by Michael R. Allen
Friday’s St. Louis Business Journal carried two stories on McEagle’s NorthSide project that quoted Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman and Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford. (Articles are available online only to subscribers.) The primary article, “Will Paul McKee and City hall bond?” dealt with the developer’s request that the city guarantee via general revenue half of the $410 million in tax increment financing bonds sought. From the comments in the article, it sounds like City Hall is not ready to roll over on the request.
Rainford says that Mayor Francis Slay is skeptical on the city backing the bonds, and that Slay will only do so under “extraordinary circumstances.” Rainford acknowledged ongoing negotiations between the mayor’s office and McEagle, but the article did not elaborate on what “extraordinary circumstances” would be.
Deputy Mayor Geisman went further, stating that the city doesn’t know enough about the project yet to consider a request for general revenue backing. The article ends with a frank — and encouraging — quote from Geisman: “Lots of people ask for lots of things; it doesn’t mean they’re going to get it.”
While there is much to admire in the scope of McEagle’s vision as it has been laid out, the TIF request is abrupt and based on unsubstantiated financial information. The size of the request alone raises questions, but the push for city backing is premature. As the Business Journal article notes, the only three times when the city backed TIF bonds — St. Louis Marketplace, the convention hotel and Pyramid’s acquisition of One City Center — the city has ended up on the hook for failed or troubled development projects. McEagle has yet to demonstrate that its project would be any different.
I am heartened that City Hall has shifted gears from largely favorable comments to on-point comments. Hopefully this indicates a stance of tough bargaining, because a city that is eliminating jobs and implementing furloughs cannot afford to throw the treasury open for an untested vision.
That said, the second article, “McKee eyes land swap with MoDot for first phase,” showed some of the possibilities of the McEagle development. McEagle wants to eliminate the 22nd street ramps and use that site for new office development, and it seems that City Hall favors that approach. Readers know how much I want City Hall to support eliminating needless highway components, so I am glad that Geisman seems positive about removal of some of the most useless highway infrastructure in the region.
I have little to complain about the 22nd Street part of the McEagle vision: it removes useless and divisive infrastructure, adds density, does not affect any houses, businesses or historic buildings and it could result in a termination of the visually-challenged Gateway Mall other than a chain link fence. McEagle wants this to be the first phase — why not separate this area out into its own redevelopment area with its own enabling legislation?
One major problem with the McEagle project has been the lack of public-side planning. If city government was vigilant about setting and enforcing urban planning goals, the McEagle project would conform to those objectives and not be as problematic as it has been. Barring real planning, City Hall ought to use its powers to make sense of the project for the benefit of the city. Beyond the TIF deal, City Hall should look at the possibility of breaking the project down into smaller redevelopment areas, creating real historic preservation planning and placing the promises unveiled on May 21 into an actual contract between the city and the developer. A good deal is possible, and City Hall is at the center of that.