Tomorrow, residents of the near north side neighborhoods affected by the acquisitions of developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. have a chance to share their concerns in a public setting hosted by elected officials. In addition to appearances by state representatives, there will be presentations from alderwomen April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) and Marlene Davis (D-19th) as well as mayoral aide Charles Bryson. While the issue of the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act is important, we should not lose sight of the big picture of development — and that the fact that most of the political power to shape McKee’s development lies at the local level.
Long before anyone amended the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act, there was local control over the near north side. Under our municipal government system, the aldermen have a lot of power to either facilitate smooth sailing by developers or hold them accountable. Lately we have watched the two aldermen representing the wards most affected by McKee’s project act to hold the developer accountable. We have watched the mayor’s office use its power to set the big picture of what is permissible by lending support to the embattled developer.
Tomorrow is a chance for citizens to ask questions, learn facts and discuss solutions. The meeting’s attendees should not lose sight of the fact that they have a lot of power — both through the officials who will be speaking and on their own.
Hopefully, the spirit of the forum will be one that acknowledges the power. Hopefully the officials will identify ways in which they can use their power to shape outcomes to the problems they will be detailing. Too often, we see public process get mired on problems. Citizens watch their leaders identify problems without offering real involvement for citizens who want to solve the problems. The resulting feelings of powerlessness and cynicism further stagnates our anemic civic culture.
With the McKee development, the aldermen are gatekeepers of redevelopment. They don’t need to see McKee’s plans to articulate a vision for their wards, and ask that the developer act accordingly. They can expedite nuisance complaints. They will be on the front lines of the fight in the Board of Aldermen on McKee’s plans. No matter what version of Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act passes the General Assembly this week, it will require a tax credit applicant to get a redevelopment agreement with a municipal government — and that has to come from the Board of Aldermen in St. Louis.
Nothing can happen for McKee without the support of these alderwomen. That’s mighty power. Furthermore, nothing can happen for these alderwomen without the support of their constituents. That may be the biggest power in play here, if people use it well. Any power imbalance here can be overcome, and tomorrow offers a great chance to start.