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McKee gets initial approval for massive TIF

By Rachel Lippmann

St. Louis – Developer Paul McKee has received initial approval for a plan to redevelop a wide swatch of north St. Louis. The St. Louis Tax Increment Finance Commission unanimously voted Wednesday night to approve the largest TIF request in the city's history - $390 million.

McKee wants to build houses, office buildings, and stores across more than two square miles of north St. Louis. Construction would take more than two decades and cost $8 bilion in all.

McKee had discussed this plan at small neighborhood meetings which media were discouraged from attending. The scene Wednesday was much different. An overflow crowd packed a hearing room at St. Louis City Hall. Some who could not get in milled in the hallway, and others left.

McKee had spoken often of a "silent majority" that backed his controversial proposal, and he did have supporters in the crowd. Many wore bright green shirts emblazoned with the logos of McKee's companies.

Union members said they could benefit from the promised construction boom. But others, like Gerald Harsley, just want to see something done in their neighborhoods.

Harsley moved to a house in the middle of the redevelopment footprint 20 years ago, and has been looking at a vacant lot in his backyard ever since.

"Coming from Chicago I'm not quite sure how long it's been vacant, but 20 years is long enough to cry out for some kind of development," Harsley said. "Nothing from nothing leaves nothing."

Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, whose ward includes most of the property, raised a similar point.

"Every time it's election time, the very thing the opposition comes with, is she didn't bring a grocery store, we don't have places to shop, when are we going to get some more development," she said, occasionally eliciting cheers from the crowd." "So people have overwhelmingly told me for 12 years to go get some development."

Ford-Griffin said her initial opposition to McKee was based on his secrecy. She said the more she learned about his vision for the North Side, the more she saw how closely it matched with her own, and she's now firmly on board.

Opponents like Dogtown resident Scott Ogilvie call McKee's plan the wrong kind of development.

"There's no record of any project in an already developed area in the entire nation, of other a thousand acres ever being successful," Ogilvie said. "So unless these guys at the table are like the five smartest guys in the country all gathered together, there's a very high degree of probability that this project, like other large projects, will be a failure."

Others, like Barb Manzara are concerned about the impact on those already in north St. Louis. Manzara lives just outside the redevelopment zone and has opposed McKee since he first began secretly buying properties six years ago. She's not opposed to progress, she said, but McKee has treated her neighbors like "animals."

"North St. Louis, due to its affordability, is the home to many elderly people, many disabled people, and many impoverished people," Manzara said. "You can love Mr. McKee, you can think he is God's gift to north St. Louis, but please think about the least amongst us and what our responsibilities are to those people."

Other speakers feared the potential use of eminent domain. But city officials say McKee will need special approval from the Board of Aldermen to be granted that power. The proposed redevelopment plan does not allow the taking of churches and homes. And McKee said Wednesday he has no plans to use eminent domain.

The details, though were far from his mind after the vote.

"It's been five and a half years and this is the first public acknowledgment of a vote in support," he said. "And it feels pretty good. But we still have a long way to go."

Aldermen get a crack at the plan next, and are free to make changes. They also have to decide whether to put city money at risk if the revenue from the tax increment financing does not cover the bonds. McKee says that financial guarantee is crucial to the plan's success.

The TIF also requires the blessing of a special committee of Mayor Francis Slay, comptroller Darlene Green and board president Lewis Reed before Slay can sign the measure into law. Both Slay and Green oppose putting city money behind the TIF.