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Northside development bills get easy committee approval

By Rachel Lippmann

St. Louis – Legislation authorizing a massive redevelopment project on the north side of St. Louis sailed through another step in the approval process Thursday, as the Board of Aldermen's Housing, Urban Development, and Zoning committee voted nearly unanimously to give developer Paul McKee the right to rebuild 1500 acres in north city.

The redevelopment legislation authorizes the conditions McKee must meet for the entire two-square mile development. It also authorizes $390 million in tax increment financing, although no money will be spent until construction begins next year.

McKee seemed relieved after a four-hour meeting to have gotten through what he called another crucial step so easily.

"To get the kind of support we're getting is just unbelievable, and really gratifying to me," he said.

The redevelopment plan includes language that limits the use of eminent domain, and requires McKee to maintain the properties he owns. That became an issue when he first started secretly buying property five and a half years ago, then leaving them to decay.

That history prompted Alderman Terry Kennedy to become the first public official to vote against the plan.

"It did not engender the trust of the community, it did not involve the community, the alderpeople involved were not informed, that's not the way to do, he said. "And so it has really put the city in a position, and the community in a position to be forced to work through somebody else's vision."

Kennedy said he admired the aldermen in the five affected wards for securing some protections for current residents. Opponents of the plan, however, say they do not go far enough. Many wanted language included that would have banned the use of eminent domain completely. The current bills do not authorize McKee to exercise that power, but he reserves the right to approach the Board of Aldermen and request that power for a specific property.

McKee would not say if he plans to ask the aldermen for that right. He also did not say how hard he will push to have the city cover the cost of construction if the tax increments do not provide enough funding. McKee has in the past called that crucial to the project's success.

McKee needs the full Board of Aldermen to approve the legislation before Decemebr 31st to apply for state tax credits. He is also seeking federal stimulus money.

There are two lawsuits pending over the development project. One challenges the approval by the city's TIF commission. The other challenges the constitutionality of the state tax breaks McKee is seeking.