This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2009 - To get a fresh picture of the problems and the promise of north St. Louis, you need to take your perspective to a higher plane - like a jet landing at Lambert Field, approaching from the east.
From that vantage point, says Richard Ward, a longtime observer of and participant in development in the city, you can see something that really shouldn't be there: lots of green space.
A look at a few properties
"If you fly over St. Louis and look down on the north side and see all this grass and know you're in the urban core of a metropolitan area," Ward says, "you say what the hell is going on? There is so much vacant land that is underutilized."
Ward was reacting to the ambitious plans of developer Paul McKee for a large portion of the city's north side -- plans that include houses, job centers, green space, schools, transportation and the kinds of urban magnets that would draw people to an area that has been too empty for too long.
While Ward and other students of development in St. Louis praised the vision and scope of McKee's plans, they know all too well the litany of past projects that have become object lessons rather than successes -- Mill Creek Valley and Pruitt-Igoe may be the first to come to mind. Asked what McKee can learn from that history, they had no shortage of suggestions.
"To be successful, because the ambition is so great, there ought to be some milestones that allow it to be achievable, things that can stand on their own," said architect Eugene Mackey of MackeyMitchell Associates and a board member of the St. Louis Beacon.
"That way, he ultimately might get to where he's going. A lot of things can happen over 20 years; a lot of things are going to change. So the plan he puts forward for a 20-year ambition is probably going to change. Does that mean we shouldn't be ambitious? No. But it's such a long reach to pull it off that I'm a little concerned about the staying power of a development business pulling it off over that period of time."
Steve Patterson, whose blog Urban Review STL keeps a close, critical eye on developments in the city, admits being skeptical of McKee's plans and prospects for success before details of his project were made public last month. Now, he says, he has a more positive view of the plans, though he points out there is a lot of suspicion and outright hostility that has to be overcome.
"McKee has a good track record of getting the big company headquarters, like MasterCard and Express Scripts," he noted, "so I think he will end up building something. But it's going to take other developers to fill in all the gaps.
"I'm optimistic he can do it. I hope he can do it. People who don't want him to succeed want the north side to fail. But there is a lot of mistrust out there, and there's a lot that can go wrong."
Much of that mistrust stems from McKee's secrecy as he purchased tracts of land through a number of different companies, spending what he says is $46 million of his own money in the process. Ward, who is with the St. Louis office of Zimmer Real Estate Services, understands the uneasiness such activity can cause, but he says it's necessary from an economic standpoint.
"You can't do this in a hail-fellow, well-met manner - 'Hey, I'm here to buy your house! Anyone else want to sell?' " he said. "That would just drive the price up to unacceptable levels, where the whole effort can't be sustained.
"But if you do it in secret, you're accused of being some kind of conspirator. It's kind of an impossible thing. You're damned if you try to keep it quiet. You can't go buy run-down properties and fix them up instantly. It's a tough, tough, tough business. I just think the whole atmosphere is rife with unrealistic expectations of how the process can and can't work."
The expectations game is particularly key here, Ward and the others said, because of the history of the area. He remembers taking urban planning students from Washington University on a bus tour of the north side, nearly 40 years ago, and he called the contrast between then and now "tragic."
"I remember vividly what that area was like then compared to what it's like today," Ward said. "People left that area and moved to the suburbs and left it sucking air. It's like Dresden after the war."
Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa who has written about urban decay in St. Louis in his book “Mapping Decline”, said the McKee proposal avoids some of the typical pitfalls of large-scale redevelopment projects. But, he added, the scale and the timetable do pose problems – ones that brought to his mind one of the city’s most notorious failures of renewal, a project that earned the dubious nickname of “Hiroshima Flats.”
“The timetable strikes me as too lax,” he said. “There’s a lot of public money upfront, and not any redevelopment for 10 years. That conjures up memories of Mill Creek Valley.”
One of the shortcomings there, Gordon added, was the relocation of people who were living in the area. “The footprint of the McKee proposal is virtually depopulated anyway,” he said, “but this is a community of people who have been burned too many times.”
The largest problem that McKee may face, Gordon said, is that the ambitious proposal lacks specifics. “Aside from the lines on the map,” he said, “there’s not much of a plan. It’s a little hard to get a handle on what the big vision is – who is going to live there, what is the housing going to look like, what is the employment going to be? What he is saying is he’s going to build stuff where there’s not stuff, and he’s going to build better stuff where there are only rundown buildings.
“The real riddle with this area of St. Louis is the inability to connect the dots, to make some sort of seamless pattern of development and redevelopment that would truly connect downtown, the riverfront, old north St. Louis and areas further west. It’s remarkable that you can stand in the middle of McKee’s footprint and hit downtown by throwing a rock, but you’re standing on property that’s worth next to nothing.
“While the scale of this thing is impressive, it’s still just a collection of individual pieces of property. I think there will be moderate success in redeveloping some pieces in it, but I’m not sure that private development with TIF money will be enough to restore the area altogether.”
Can McKee succeed where other visions failed? Mackey says the lessons from the past are vivid, but whether they can be put to good use is another question.
"Plans should be extremely realistic and have short-term accomplishments that we can feel good about, then move on to the next," he said. "The focus should be on early phases that are easier to achieve. If he can be successful with them, only then will those later dreams ever have a chance.
"I think it will take longer than he thinks. The first steps need to be really good, so he gains confidence, so the neighbors can say, I believe in you. Words are cheap. The first things he does have to be things that people can look to and say, 'Yeah, that's what it's going to be.'
"We've been down this road too many times. You can name project after project that never came to reality, dreams where one buildings got built and that was it. I'd like to see more than that, a first project that is something of enormous pride that is very successful."
Such success, adds Ward, has to come not only from participation by the city but also from people who want to move into the area.
"The fundamental thing is to be able to attract a market -- people who buy things they can afford with their own money, without depending forever on subsidies to occupy that space," he said. "Otherwise, we will go through another round of building something people don't want and will abandon.
"This is a very different era from the era of urban renewal. I certainly believe you need public assistance to deal with the primary issues of site assembly and infrastructure investment. Urban development is different from going into a field and developing a subdivision in O'Fallon, Ill., or O'Fallon, Mo. But at a certain point the market has to take over. You can't keep constantly underwriting it."
At the same time, Ward added, "you have to be respectful of the people who are still living there, through all the decline that took place over the last 50 years."
The job is a big one, Ward and the others said, and they wished McKee the kind of good fortune that has eluded similar projects in the past.
"He's got a mountain to climb," Ward said. "I wish him luck. I think he's doing the right thing, and I think it's a civic gesture."
Patterson, who has seen his skepticism turn to hopeful expectation, added:
"I think we'll see it taking shape, and most importantly I think we'll see people thinking of north St. Louis, as an option for people to work and live. Most people, black and white, don't see it that way today. It can be urban and walkable and green. I was pretty impressed generally, and I didn't think I would be. It was a pleasant surprise."