St. Louis to Hand Paul McKee, NorthSide, 162 Acres of the City, Sell 34-Acre Pruitt-Igoe Site for $1M

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NorthSide and Pruitt-IgoeMark Twain once wrote, “The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six million dollars, and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it.” Paul McKee appears set to not make the same mistake. First, he purchased hundreds of parcels of land across a wide swath of north St. Louis City, at first with no one noticing. There was, N & G Ventures LC, Noble Development Company LLC, VHS Partners LLC, PATH Enterprise Company LLC, Allston Alliance LC, Sheridan Place LC, Dodier Investors LLC, MLK 3000 LLC, Larmer LC, Union Martin LLC and of course Blairmont. That’s the name that stuck when Michael Allen of the Preservation Research Office first pegged the purchases to McKee. Once the process became public, the purchases slowed, but continued. At Sheriff’s sales and through private transactions, his holdings grew strategically. In the meantime, allegations regarding brick theft and fires, usually stopping just short of implying complicity on McKee’s part, appeared.

All along, those hoping for a better city and reinvestment in North St. Louis put their faith, if not their enthusiasm, in what would become the NorthSide Regeneration project. By 2011, McKee owned nearly 1,000 parcels. Recently, with the city’s blessing, McKee acquired the 17-acre Bottle District site just north of the Edward Jones Dome. As far back as 2009, it was anticipated that the more than 1,200 city-owned parcels in the redevelopment area were likely to become part of this redevelopment effort as well. It appears that this is now set to happen. The Post-Dispatch’s Tim Logan reports that the city’s “top development officials” and Mayor Slay are supporting the move. Included in the sale would be the 34-acre Pruitt-Igoe housing project site. The price? $100,000 for a two-year option and a final total price of $1M to purchase. The approval process begins Monday. Effectively, no one other than McKee has the opportunity to purchase the land in question. NorthSide spans the JeffVanderLou, St. Louis Place and Carr Square neighborhoods.

There have been plenty of concerns expressed by the public along the way and a couple court cases, but no effective, coordinated opposition. In fact, opposition has been so disjointed that when 5th Ward Alderman April Ford-Griffin stepped down in October 2011 to take a position as director of the city’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, no consensus candidate emerged that would offer opposition to McKee’s NorthSide. The city’s 5th Ward encompasses a majority of NorthSide, including Pruitt-Igoe, the landing of the new Mississippi River Bridge and St. Louis Place. Tammika Hubbard, an insider’s insider, won the special election. Hubbard’s mother Penny is a state rep, and her brother Rodney Jr. is a former state representative. Her father, Rodney, is chairman of the ward’s Democratic Central Committee, but also serves as executive director of the Carr Square Tenant Corporation, which runs the Carr Square housing development and owns a 2.5 percent stake of NorthSide Regeneration LLC. Tax credits received by NorthSide have been transferred to the Carr Square Tenant Corporation. They also own the crumbling Carr School, which McKee has stated he would like to develop.

This alone doesn’t illustrate anything necessarily nefarious, but fully highlights how city politics have been aligned to facilitate McKee’s vision at every turn. The only roadblock has been a court case, still pending, challenging the City’s ability to award Tax Increment Financing to a project area, and not a specific, targeted, shovel-ready project. It’s a smart bet that no matter the outcome, the City will find ways to financially support NorthSide. If people believed that the city had gone all-in with McKee to this point, his holdings will soon more than double, totaling more than 2,000 individual parcels and nearly half of the designated 1,500 acre development area. He told the Post-Dispatch that the combined holdings will allow him to present a wide range of options to potential businesses and developers.

NorthSide purchases
{left: thumbnail from P-D map of McKee property, right: satellite view of same map area}

And yet exactly zero development plans have been made public. The Pruitt-Igoe site is not a straight sale, but a two-year option at $100,000. A final purchase price would be $1M. Who wouldn’t want the exclusive option to market 34 acres in the city, align state, federal and city tax credits with nearly zero risk? Once again, the city is choosing to place an incredible amount of faith in Paul McKee. For its part, St. Louis makes the argument that it also risks nothing as the land is currently a liability. Of course, privately owned land without a development plan presents its own liability to the city, and residents. In the wake of the news, Mayor Slay Tweeted “Selling 1,200 tax delinquent parcels for a large development actually proves the strategy of land banking.” The pending sale, however, does not prove that the process of land banking has been fair or worthwhile and until development occurs on a large portion of the land, the strategy will only have proven that after three decades, the city has found someone else to mow the yard.

The sale would reduce the number of city-owned parcels by more than 10% and represent the largest single sale of city land in history. The sale is being sold as a victory by City Hall, whether or not development occurs. The city would receive $3.2M for the land and the Post-Dispact article states that according to Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., the city would receive at least $100,000 in new tax revenue even without development. “Whenever possible, we want land in the hands of the private sector,” Mayor Slay’s Chief of Staff, Jeff Rainford told the Post-Dispatch. “As long as the city’s holding the ground, nothing’s going to happen on it. Our bias is trying to get this land out the door.” By any measure, market demand for the parcels acquired by McKee has been nearly non-existent.

Together, McKee and the City of St. Louis have already accomplished something that while maybe not admirable, is impressive. Assembling standard lots of 25 ft. x 130 ft. is a widely recognized challenge in historic cities. St. Louis has now done this better than any other American city. It’s not hyberbole to state that NorthSide is the most signifcant story of land banking, and hoped for urban renewal in America, by far. Of course, St. Louis has never been afraid of the Big Idea. The city does continue to shy away from public process. Where else can a city aid a developer in purchasing more than 800 parcels and then cut a deal to sell another 1,200 without public deliberation? Aldermanic support sometimes serves as a stand-in here, with clear shortcomings. The story of this incomparable development has not been well told to this point. It should receive attention now.

For the record, Rainford stated, “We’re not giving him these properties. We’re not selling them at a discount. He is buying them for what we think these properties are worth.” And yet, $3.2M for 162 acres of land within sight of downtown St. Louis is a fire sale. As Logan notes, the city established a land bank in 1971, decades before Detroit and Cleveland would make it fashionable on the pages of the New York Times. The land bank is what has made the accumulation of land, and this sale, possible. Whether such a concentrated land banking effort ultimately proves productive remains an open question, and if so, how do we measure the opportunity cost of more than 40 years of (at the very least) benign neglect and disinvestment?

The city has owned the Pruitt-Igoe site, and other parcels, for decades. McKee has cited the down economy for slow development and has been up front that due to the size of the project, it will take decades to complete. In a city that loves land clearance and immense civic projects, NorthSide far outstrips past efforts (the Gateway Mall, civic buildings, the Gateway Arch, Mill Creek Valley, Pruitt-Igoe, etc.) in size, scope and cost. Whether successful or not, the story of NorthSide will write a new chapter in urban history. It’s possible that NorthSide is the best development opportunity offered in more than half a century for an area clearly decimated before McKee ever took an interest. Clearly the City of St. Louis thinks so. The rest of us will have to wait for decades to see if it’s right.

NorthSide development - St. Louis
{nextSTL recently posted the above NorthSide “retail opportunities” marketing map}

LRA - St. Louis
{map by Show-Me Institute showing offers to purchase city-owned LRA property}

LRA - St. Louis
{map by Show-Me Institute showing offers rejected by the LRA, several dozen are within NorthSide}

*this story was updated 2/13 to reflect new information regarding the Pruitt-Igoe site option and sale price

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  • Scott Ogilvie

    Perhaps this might have waited until the outcome of the appeal on the $388M TIF…

    • Zun1026

      Why would the City wait, when it has apparently already made up its mind?

      I have got to say that everytime I read about McKee and the NorthSide project, my bloodpressure rises way too high.

  • http://twitter.com/rjkoscielniak rj koscielniak

    this guy thinks he is johns hopkins university.

  • ben

    If this project can expand difficult to use 25 ft wide 19th century city lots to standard 40-50 ft wide lots, that will make residential development in this area extremely desireable given its close proximity to downtown and the newness of all the infrastructure to be built.  This must happen.

    • http://twitter.com/innercitivoice Edward Williams, Jr

      White people want the city back. they will do anything to get it. Just the way of this nation beginning with the Native Americans. Through my experience white people only care about diversity or letting black people be is when it benefit them. This was once a thriving Black mixed income neighborhoods in the city. So full of black history. So many famous black people lived in these neighborhood. I’m tired of seeing my roots, my culture, my history erased by white folks who don’t think that I am a human being. or they veiw is colored by the 6 O’clock new. Thank you Mr. Mckee. and to the Black People who are fighting. Keep fighting its a good fight. Protect as much Black History as you can. Cause the white folk don’t care.

      • Alex Ihnen

        You have a point to make, but there are white people working hard to preserve the history of our city and North St. Louis, both black and white. Any future success in this city will require white people and black people moving back, investing in our neighborhoods.

  • 7788fido

    Do you know where can I find a good architectural description of the Pruitt-Igoe? Buildings, layouts etc.

    • Big Map Blog

      Here’s a couple of good starting-points:
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/pruitt-igoe/5472067207/sizes/o/in/set-72157625999004923/

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pruitt-Igoe_1968March03.jpg

      The folks over at “Pruitt-Igoe Now” could probably hip you to some other resources:
      http://www.pruittigoenow.org/

    • Eaeikmann

      As you probably have noticed, the Pruitt-Igoe buildings are no longer present. The land was completely leveled and sealed off officially in 1976. The original site was 57 acres. Gateway Elementary moved on to 22 of those acres in 1996 and McKee’s option to buy is for the remaining land, of which is currently (essentially) fenced off weeds.

      You should get to know the story of Pruitt-Igoe more. It is extremely fascinating.

      Check out Katherine Bristol’s article “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” and the 2011 Documentary Directed by Chad Fredirichs, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (entitled after Bristol’s essay.

  • Migueltejada82

    McKee is either the most evil man in America, or a future Nobel laureate.  Time will tell.

  • Jason Wagner

    Thanks for this succinct and unbiased article about the situation going on with the northside development.  I particularly appreciated the maps and graphics.  People, including myself have thought of McKee as this evil guy, but if the city had taken a different approach in the past maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today- for better or for worse.  While I disagree with some of the tactics that McKee has used, I hold out hope that he will do what is right by this community.  Hopefully the long term neglect was a worthwhile trade off to get to what will be a long term solution and not another Winghaven.  There were many generations of families affected by the blight that has occurred over the decades.  I think ultimately for this development to be a positive for St. Louis this needs to be addressed and accommodated into the master plan otherwise it will look like once again the powers that be have bent over and taken it by another developer looking to make a buck.

    • Scott Ogilvie

      Generally long term neglect only looks like a solution when its happening in someone else’s neighborhood.

  • Guest

    So when McKee is done with his Winghaven part 2 development in the NorthSide, will he pay back all of the money and time he owes STL?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/74BBOFUREAEXQHDKOYQAHPV67I Joshua Bartley

    In all honesty this area has been pretty hopeless for a very long time. Literally acres and acres of urban prairie and destroyed homes. There are cohesive blocks here and there, but we need some honesty in this discussion. The area is a food desert, underdeveloped and still feeling the effects of the flawed urban renewal projects of the mid century.

    I do think McKee went about this the wrong way and its obvious that most of the elected officials are in his back pocket, but we cannot deny that this area needs serious attention and is a major blight to our city.

    Personally, I think the residents should focus more on being involved in the public process rather than trying to go toe to toe with a billionaire developer. Unfortunately, money talks and you will not win this battle with McKee. Get in front of this project in terms of planning, inclusiveness, economic development, promises of jobs etc. or you will be dragged along by the machine that is Paul McKee.

    • Noble Harvey

       I agree with the assertion that residents should focus on the public process. Residents need to hold elected officials accountable here, not McKee. McKee is not representing the residents at City Hall, Tammika Hubbard, Lewis Reed and Francis Slay are. McKee will take everything he can get, but no one is forcing Hubbard, Reed and Slay to hand over the store.

  • GMichaud

    The city giving McKee any more land, even if he pays for it is a disaster. The City loses all leverage in negotiating any redevelopment plan that is presented. And that is the exact problem, the main problem, as you point out in the article. There is no redevelopment plan. Why does he need this additional land in the first place? You could easily negotiate a contract that sets certain achievable goals before selling him the land. (Remember he has received millions in public subsidies already that will pay for the land). One big achieveable goal would be to present a public plan on what is it exactly he plans to do with all of this land.
    The above comment about making lots 50 foot wide illustrates the problem well. Actually 25 foot lots fosters density, transit, walk ability and other positive aspects of the urban environment.
    This has been going on for several years now (what is it 3?) There has plenty of time to present a plan to debate issues such as lot size. It hasn’t happened.
    Does he want to turn North St. Louis into another St. Charles County? That is building for the past, St. Charles County will be a dinosaur not too far in the future, the signs are already there.
    There was a news article on Channel 5 tonight about high gas prices, and how they probably won’t go down. The poison of oil dependence is one thing that everyone conveniently ignores, but the other is building a high quality city. A high quality city environment won’t look like St. Charles County, but more like old St. Louis. There are many successful cities around the world that share a heritage with old St. Louis.
    I don’t mind democracy and debate, but what is happening is not even close. Unlike you Alex, I consider what is happening criminal. Basically McKee and City government are telling the citizens, even though there is considerable public money involved, the citizens are dirt, useless and we superior beings have no reason to consider the needs or opinions of the citizens.

    The Northside is a unique opportunity to create a new vision for St. Louis in the 21st Century. Instead we get the usual corruption that serves to enrich a few insiders, McKee and City government are nothing but greedy fools that are leading us to our destruction. There is absolutely no response to reality that I can see.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    If I were someone with the knowledge, experience and capital, I would be starting up a new brick-production business right about…now.

    This “project” — if actually done — presents a potential renaissance for St. Louis brick. And I’d rather than come out of St. Louis rather than buying from another company (or worse, buying back the brick that has been trucked out already).

    Of course, that’s going on the pretense that McKee has enough respect for the city and its history to not put up a series of vinyl-sided subdivisions…

    • Adam

      i’m not sure there’s enough clay left in the beds for a brick renaissance. i thought i had read somewhere that many of the local clay deposits had been picked clean decades ago. that does seem a herculean feat though so maybe not…

    • Adam

      sadly, i also doubt that we would get anything more than brick fronts out of any large scale housing development these days.

  • Legal Eagle

    “Mayor Slay Tweeted ‘Selling 1,200 tax delinquent parcels for a large
    development actually proves the strategy of land banking.’”

    Read: “We have pursued a development strategy that only allows only one outcome and now that we have, after 30 years of allowing decline, reduced the property values so much by not allowing organic development we have reached that outcome.  The future viability of this plan is undecided and uncertain, but hey… we got ourselves a massive development plan!  What could possibly go wrong?”  Twitter has really allowed for our Public officials to be very succinct!

    • Noble Harvey

      More like, this is the difference between having Barb Geisman making development deals and Jeff Rainford making development deals.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’ll just add that to have an informed discussion on NorthSide, the target must go well beyond the current administration. Their actions should be critiqued, but within the context of the past 50 years.

      • Noble Harvey

        Do you have an opinion on the sale? Your comments here are veiled.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Intentionally veiled. Yes, I have an opinion, but I think the story itself is more interesting. That is, I’d rather talk about how we got here, how the process has worked and what we might expect in the future.

          • Legal Eagle

            I like how you are handling this Alex. This is a great article and does not take a side.  I agree that the evaluation of this project will take decades.  I can assure you that McKee will not be the owner of any of these properties past 15 years from now and that’s the worrisome part of this.  If he follows the typical tax incentive driven development strategy (buy, incentivize, sell to investors, leave) I don’t hold out much hope for the long term viability of the building stock.  I hope that he proves me wrong.  Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong.

  • GMichaud

    McKee is not Michelangelo or Leonardo, or should everyone just
    pretend he is Leonardo and accept anything that happens on the Northside as
    okay?   Even without a redevelopment plan, it is right
    to ask what are the main concepts driving development?

    In simple terms it is either an automobile orientated plan,
    with large lots, with large central commercial areas people have to drive to,
    surrounded by large parking lots, along with low density building and long
    distances to walk to transit. The use of cul-de-sacs rather than the grid is
    likely.

    Or is a plan that includes the auto working with transit
    and walking? One that has neighborhood commercial with corner stores and
    scattered shops, this along with creating density with row housing, narrower
    lots and so on, using density to support walking and transit.

    Should the City of St. Louis be built for people or for
    automobiles only?  Where is the debate?

    City government has failed miserably handing McKee all of
    that city land without negotiating a contract that protects the interests of
    the citizens.  And the poor, extremely
    poor job of communicating with the public about anything at all related to the
    disposition of this project is beyond belief. There are not even simple ideas presented
    as outlined above.

    But above all the media: the Post-Dispatch, the TV stations
    who always act like they are above it all with their dog and pony shows are all
    at fault for allowing these continual insider giveaways to continue without a
    challenge. 

    (Please refer to a book by David Pass on the building of two
    Stockholm suburbs Vallingby and Farsta (the title of the book) in the Sixties.
    It is a good description of their planning process. Stockholm integrated
    transit with the auto, building commercial public spaces connected to transit,
    with neighborhood shops and desirable walking distances. There are no
    indications of any kind that sophisticated discussions like illustrated in the
    book are taking place. Rather it seems City government is going to let McKee do
    as he pleases while they give away the store to him).

     

     

     

     

  • Rick

    50 acres for the new Kraftig Saint Louis brewery and corporate campus would look very good on the near northside.    

    • T-Leb

      Ughh, Kraftig is terrible beer. American Patriot is terrible too. Support local craft breweries

      • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

        Hey, Bud Light isn’t exactly the elixir of the Gods, but no one faults A-B for being headquartered in St. Louis. I, for one, welcome a new standard beer to the national market and hope its success benefits the City.

        Rick is right — a Kraftig brewery on the industrial northside would be great, both for connecting neighborhoods and the CIty as a whole.

  • http://twitter.com/innercitivoice Edward Williams, Jr

    Great, more of my roots being erased through gentrification. Soon all of my ties to the city will be gone. It’s getting harder and harder to show my white friends where I grew up. where I hung out. My memories of my childhood will cease to exsist. How would you white people feel is someone erased your past? That area has so much Black history and was one of the most thriving black mixed income area’s in the city until McKee started holding properties, letting them sit for those beautiful houses to become crack houses. It’s making me mad just to write this.  

    • Alex Ihnen

      This is not a defense of any of McKee’s actions, but the area of the city where he now owns a lot of land did not begin its decline when we showed up. The problems of the area and of the city are much deeper and older than NorthSide. He may be set to profit from the decline, but he didn’t create it.