Tomorrow the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the Board of Aldermen will consider Board Bills 199 and 200, which pertain to Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project’s tax increment financing request. The committee meeting starts at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 at City Hall.
One of the bills, Board Bill 199, contains an amendment to the original 2009 redevelopment plan for the project. The amendment contains the following revision to the original plan
The redevelopment agreement shall include: (a) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and which Developer proposes for demolition, and, if such demolition is approved by the City, Developer’s agreement to demolish such buildings no later than December 31, 2016; and (b) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and
which Developer proposes for rehabilitation, and Developer’s agreement to weather-secure such buildings to preserve them for future rehabilitation by Developer or others.
So: demolition has a target completion date, while stabilization of historic buildings identified for historic renovations does not. How can the city enforce the second provision of this agreement without a deadline?
Recently I read a newspaper article about a major urban development project that included these two sentences: “He received hundreds of millions of dollars in public cash and incentives. But after a long public review process, the developer was buffeted by a recession, community opposition and a weak market.”
Here “he” is Bruce Ratner, the project is that foam-finger to Brooklyn called Atlantic Yards, and the article appeared in the New York Times on August 21. St. Louis reporters got the chance this week to avoid plagiarizing that depiction, because it could have applied to coverage of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project in wake of its hearing at the Tax Increment Financing Commission on August 28. (The Commission will vote on whether to recommend a $390 million TIF to the Board of Aldermen at a separate meeting on September 11.) The parallels are dramatically similar despite very different physical settings: these two projects took aim at vacant public land, were subsidized by state governments after local governments started scrutinizing them, have involved ridiculous amounts of campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats, have been pitched as solutions to urban unemployment and have withered in implementation as the economy has changed.
In New York, Ratner is selling as much as 80% of Atlantic Yards. That outcome should catch attention here, because those locals who think that Northside Regeneration will always have one face – one target for activist scorn – should be ready for the dozens of developers who will end up eventually working in the project area. While McKee’s name has a tarnish that brings scrutiny to every action of his company, the new names may not – and may have a lot more to do with actual decisions about condemnation of private property. Mayor Francis Slay, Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard and other cheerleaders for the project will not be around either, rendering their promises of the good life for north siders fairly innocuous at best, blind at worst.
As we deliberate on “activating” tax increment financing for Northside Regeneration, familiar repetitious cycles emerge. McKee on Wednesday presented a rather amorphous Powerpoint show whose oldest slides are now five years old, and reiterated even older claims about the jobs he could create and the $8 billion in “development” (unspecified as to specific activity) that the project would complete. The exact completion date has pushed forward, but the timeline and promises seem very much like those advanced in 2009.
The project itself remains very much the urban renewal behemoth McKee admits to hatching over a decade ago – when lending was liberal and palpable small-scale development on the near north side was less obvious to the untrained eye. McKee has been quick with excuses for his project’s lethargic pace. First there was the need for a state tax credit, then tax increment financing, then overcoming Judge Dierker’s ruling, then waiting for the pending Supreme Court decision, then extending the state tax credit (which did not happen), and now the need for a tax increment financing ordinance again. What shall be next?
As usual, McKee’s company posits Northside Regeneration as a social reform mission that will transform lives as much as land. McKee’s wife Midge McKee spoke on the Demetrious Johnson radio show recently about how she had a dream about the project, and how it would serve residents. Her dream was replete with churches, a sign that existing residents were staying and thriving.
That dream should not be dismissed, but it runs counter to the entire program of the development and its current operational practice. Clearly, for the last decade the McKees’ dream has cost the near north side hundreds of residents who have moved out of houses and apartments sold to their shell holding companies. Who knows how many people fled as they saw the Northside Regeneration properties torched, brick rustled and otherwise left to rot. Blockbusting need not be intentional, after all. Myself and others have counted how many irreplaceable architectural treasures have been lost to the scheme.
Still, the McKees espouse very sincere intentions about uplifting the north side. Unfortunately they have chosen to do so through real estate development, mass demolition and land assemblage. These tools have only been used to disintegrate the near north side, and not for one day have they ever created permanent jobs for poor African-Americans, or stabilized a community of humans, or benefited anyone except government agencies and politicians, real estate developers, construction companies and trade unions, and others who either realized profits or power from destroying historic neighborhoods. Today, the profits and power look anemic in comparison; Northside Regeneration’s first retail “deal” may be a Dollar General store. If the developers are reeling in such small fish to stay afloat, what will residents get to catch?
Little discussion of Northside Regeneration has examined the similarity of its program and boundary to the city’s north side Model Cities zone. Created by the Johnson administration, the federal Model Cities program provided funds for urban “reconstruction” of older neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. In St. Louis, the city’s Model Cities Agency designated a wide swath of the inner city for the program in 1966, and maintained activities there until the program’s dissolution after 1974. The north side area included Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou – almost identically to McKee’s original footprint (Old North is largely carved out now).
Model Cities was supposed to regenerate the near north side. The program gave city officials funds for demolishing nearly 1,100 housing units in St. Louis Place, converting the 14th Street shopping district in Old North into a pedestrian mall, and building new housing. In the end, the “too big to fail” approach led to embarrassingly haphazard implementation of the city’s programmatic master plan.
Most of what Model Cities achieved was housing demolition, with funding for new construction delayed or non-existent. Clearance depleted vitality and disrupted social life, causing a downward spiral. When McKee shows slides of conditions in the area, he never mentions that the federally-funded version of his project helped create them — and that its aims were very similar.
Supporters of Northside Regeneration’s aims are fast to join in the chorus proclaiming “McKee did not create the blight he is trying to fix.” Despite some truth to the contrary with conditions of his company’s properties, that chorus sings a true tune. Yet the song bends the ear with the refrain “other large scale projects did this.” Model Cities followed the city’s implementation of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan, drafted under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. That plan infamously included a map with a black zone showing “obsolete” housing — the oldest neighborhoods, which were also the poorest.
Bartholomew’s concentric zone approach led to the city’s using the bulk of its federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act to demolish swaths of the near north and near south sides, while trying to take on more. Today’s urbanists are proud that they dwell in places like Old North and Lafayette Square, both inked black in the 1947 plan. Yet they might not see how the plan’s implementation is ongoing on the north side.
The near north’s most frightening large-scale redevelopment project was the combined Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, completed between 1954 and 1956. The Pruitt Igoe-Myth renewed a generation’s awareness of not only the projects’ histories but the social and political context in which it happened. That film makes painfully clear that architecture – essentially development of land – cannot solve social problems, no matter what its design intent, how high its construction cost, how great its architect or how blind its political supports are to what they are doing.
Pruitt-Igoe, unlike Northside Regeneration, was built by an accountable federal government and managed by an accountable local government. Pruitt-Igoe was built to house poor people — directly serving them. The project failed to do anything completely save clear 25 blocks of African-American residents and businesses, and scatter them across the region.
Today, Northside Regeneration is not dealing with the same density. There are no 25-block areas housing over ten thousand people within the project footprint. In fact, St. Louis Place has a mere 2,900 residents. Total. The dispersal of people reached its peak, and the population is very small. Yet the near north side is showing population growth for the first time in sixty years, according to the 2010 Census. Since Northside Regeneration has yet to develop any housing, we know it is not through that project but through other people’s hard work. Residents who remain are more likely to enjoy the area and hope for its growth than ever before. There is exactly the sort of community that Midge McKee sees, but it is more likely to be negatively altered by a giant project than not.
As the TIF Commission stares at the same giant project, unchanged, and as the Board of Aldermen looks at needed legislation this fall, perhaps some member of one of these bodies will examine Northside Regeneration against historic precedent, against its invented promises (jobs, $8 billion) and against the needs of the people who inhabit the soil the project aims to reorder. Any one of those factors renders the current project a cousin to the wrong way of thinking about community and redevelopment – ways rightfully slammed, in light of another local clearance project, by Tracy Campbell in his new book The Gateway Arch: A Biography. All of us should look instead at Northside Regeneration’s lease of vacant lots to neighborhood urban farmers — an unheralded good deed by the company — as the sort of synthesis of microdevelopment and existing community that actually could create wealth for people in the neighborhood.
St. Louis, like many peer cities, chose to assume the stance of Sisyphus to the stone of urban renewal. Once that stone was a near-match for the public good, and now it resembles private interest. Either way, tax funds pay for its construction – and it never rests where it is supposed to (rebuilt neighborhoods, job creation, increased tax revenues, poverty alleviation, sustainable new urbanism). Intentionally or not, Northside Regeneration has inured itself to forces that have perpetuated failed approaches to rebuilding the city.
Chasing large-scale projects has drained the city of over a half-million people, making the 2,900 people in St. Louis Place more consequential than ever. Dollar Generals hastily built to create development cash flow are not going to change the city’s fortunes, but will follow in the foot steps of redevelopment projects that already have drained the same area of the city of historic character, residents, jobs and wealth. McKee and city officials could work on “Plan B,” or they could perpetuate the heavily-subsidized forces of urban disruption.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling issued yesterday affirming the Northside Regeneration redevelopment ordinances means “we’re open for business,” in the words of company leader Paul J. McKee, Jr. Of course since Circuit Court Judge Robert Dieker, Jr.’s July 2010 ruling invalidated those ordinances, Northside Regeneration has not really been doing much different. The company acquired 162 city-owned parcels in St. Louis Place and a two-year option on the Pruitt-Igoe site last year, demolished some buildings, convinced the Board of Aldermen to add the ailing “Bottle District” site into the project boundary, hired 17 lobbyists to push for extension of the controversial Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit in the state house and continued to meet with politicians and editorial boards.
What the lack of a final legal ruling has meant is that both Northside Regeneration and the City of St. Louis have had a major excuse for not pursuing basic points engrained finely in the 2009 redevelopment agreement with the city. In terms of the built environment, McKee and officials in city government had repeatedly said that the pending Supreme Court ruling is the reason that dangerous half-demolished buildings cannot be removed, why historic buildings cannot be maintained, and why there can be no sale of Northside Regeneration’s curious supply of buildings in Old North outside of its boundaries.
Consequently, the people who should see the “need for development” most strongly are among those least impressed by Northside Regeneration’s much-touted “vision.” This is as much a failure of operations as it is in relationship-building. If Northside Regeneration truly is to be “open for business” it may consider that public relations are far more crucial to project longevity than the company’s penchant for making large campaign contributions. After all, city residents are going to be forfeiting sales tax revenues to the developer for years to come. The subsidy makes us investors — and investors need to see the balance sheet, right?
Then again, what some residents have begun to suspect is that Northside Regeneration is a land banking operation disguised as a development project. The proposed rewrite to the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act makes changes that extend remuneration for long-term ownership, change compensation for demolition for 50% to 100% of the costs and generally suggest that long-term holding is what is being incentivized, not large-scale urban redevelopment.
According to McKee and the Slay administration yesterday, those suspicions would be gravely mistaken. Development is coming soon. Then now is the time for answers to some of the questions that neighborhood preservationists have been asking for awhile. Before I present those questions, consider that they would be more potently – and transparently — answered in a public meeting. The last public meeting for Northside Regeneration was nearly four years ago. How about City Hall and Northside Regeneration booking the auditorium at Vashon High School — needs to be a public building, for obvious reasons — and holding a forum where residents can’t get some current answers?
Meantime, I will place a few questions related to my professional concerns (and these are as much directed at McKee as they are to City Hall which is supposed to be overseeing this project for us taxpayer-investors):
What is the time line for rehabilitation of the James Clemens House? The James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896) sits in shambles. The roof is deteriorating. The front door to the chapel has been wide open for months. The lawn is strewn with garbage and tree limbs. The front wall is collapsing. Northside Regeneration once promised to make preservation a priority, but its first plan fell apart. Will the complex be lost before the city takes action to renew the developer’s promise?
What was that about eminent domain again? There has been a lot of talk but people need something placed in writing clear as crystal. The redevelopment ordinances leave eminent domain an open option, but obliquely — they don’t expressly authorize it but they don’t suspend its use through existing means. Everyone knows that once an area is blighted private property rights are thrown out the window. Yet Mayor Francis Slay and Mckee have stated that owner-occupants are safe in the Northside Regeneration foot print. Let’s get that in writing. Oh, but: what about small businesses? Why aren’t they safe too? Small businesses represent a form of personal wealth, and we know that eminent domain has been used to disempower African-American and poor St. Louisans for decades. It could easily do so again.
Why won’t Northside Regeneration sell its parcels in Old North (including dozens of historic buildings)? Northside Regeneration owns an estimates 62 parcels in Old North outside of its project boundary. At least a dozen historic buildings, like those pictured above on the 1400 block of Hebert Street – Old North’s only block with no demolitions – are deteriorating under Northside Regeneration ownership. One recently burned to the ground, damaging adjacent occupied buildings. None of these properties are listed for sale or sport for-sale signs, and potential buyers have received conflicting answers about their availability. McKee told KMOX last month they are for sale. Are they?
Will Northside Regeneration create a list of properties to be rehabilitated as required by the redevelopment agreement? There are dozens of historic buildings owned by the company within historic districts , or in areas that are intact settings with occupied housing. The house shown here, at 2900 St. Louis Avenue, has no official historic status but sits in a very intact section of St. Louis Avenue facing the new Lindell Park Historic District. The redevelopment agreement requires a list of buildings to be rehabilitated with a timeline for taking steps toward rehabilitation. No one expects full rehabs right away, but selection and then intervention to stabilize and beautify these properties would be a sign of good faith. (This house ought to be one of the ones saved.)
Will we stop seeing half-demolished “doll houses” any time soon? Northisde Regeneration’s frequent statement that it can’t demolish houses severely damaged by brick thieves until the Supreme Court ruled made little sense. These are hazardous sites, with potential for injury and lead paint and asbestos airborne toxicity. Reusable building material gets lost, and legitimate demolition jobs are lost. These sites must be demolished immediately. Other buildings proposed for demolition should be demolished legally so that these horrendous and unsafe brick-rustled monstrosities stop plaguing people’s neighborhoods.
There are questions that I have been asking for years about Northside Regeneration. Hopefully these will be answered in short time. What are other questions, readers?
In my latest St. Louis Public Radio commentary, “The Cost of Northside Regeneration”, I contrast the slow development of the St. Louis Place neighborhood after John O’Fallon and others filed the Union Addition plat in 1850 with the lumbering, subsidized Northside Regeneration project. Can government incentives substitute for developer risk and the micro-economics of neighborhoods? – Michael R. Allen
The most recent edition of the St. Louis American‘s lively Political Eye editorial column deals with the Missouri Supreme Court consideration of the Northside Regeneration redevelopment agreement and tax increment financing bills, invalidated by Circuit Court ruling in July 2010. The Supreme Court took the case under advisement after a November 28 hearing and will issue a ruling early next year.
As a longtime observer of the Northside Regeneration project concerned with both its historic preservation and cultural impacts on north St. Louis, I was struk by one of the Political Eye’s statements:
The EYE is certain McKee would have taken the right to eminent domain had he been able to finagle it, but he was not. Both the Land Assemblage Tax Credit legislation that lavishly benefitted his project and the Northside redevelopment agreement with the city expressly forbid the use of eminent domain.
Actually the use of eminent domain has never been forbidden for Northside Regeneration by state or local statute — although Mayor Francis Slay has stated several times that he would not support the use of eminent domain on owner-occupied housing for the project.
In her Metropolis column this month, under the title of “Saint Louis Blues”, Karrie Jacobs reflects on her fall visit to St. Louis (she was keynote speaker at the FORM Contemporary Design Show). The column takes on both the Northside Regeneration project (“[n]o one could explain what he was doing, aside from getting compensated for his land purchases by a peculiar piece of Missouri legislation”) and the winners of the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition: “I’m sorry that most of the finalists have given up on the viability of St. Louis as an urban place. Residents here have nothing to feel inferior about. The component parts of a great city are still there.”
The front elevation of the Bernhardt Winkelman House at 1936 St. Louis Avenue has become a quiet cultural icon for visitors to the near north side. No other front wall in that area may be as much-photographed, with a possible representational life without end. There is no doubt that the diminishing state of the built environment has enhanced the visibility of the three-story stone-faced house, but there also is a certain decorative quality possessed by the front elevation that is notable in its own right. To state that the façade is beloved would be an understatement, but also an assertion closer to the fact of the building’s status than any more formal descriptors. The Winkelman House, imperiled though it may be by current circumstance, may well be the popular emblem of the St. Louis Place neighborhood’s store of high-style residences.
Officially, the Winkelman House is a contributing resource in the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District (NR 7/22/1986). Built by German-born wholesale grocery merchant Bernhardt Winkelman c. 1873, the house contributes to two areas of significance identified in the 1986 amendment to the District nomination: Architecture and Ethnic Heritage. In 2009, owner Northside Regeneration LLC (which purchased the house in 2005) placed the property on its list of “Legacy Properties” identified for preservation — a list required as part of the city’s master redevelopment agreement with Northside Regeneration.
Now that the “Bottle District” — that mass of spread gravel north of our football stadium — is poised to become part of the Northside Regeneration project, perhaps it is time to evaluate the fate of the Vess bottle sign that gave the now-merged project its name. Dan McGuire of McGuire Moving and Storage, the longtime former occupant of a nearby historic warehouse building at Sixth and O’Fallon streets, invented the Bottle District trope in 2006 to market an ambitious mixed-use high-rise redevelopment project designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The Libeskind plans are long gone, and now developers Larry Chapman and Paul J. McKee, Jr. are trying to market a now-cleared site between O’Fallon and Cole streets west of Broadway. What the bottle has to do with the new project is unclear.
In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden champions the study and preservation of common urban vernacular housing as the best way to record the lives of most Americans. “Most can be learned from urban building types that the represent the conditions of thousands or millions of people,” Hayden writes. Yet Hayden finds that scholars are more interested in simpler rural and exotic urban types (the mythic flounder house is our local intrigue-builder). To some scholars, Hayden observes, “the best vernacular building will always be the purest, the best preserved or the most elaborate example of its physical type.”
Hayden’s observations can be counterbalanced by emergent material culture studies that widen the architectural history of cities beyond the showiest (prettiest?) vernacular buildings and those whose owners seek official landmark or National Register status (regulatory vehicles that enhance but do not replace cultural appreciation). Objectification of domestic architecture is far simpler using pure examples — we who practice architectural history can then shift the focus onto style, form and material so as to avoid messier discussions of class, race, use, power and alteration. Yet much housing production historically in St. Louis and other cities came through mass building practice. One of those practices was alteration by later, lower-income owners often strapped for cash and in search of a cheap fix.