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Plaintiffs wrap testimony in trial over $8 billion development plan

By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis – The two people most instrumental in negotiating the agreement between the city of St. Louis and developer Paul McKee were on the stand Wednesday in the trial challenging the validity of those agreements.

Opponents of McKee's $8 billion plan for two square miles of north St. Louis contend the O'Fallon-based developer did not follow state and city laws in the plan he submitted to the aldermen. Therefore, attorneys say, the ordinances based on that plan are null and void. The aldermen have also approved $390 million in public financing, though no money has been issued. That requires separate legislation.

Attorneys had argued earlier in the trial that the documents did not include every segment required by state law. On Wednesday, they pointed to a specific city ordinance that requires any blighting study to be submitted to the city's planning commission. Neither deputy mayor Barb Geisman or alderwoman April Ford Griffin knew if that requirement had been fulfilled. Geisman is the city's top development official, and most of the two square miles is in Griffin's ward.

Blight is a central element to the plaintiff's case. They say McKee improperly blighted the area, pushing down the property values of residents and creating an air of uncertainty. But Griffin pointed out that at least one of the plaintiffs lives in a newer development and received a tax abatement - which required blighting. If blight pushes down property values, she said in an interview after her testimony, newer houses in the neighborhood would not have sold for $240,000, up from an original price of $83,000.

"So it could not possibly true that since December of '09, their property value went down in a couple of months because the area was blighted. The area was already blighted," Griffin said.

Opponents also say that McKee misled the aldermen on the issue of eminent domain. They have continuously referred to a PowerPoint presentation Geisman made that said churches and owner-occupied buildings would not be seized with eminent domain. Attorneys call that misleading because it's not specifically in any ordinances. But Geisman told the court the redevelopment agreements don't allow any eminent domain.

Geisman and Ford Griffin were the last two witnesses for the plaintiffs. McKee's vice president of finance, Russell Caplin, started his testimony Wednesday. He is laying down the financial basis for the two-square-mile project of homes and businesses, which a Washington University economist has called "pie in the sky."

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