). The model for this is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative in which a $30 million state loan led to an eventual $190 million private/public investment: 83 markets were created in underserved communities, access to healthy food improved for more than 400,000 low-income people in the state and more than 5,000 jobs were created.

The success of the Pennsylvania project was not only due to respectful, effective collaborations between public, private, grassroots and individuals. The ability to share a do-able vision with all stakeholders was also key. Unlike McKee's project, residents bought into a vision of revitalization. They understood the potential of turning vacant properties into urban farms that could provide fruits and vegetables to stores and schools. They saw themselves as owners, employees of local grocery stores and active benefactors in communities where opportunity competed with drugs and poverty.

Obama is also committed to replicating Geoffrey Canada's successful Harlem Children's Zone across the nation. Cities, including St. Louis, have submitted Promise Neighborhoods proposals hoping to be selected for the federal programs. The Human Development Corporation, the Incarnate Word Foundation and other local agencies are building ties to implement proposed federal initiatives. Even if we are not selected, these newly formed consortiums, partnered with regional decision-makers, can still be major forces for significant community change.

Ironically, McKee's projections echo Obama's passion for urban redevelopment. McEagle, McKee's real estate company, lays out a wish list on its website for collaborative endeavors on public, private school options, job education centers, environmentally friendly projects and new efficient, energy and transportation systems. As part of a well articulated, mutually empowering collaborative, they could serve as a game-changing template for the region.

Judge Dierker's ruling provides an excellent opportunity for McKee to revamp and promote a vision where residents see themselves as engaged contributors and participants -- not as possible benefactors of his largesse.

No doubt, McKee has the influence to complete his project regardless of the judge's ruling. The burning question is whether it will be just another massive development deal or will be a model for revolutionary, mutually empowering urban revitalization.

When addressing Judge Dierker's decision, City Counselor Patty Hageman said the city does not "believe the ruling is an end to a visionary attempt to revitalize the north side."

Hageman is absolutely right. It doesn't have to be the end. It can be a new beginning -- one that breaks the safe mold of rich developers getting richer off tax breaks endorsed by well-funded political allies.

"Visionary" is the operative word. With diverse, collaborative public/private/grassroots partnerships, with government assistance and, most important, an empowering, shared vision of implementation, McKee's project could become the nation's model for true, sustainable and empowering 21st century urban reform.

Sylvester Brown Jr. is the former publisher of Take Five Magazine and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Since leaving the Post-Dispatch in 2009, Brown has been focusing on efforts to revitalize urban communities through innovative social initiatives and grassroots activism.

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