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Committee passes bills to McKee's NorthSide project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A Board of Aldermen committee passed two bills Wednesday aimed at kick-starting Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration project. The bills now go to the full board for approval.

The committee's continues the project's momentum after months of inaction, largely because of a court case. The project recently won the support of vocal opponent Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay used his first time to testify before a state aldermanic committee to support McKee's project.

The Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee passed two bills sponsored by Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, D-5th Ward. Among other things, Hubbard’s bills would “activate” two parts of the NorthSide’s redevelopment area. Two other parts of the TIF area were activated in 2009.

McKee has said that the bills are crucial for the ambitious and long-delayed project.

Hubbard's bill passed the committee by a 6-2 vote

While the committee held a public hearing yesterday, a vote was delayed because of the lack of a quorum. HUDZ Committee Chairman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, said Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, was at a family funeral, while Alderman Sam Moore, D-4th Ward, was recovering from a car accident.

Aldermen Chris Carter, D-27th, and Antonio French, D-21st Ward were also absent on Tuesday. The two aldermen told the Beacon they wanted to delay a vote to ensure enough committee members would be present to even have a chance to alter the bill. 

On Wednesday, the committee was back at full strength – but with one change. After Moore resigned from the committee, Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed appointed Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, to take his place.

Wessels, Kennedy, Carter, Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, Alderwoman Marlene Davis, D-19th Ward, and Alderman Larry Arnowitz, D-12th Ward voted for Hubbard's bill. French and Tyus voted against, contending, among other things, that the bill's details needed to be fleshed out more before it met their approval. 

Another bill making changes to the redevelopment agreement between the city and McKee passed by a 7-0 margin. Tyus voted present on the measure. French was able to successfully add an amendment to require McKee to adhere to a city law requiring low-income city resident receive entry-level jobs. McKee has pledged that one in four jobs for his project would be given to residents within the NorthSide footprint.

Hubbard’s bills now go before the full Board of Aldermen for its consideration.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

Two months ago, St. Louis Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. was one of the loudest critics of a proposal aimed at kick-starting developr Paul McKee's NorthSide Regeneration project

For instance, Bosley said, during an August TIF Commission meeting that when he looked "at this plan right here, I see the poor people who live in this area getting a kick in the butt.” He also said that if any legislation activating tax increment finance was steered to his committee, he would have to delay it.

But after taking a car ride with McKee last week, Bosley — whose ward is included within the TIF area — that he had changed his tune. He said he became convinced that people "weren’t ever going to get displaced, run out of their homes or anything like that.”

"When I took the ride and saw what was there and what was open ground that he’s going to develop, I saw positive things for the city of St. Louis,” Bosley said.

Bosley's turnaround could further the legislative momentum for two bills activating tax increment financing for two portions of the NorthSide plan's area. Two bills accomplishing that goal were heard before the Board of Aldermen's Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee.

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.(See a timeline of the development.)

Tax increment financing will be used to improve infrastructure -- such as streets, sidewalks and sewers -- for the site. 

Bosley’s potential opposition to the TIF legislation could have been perilous because of the concept of “aldermanic courtesy.” That's the practice, more or less, of deferring to an alderman if his or her ward is affected by legislation.

McKee told reporters after the hearing that he’s met with all of the aldermen within the NorthSide development area “regularly,” adding “anyone who thinks that you can get government done in this city without an alignment with alderpeople is insane.”

When asked whether his support for the bill amounted to a stark reversal, Bosley replied: “No, it’s not. Because you see, what I don’t see, I don’t know.”

"And what I don’t know because I represent so many people, I cannot support something that I don’t know what it is,” Bosley said. “I didn’t say I’m diametrically opposed to it. I said I want to see what it is first, because the people elected me to look out for their best interests.”

"When you see something, it's a whole lot more clear than when you hear," he added. 

Clay breaks recent precedent in testifying

When he spoke in favor of Paul McKee's long-delayed NorthSide Regeneration project, Clay became the first sitting congressman to testify before the Board of Aldermen in nearly three decades.

The St. Louis Democrat said he decided to speak up because he recalls a time when north St. Louis bustled with commerce and economic activity. And he said he wants to play a part in sparking that development.

"It is time to regenerate that part of St. Louis,” said Clay, D-St. Louis. “If not, we will witness in our time a dying city. And I’m not one that wants to witness that.”

During his testimony, Clay said McKee’s NorthSide proposal “is part of the new trend that cities have to undertake for their future.”

"It is a plan to bring new tax revenue to the city and to direct that new revenue to the specific area that produces it,” Clay said. “It is a method to attract investment and increase property values and thus increase future public resources… New and innovative methods for public infrastructure and the resulting private investment are long overdue for North St. Louis.”

While Slay said that Hubbard’s legislation is mainly making “technical” changes to a TIF agreement passed in 2009, he added that it’s being used to ask whether McKee’s proposal is a sound one.

"Congressman Clay and I are here to answer together a resounding yes,” Slay said. “Some people wonder what will happen if Paul McKee fails in this effort. But we wondered what would happen if he succeeds? And [there’s] opportunities brought to this area that haven’t seen opportunities like this for many decades.”

During his testimony before the committee, Slay discussed two amendments to one of Hubbard’s bills. The first would direct $1 million for strategic planning in wards throughout north St. Louis City, while the other would provide $250,000 for home repair for residents within the McKee boundaries.

“These are for people who want to stay in the project area,” Slay said in an interview with reporters. “They want to help be part of the regeneration. And they want to reinvest in their properties. So that will help with that.”

Others who testified before the HUDZ Committee were enthusastic about McKee's project. Supportive witnesses included Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council. Aboussie said McKee’s project “will provide a vital conduit for people to enter the building and construction trades.”

"With the number of jobs that we see here … to do this 15-year build out and number of sustainable jobs after the fact, I think this is a very, very easy thing for this board to cast their vote in favor of this project,” Aboussie said.

David Jackson is president of St. Louis’ elected school board and a member of the city’s TIF Commission. He said that if McKee’s plan does spur more development, it could mean more resources for the city’s school district.

"With the current state and condition of public education not only across the nation but right here in St. Louis, this influx of additional revenue will have a significant impact on providing children in the St. Louis Public Schools now and in the future,” he said.

McKee said Tuesday’s hearing was “perfect,” adding that he had no idea that Clay was going to testify in favor of Hubbard’s bill.

"You could have blown me over,” McKee said. "Obviously I’m pleasantly surprised, but the man gets it. He gets it. And he understands the north side and what it means to St. Louis and the community in the end.”

Opposition lingers

Still, not all of the testimony during the committee hearing was positive.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, talked to reporters after his testimony.

Zach Chasnoff of Missourian Organizing for Reform and Empowered implored the board members to include amendments in Hubbard's legislation. That included measures “grandfathering” property taxes for existing residents and directing more money for home repair.

Chasnoff also emphasized that his group wasn’t trying to stop Hubbard’s bill but rather to add amendments to keep existing residents from being priced out of their homes.

Those ideas received a cold reception from the board, as some members — including Wessels — said the city couldn’t legally freeze property taxes as Chasnoff proposed.

Shirley Booker is a longtime resident of the 5th Ward. She said in her testimony that she was not against McKee’s plan. "There needs to be something done in the neighborhood," she said.

"And this is all God’s land and I’m sure he doesn’t want it just sitting there doing nothing,” Booker said. "The [amendments] we put together were only like a safeguard for people who have been here for so many years. I do not intend to go anywhere. I would like to be a part of what’s going on. I want to hear what’s going on."

But Clay said it was unlikely that existing residents would be priced out or forced out of their homes. And he added his message to the “affected community is give this project a chance.”

"Let this project ripen so that we can all witness whether this is going to be successful or not,” Clay said. “But I mean, if you keep shooting it down and not give it the opportunity, then what do you have to replace it? I don’t think there are any other plans on the drawing board to replace the NorthSide Regeneration plan. I’m willing to give the plan support and to assist the city and those communities affected by it by moving forward.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.