This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2013: When U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay introduced Mayor Francis Slay at his fourth-term inauguration, the St. Louis Democrat pledged to help make "the NorthSide Regeneration project a great success."
Clay called developer Paul McKee’s controversial and long-delayed plan "an opportunity to infuse millions of dollars in job-creating developments into a neighborhood that has been disinvested, underserved and under-appreciated for decades."
"The time for delays is over," said Clay in April. "The time for action is now."
Well, "now" has apparently arrived.
Clay will testify at a hearing at 10 a.m., Tuesday before the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee. Along with Clay, Slay will also testify in favor of activating tax increment financing for two parts of the project area. McKee has said the TIF financing is needed to kick the ambitious endeavor into high gear.
(Clay spokesman Steve Engelhardt confirmed that Clay would be at the hearing, although he added that may change if he is needed in Washington to deal with the shutdown.)
At least one alderman thinks that Clay's and Slay's support will have an impact. Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, said Friday that their appearance before the "HUDZ" committee “will buttress" the aldermanic support already there.
“A majority of aldermen want to give this development a chance to move,” said Wessels, the chairman of the HUDZ committee and a co-sponsor of Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard’s legislation. “Now that the litigation has ended, its time to move on.”
McKee’s proposal would use $390 million in tax increment financing as part of a 23-year, $8.1 billion redevelopment of 1,500 acres in north St. Louis. McKee’s plan had been tied up in court until earlier this year, when the Missouri Supreme Court threw out St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker’s ruling.
Tax increment financing will be used to improve infrastructure -- such as streets, sidewalks and sewers -- for the site. Two bills introduced last week, among other things, would “activate” two portions of the NorthSide’s footprint. Two other parts of the TIF area were activated in 2009.
During his appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast in September, Slay called McKee “a very unique individual” with “vision” and “determination.” McKee “has a good reputation to be able to get things done under very difficult circumstances.”
"I can tell you this," Slay said. "If it doesn’t work – and I think it will and I hope it does – that property will still be more marketable because of all the efforts that Paul McKee undertook to assemble those sites and bring them under the umbrella so that you can market those developers."
Slay went on to say that McKee wants to bring “opportunity, development, jobs, a better quality of living in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen those opportunities in a long period of time.”
“I think Paul has the ability to do it,” he added. “We have the commitment to work with him to make it happen.”
Even though the TIF bills are likely to pass, McKee’s proposal still hasn’t won everybody over.
At a standing-room-only hearing of the TIF Commission in August, speaker after speaker said McKee hadn’t provided residents with enough meaningful input regarding the project. Others bitterly criticized McKee for not maintaining the property that he had acquired.
Some aldermen have questioned whether McKee can deliver on the project. That includes Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, one of the few aldermen to vote against the 2009 legislation setting up the guidelines of the Northside TIF.
French – a member of the HUDZ committee – told the Beacon Friday that he’ll be “looking for some assurances that something is actually going to get done this time. And we’ll go from there.”
“My concerns are the same thing: Mr. McKee has been given at this point over $40 million in tax credits from the state,” said French, referring to land assemblage tax credit. “And we haven’t seen one development done. Not one house done.”
Still, "it’s definitely on the fast track, as all his bills are," French said.
(McKee has repeatedly stated that the litigation against the project brought any potential development to a halt.)
Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, said, “When I talk with people who are at the board or residents in my community, they would like to see it work well because it’s our only option at this point.”
But Ingrassia – whose ward is within the NorthSide footprint – said she would like to see McKee “do a little bit of compromising with the residents who have made his area and this TIF area a home for many years.” Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr., D-3rd Ward, made statements in remarks before the TIF Commission and in an interview with the Beacon.
Zach Chasnoff of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment said his group would try to convince aldermen to amend the TIF plan to “grandfather” property taxes for residents. He also wants some TIF money “earmarked for residents of the area" so they can make property improvements.
Ingrassia, though, said McKee hasn’t been receptive to those ideas. A spokesman told the Beacon last month “we have not anticipated changes to the TIF.”
“I’m trying to still work with him and his attorney to see if we can come to a resolution,” said Ingrassia, adding that she expects plenty of "public input" at Tuesday's hearing.
'What’s the alternative?'
Wessels told the Beacon that he expects Hubbard’s legislation to get a “do pass” recommendation from his committee.
“I know there’s opposition to it,” Wessels said. “But my feeling is – and I think a majority of aldermen feel the same – how many developers have we had that have taken on large parts of north St. Louis and wanted to do some serious job creation and housing? We’ve had none really.”
And when asked whether McKee’s development would raise property taxes and make cost of living unaffordable for current residents, Slay said, “My take is: What’s happened so far?”
“The properties that he bought, almost nobody else wanted,” Slay said. “I mean, that’s what we’re talking about: a lot of infrastructure issues, a lot of environmentally contaminated properties. I mean what’s the alternative?”
“My guess is not every single person is going to like it,” Slay said. “But if we had to wait for every single person to like everything we did, we wouldn’t get anything done. But I do think (McKee's) been out in the community. He’s been to neighborhood meetings. He’s heard a lot of people talk. And we’ve all listened and worked with him to be sensitive to all the issues.
“But ultimately, this is a big project,” he added. “And this is one that I think is worth pursuing.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.