Questions still being raised about McKee's north side development
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 28, 2009 - When Paul McKee unveiled his grand plans for redeveloping a large swath of north St. Louis earlier this year, much of the reaction noted that the concept is good but the devil would be in the details.
Now, as those details are being debated in frequent meetings at City Hall, in advance of upcoming decisions on McKee's request for a record TIF (tax increment financing) from the city and on the final redevelopment plan, questions continue to be raised about the project.
And McKee continues to insist that his main priority is reviving an area that has been allowed to decay for far too long.
"I did not expect the black community to embrace this the way they have," he said in a recent interview. "They finally believe that something real is going to happen. I've had great, great support from them. That's been pleasant. This community has needed development for a long time."
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the NorthSide project. Among the strongest critics is the North Side Community Benefits Alliance, which has sought -- unsuccessfully, so far -- to get McKee to commit formally to a variety of conditions, including greater input from the public, protection against abuse of eminent domain and zoning ordinances that will protect residents and encourage entrepreneurs to locate in the redevelopment area.
It is also concerned about the overuse of tax-increment financing and what it considers to be a lack of openness, not only from McKee but from the members of the Board of Aldermen who represent the area.
"If the alderwomen and McKee were operating in the realm of transparency, the community would have had a clear understanding five years ago," said Sheila Rendon, president of the community benefits alliance, in an e-mail message.
"These are people's lives we are talking about and past urban renewal projects have proven that top-down urban recovery practices are ill-effective and non-beneficial."
The redevelopment plan is expected to be available for public review on Sept. 9, according to Barbara Geisman, the city's deputy mayor for development. The city's TIF commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on McKee's request at 6 p.m. on Sept. 23.
RECORD TIF REQUESTED
After years of rumor and shielding his plans from the public, McKee revealed his vision for the project earlier this year: a multibillion-dollar redevelopment project spread over hundreds of acres that he says could bring thousands of jobs, thousands of new homes, commercial space, green space, transportation and badly needed new sidewalks, streets and sewers.
To pay for it, McKee is seeking an unprecedented tax break: $410 million in tax increment financing, the largest ever sought from the city. He also wants to take advantage of many millions more in tax credits passed by the state.
The large meeting where he went public with the plan in May was a little rocky, with one person expressing the sentiment of many by asking:
"What kind of guarantees can you give us that this isn't just a fantasy?"
Since then, McKee has been meeting with a series of smaller groups -- with no reporters allowed -- to try to persuade them that the plan for the NorthSide project is fact, not fantasy. How well he has succeeded depends on who you talk to.
"We've been trying to reach out more now because there seem to be more questions now than there have ever been," McKee said. "Most people want more details than we can give them right now."
Many of the concerns are about eminent domain: Will the project take property away from people who don't want to give it up? McKee said he is particularly sensitive to the worries, and more than a little angry about what he calls unfounded rumors that the project would take church buildings currently in use.
"We will not take any owner-occupied home -- period," McKee said.
"We've bought some churches from people who want to sell them. If they want to sell them, we'll buy them. But can you imagine asking for eminent domain for churches? That would be short of insanity. We spend a lot of time putting to sleep those kind of rumors."
Alderman April Ford-Griffin, whose 5th Ward makes up a large part of the redevelopment area, said she is puzzled why people are circulating what she considers to be misinformation about the project, particularly the role that eminent domain may play.
"Give us the opportunity as elected officials to come up with something," she said, "and then you can go around and say you didn't like what we did. I think it's unfortunate and has wasted a lot of people's time and is unfair to go around and scare people that eminent domain is being used.
"I just think there are some other agendas, and I don't really know what they are. Some of the people in that group have run for office before and have not been successful."
McKee also defended the fact that a website for the project shut down an area where people could go on and make anonymous comments. He said the forum had degenerated and was not serving any constructive purpose.
"I'd rather meet one on one," he said. "Anyone who calls me like you just did, I pick up the phone and talk to them. Anyone who puts that kind of vile stuff on there without a name, I don't want that. That's not in the spirit of the ethics of our business here. I'm open to good dialogue and good disagreement, but that vileness -- there's enough of that in the world already."
But McKee's critics say he has not been anywhere near as open as he claims to be, and they say that keeping reporters out of his community meetings is not a strategy to make people candid -- it's a way to make sure there is no public record of what he says.
"They do these dog-and-pony shows," said Keith Marquard, treasurer of the North Side Community Benefits Alliance. "They don't allow reporters to stay, and anyone who is recording it is told to stop. It's one person's word against another, as far as I can tell. It's all set up to divide people and isolate them from each other."
Rendon, president of the alliance, fears that far from saving the north side, the McKee proposal could hasten its deterioration.
"We view this behavior by the city of St Louis as unorthodox and could very well be seen as a difference in treatment and a systematic dismantling and depletion of the North Side," her e-mail message said.
"Would the city have allowed McKee to amass such a huge swath of the South Side or the Central West End, then allow said properties to sit and rot for five years dragging down the quality of life for its residents? I think not. Would this land baron be allowed to operate in this fashion in Clayton or Ladue? Again, I think not."
Marquard said one of the biggest problems he and his colleagues have with McKee's projects is the city's spotty history with TIF projects in the past, citing Ballpark Village as one example.
"Ronald Reagan had the saying, 'Trust but verify,' " he said. "I don't understand why we should have any basis for trust whatsoever. Look at the city's record with TIF projects. A lot of them were pushed through over the objections of the people. The city doesn't have a very good record of enforcing agreements with developers."
He also challenged McKee's contention that his group is made up of a lot of people who aren't even within the footprint of the redevelopment area.
"I have a piece of property I'm in the process of working on," Marquard said. "A big development like this, if it really went through, would raise my property value and raise the rent I could charge. But it's also my tax dollars that are going to the project, and I don't want to see my tax dollars thrown down a rathole to bail out a developer from the county.
"We don't want there to be no development. We are very much for bringing jobs in. We just don't trust this development. We don't like the way the way the process is going on. It's a top-down thing. Meetings are going on regularly at City Hall, and there are no minutes available. Why shouldn't we be upset about this? I don't know why more people aren't upset about it."