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With backdrop of Clemens mansion, Slay signs NorthSide redevelopment bills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 17, 2009 - Mayor Francis Slay put his ceremonial seal of approval Tuesday on the first step of the $8.1 billion plan to redevelop a large portion of north St. Louis, but he remained noncommittal on what developer Paul McKee considers a key part of the project.

The signing ceremony for two bills passed by the Board of Aldermen -- the bills were actually signed into law by the mayor on Friday -- took place under a tent on the front lawn of the Clemens House, one of the most visible properties in the McKee project area.

McKee has announced he will work with developer Robert Wood on a $13 million effort to turn the long-neglected landmark into 49 apartments for senior citizens along with a community space that could be used by institutions like the Missouri History Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The Clemens House, at 1849 Cass Avenue, is the historic home of James Clemens Jr., who was either an uncle or cousin of Samuel Clemens -- better known as Mark Twain.

Both Slay and McKee emphasized that passage of the board bills is the initial step on a long road that includes more aldermanic action, financing and approval of further incentives beyond the nearly $200 million in tax-increment financing that is now in place for the first two phases of the four-part project.

McKee has said that a city guarantee for a large part of that TIF is a key to the redevelopment's success. But after Tuesday's ceremony, Slay said in an interview that he has not yet made up his mind whether he would approve such a guarantee, which needs an OK from the city's three-member Estimate Board.

Comptroller Darlene Green has already voiced strong objection to the guarantee, so without the mayor's backing, the issue would most likely not pass.

"There may be a way to have some limited participation," Slay said about a city guarantee. "It would have to make financial sense for the city."

He and McKee noted that other agencies, including the Metropolitan Sewer District and the Missouri Department of Transportation, also may get involved in helping to complete financing for the project.

On another issue, the mayor said that discussions are ongoing on how McKee will acquire the many parcels of land in the project area that are owned by the city. He emphasized that getting all of the property into one package is one of the big pluses to the approach that McKee is taking.

"We're not just giving them the land," Slay said. "That's what the discussion is about, how and under what terms the city is going to transfer the property to Paul McKee.

"But we're not going to be in any worse position than we are now, and I could argue that we will be in a better position because we will have all of the property assembled."

For his part, McKee said that the important part of the bills now signed into law is to have all the land available to offer to developers who are interested.

"We have a big 'Open for Business' sign up now," he said. "We have to let the world know what're doing. We couldn't do anything until we had the redevelopment rights and the TIF done."

Asked what the next big date on the project's timeline is, McKee responded: "Every day."

At the signing ceremony, several people compared the project area to devastated areas of Europe after World War II, and they praised McKee for the vision he has shown to bring jobs, schools, shops, office space, green space and more to a part of the city that has been long neglected.

"The beauty of a vision is that it goes from generation to generation," said state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis. "We're going to have something we can turn St. Louis around on."

Warning against cynicism, Richard Gaines, a member of the Special Administrative Board for the city schools, said: "You cannot correct a city with small steps."

And Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., D-3rd Ward, gesturing to the Clemens House property behind him, said its rejuvenation would be a symbol for the entire North Side redevelopment project.

"Didn't no dummy build that building," Bosley said. "It looks bad now, but I would suggest that in the near future, nobody in this room would not like to live there."

Concerning the entire plan, he added:

"It may not be all that you want, but it's better than what you have."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.