Talking Past One Another: A Call for Common Language on the NorthSide Regeneration Project

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The latest in the battle over NorthSide is competing editorials in the Post-Dispatch, one by Virginia Druhe, “a long-time resident of North St. Louis” and one by Michael Mindlin, a resident “of Webster Groves (who) has been an architect and planner for 30 years, focusing on urban revitalization and development (and who) has worked in the United States and abroad.” I think the more interesting take would have been an urban planner who doesn’t like the NorthSide plan and a long-time resient of North St. Louis who welcomes the development.

Anyway, let’s take a look at where the argument sits, at least on the pages of the region’s news source. Virginia focuses her disapproval of the NorthSide plan on specific. This seems like a smart way to address the issue. She rightly claims that the streets and sidewalks in the immediate vicinity of 1825-29 North 18th Street are in good condition while the redevelopment document rates them as “poor” or “fair”. I suppose it’s possible that the NorthSide assessment was done before recent repaving, but either way, the issue is barely relevant.

While North 18th Street is within the redevelopment area, there’s no chance that the homes on 18th Street will be taken, demolished and redeveloped. It’s not going to happen. She also takes exception to the term “blighted,” stating that the only reason her home is blighted is “because it’s more than 35 years old and increased in value less than the city average.” That’s not why it’s been blighted and regardless, the label does not effect her home per se, other than possibly aiding her in receiving assistance to do any repairs or renovation herself.

The problem with a subject like NorthSide is that people get tripped up by words they may not understand. If your home is in a “blighted” area, it does not mean that your home is dilapidated, falling apart, uninhabitable or anything of the sort. Paul McKee, speaking to Charlie Brennan on KMOX this week said as much, stating that he doesn’t consider many of the buildings he owns in North St. Louis to be “blight,” but that the “blight” label is used to define a redevelopment area.

The next step is worse. The author take a definition of “blight” that no one agrees pertains to each and every parcel of the project area and uses it to further discredit the proposed redevelopment. She writes, “the blanket statement that the area is a “menace to public health, safety, morals and welfare” only proves that this document is not based on real knowledge of the area or its people.” Once again she takes exception based on her own understanding of “blight.” The only thing this “proves” is that she’s addressing something other than what is happening with NorthSide.

The pro-McKee editorial speaks past the issues of NorthSide even more. The piece begins with several paragraphs about Winghaven, which I would suggest may not be McKee’s strongest card to play. This tactic certainly will not win many converts and should be reserved to refute someone who declares that Winghaven “proves” McKee can’t do urban development. But the most misplaced claim is that McKee has much in common with philantropists Les Wexner, the Carnegies and the Mellons.

The writer states, “Columbus was transformed thanks to the will of one man: Les Wexner, chairman of the Limited Co.” Clearly this overstates one man’s impact. Les Wexner has a net worth of $2.6B. He once purchased a $42M Picasso to donate to the eponymous Wexner Center for the Arts. Yes, Les Wexner has written some very big checks and had a very substantial impact on Columbus, OH. In 1997 he had the world’s most expensive private yacht.

The letter goes on to claim, “Like McKee, Wexner and his family wrote checks to ensure that it got done right — checks for $50 million and $70 million.” Mr. Wexner certainly has written checks for $50M and more for various causes. Paul McKee has invested near $35M in NorthSide, a private development venture. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in any way what-so-ever and his vision may in fact be what St. Louis needs, but comparing Paul McKee to Les Wexner is not informative.

Of course there’s another side to this misunderstanding. Speaking to Charlie Brennan, Paul McKee hid behind definitions and technicalities. While being technically correct (and obviously more informed) on the proper uses of “blight”, “condemnation”, and “eminent domain”, he failed to address why people harbor concerns and doubts about NorthSide, but rather decided to simply state that people are wrong because they’re using a specific term incorrectly. Neither side, as presented here, is moving the discussion on NorthSide in a positive direction.

If people are to be understand they must find a common language. The public, especially those voicing concerns about the project, must better understand development language and its implications and Paul McKee must recognize legitimate concerns regardless of the language used.

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