Between Sunshine and Realism: Making Sense of the North St. Louis NGA Proposal

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Often when a new development is proposed, a whole sector of St. Louis says that we must assent. We are fortunate to have a chance at new construction/jobs/tax revenues or whatever promise is found in the blighting study. This sector usually includes elected officials whose four-year thinking is not necessarily a good measure of long-term economic benefit or architectural beauty. Let’s call these voices the “sunshiners.”

On the other hand, there is a deep sector of naysayers who egg the promises of renderings and economic study language so tortured it seems to emanate from a computer program. Unfortunately for the city, the prize in real estate development outcome prediction indeed goes to the opponents and critics. Just visit the tragic asphalt plains of Ballpark Village, the chalky gravel of the Bottle District or the vacant tinderboxes of “Bosley Estates” in Hyde Park. The outcomes of these subsidized, touted projects give veracity to the claims of who we could call the “dour realists.”

Pruitt Igoe - Civitas{a past rendering of a reimagined Pruitt-Igoe by Civitas for NorthSide}

When the city learned last week that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency had named a swath of the St. Louis Place neighborhood and part of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project site – a total of 136 acres — as one of four regional options for a new facility, the sunshiners seemed buoyed. In fact, they already had endorsed the proposal through the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, often the mouthpiece for the we-better-take-what-we-can-get attitude. There even was a false teleology that made the project seem like the fulfillment of another big-ticket development that the same camp had embraced as the cure for north city’s woes: NorthSide Regeneration, the project headed by Paul J. McKee, Jr. that has held redevelopment rights to the area since 2009.

“The Pruitt-Igoe site, in the center of the NorthSide Regeneration project that is the dream of developer Paul McKee, is the only choice,” proclaimed the stentorian voice of the newspaper in a July 18 editorial. At that point, NGA had narrowed sites from 186 to 22 to just six. The NorthSide Regeneration site needed more wind in its public sail, and the paper supplied a good dose.

The sunshiners rejoiced, while the dour realists – including this writer – took to public channels to criticize the giant project’s removal of the city street grid, its anti-urban form and its failure to embody even the very principles of “regeneration” that Paul McKee had promised the public many times. As is often the case, the public-subsidy Pollyannas relied on future promises that could not be quantified: the site actually meeting federal selection criteria, a fabled pretty “modernist” building and the chance for the project to jump-start the languid NorthSide Regeneration project, which has failed to produce any new buildings in nearly six years of officially being “open for business.”

{NorthSide outlined in red, NGA site being studied in yellow}

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency proposed site - St. Louis, MO

Realists needed to only point at NorthSide Regeneration’s own 2009 blighting study and redevelopment plan, prepared by Development Strategies and used as the basis of the city officially granting both redevelopment rights and a $390 million tax increment financing (TIF) package. NorthSide Regeneration pledged the city that the two areas in which the NGA site falls, dubbed areas C and D in the redevelopment documents, would be reborn through mixed-use development including lots of single family infill houses and a major retail center at the Pruitt-Igoe site. In fact, the blighting study proclaimed that the vicinity of Jefferson and Cass avenues would become the “active heart of the Redevelopment Area” and a “major neighborhood and regional mixed-use entertainment hub.”

Furthermore, the blighting study promised that after redevelopment was complete (in 2030, natch), the assessed valuation of land in area C would shoot from $13.6 million to $339.5 million, and that in area D from $7.1 million to $257.6 million. These figures don’t allow for 136 acres of the 1500 acre project to suddenly vanish from the city’s property tax rolls, which they would if the federal government purchased them. Federal agencies do not pay municipal property taxes.

Of course, redevelopment projects change course as markets ebb and flow. Highly-subsidized projects based on low demand are extremely variable, as the replacement of Daniel Liebeskind towers with a gravel lot at the Bottle District shows. Yet substitution of an entirely different land use and urban form for a project approved through redevelopment ordinance after high public objection is unprecedented. The NGA proposal negates every promise that Paul J. McKee, Jr. ever made to the city, in one move.

NorthSide Regeneration{this image of mixed-use neighborhood development appears on the NorthSide website}

Pruitt Igoe vision by NorthSide Regneration{the vision of Pruitt-Igoe and surroundings long presented by NorthSide}

Yet dour realists also would concede that the area north of Pruitt-Igoe is the least city-like land in the city limits – at least among areas with intact street grids. This meadow-like area is a sort of urban lacuna, attracting a gamut of strange schemes in the past forty years that included everything from a golf course and lake to a warehouse park. Along the way, most houses disappeared, along with their occupants. The deliberate undoing of this part of St. Louis Place extends back to the Model Cities plan for this area, adopted in 1968. NorthSide Regeneration did not start the depletion.

However, instead of opening the discussion of this area’s future to include a superblock option, McKee and his team promised retention of the street grid, no eminent domain on owner occupants in the area – a carte blanche promise also made by Mayor Francis Slay in 2008 – and a restoration of what Jane Jacobs might have called a “web network” in this area. Even urbanists raised eyebrows over the nearly obsequious care shown to this area by NorthSide Regeneration.

The switch in plan reflects not simply abandonment of the 2009 promises for this area, but the bending of the entire NorthSide Regeneration package to a possible opportunity. Here is where sunshiners might become dour realists – the question isn’t so much the fate of an urban forest and a set of city blocks nearly devoid of buildings, it’s a question about whether any “regeneration” is happening here at all. Bundling and selling land is not transformative, and after heavy subsidy, provides little multiplier impacts to the local economy. About all the act might do is raise the value of other land owned by the same developer, so that it too can be sold off to the highest bidder.

NorthSide Regeneration - St. Louis, MO{looking north on 23rd Street at Mullanphy at the center of the proposed NGA site}

{aerial showing proximity of Pruitt-Igoe to downtown St. Louis – above image location in blue}

Smart money – and not just a stack of dollar coins in Metro change — is whispering that the Scott Air Force Base site has the highest likelihood to be the new NGA home. That is mere palliative to the dour realists watching NorthSide Regeneration. If NGA doesn’t choose the massive bundle, will McKee just find another single-shot buyer? What will the developer do with other parts of the area? Will the city hold the developer accountable for any of the master plan’s laudable tenets of triple bottom line sustainability and quality urban design?

Then there is the flip side, which this dour realist is going to present. If NGA does buy the north side site, there is little reason to believe that what it will build will be an architectural or urban asset, even should the footprint scale back, or some streets be left in place. Fenced superblocks have rarely been attractive aside from Le Corbusier’s paste-ups of Paris. Anyone who has seen NGA’s current facility, with its bricked-in windows and fortess-like enclosure, understands that the agency’s priorities are what transpires inside and preventing anyone else from ever finding out.

Furthermore, when the federal government bestows new architecture upon the urban settings of the City of St. Louis, lately it has missed high marks. The FBI complex on Market Street, entombing the memory site of Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café, is a mimetic gesture toward the most genially hostile suburban office parks; fenced, devoid of style, soulless. To the east, the sun falls askew upon the yellowed concrete panels of the Eagleton Courthouse, HOK’s design from 1997. While the viewshed from Highway 40 seemed sacrosanct to many who opposed its construction, the bigger failure is a mediocre hulk whose intentions toward bullying the Old Courthouse dome through assiduous mockery are fairly clear. The site plan, with unpurposed open space, supposedly was going to allow for expansion that has not materialized some 20 years later. The most urbane new addition, the two-story Social Security Administration Building at 16th and Delmar, is a capital Blah although respectable in form and relationship to the sidewalk.

NorthSide Regeneration - St. Louis, MO{despite losing a large majority of buildings, parts of the NGA site maintain an urban form}

{today, the undeveloped portion of the Pruitt-Igoe site is an urban forest and prairie}

Certainly, before the postmodern period, the federal government used its vast bonding and granting powers to build downtown landmarks like the Federal Courthouse at Market and Tucker (1934; Mauran, Russell & Crowell), the Abrams Building at Market at 15th (1961; Murphey & Mackey with William B. Ittner, Inc.) and the Main Post Office at Market and 18th (1937; Klipstein & Rathmann), whose murals on Missouri history constitute downtown’s most vivid public storytelling device.

These are monumental buildings that also navigate the material vocabulary of their settings, with modest plazas that are effective frames without being foreboding wastelands. They have their flaws, but they don’t smother the city or overwhelm their surroundings. They enhance the group of civic buildings around Memorial Plaza with appropriate scale, pomp and compatible pale limestone. None occupies more than a full city block. (The Federal Reserve Bank Building of 1924 would have made the cut until the post-9/11 security mania devolved its solitary urban presence into an agglomerated “campus” with street closure and tunnel-connected parking garage.)

In the 19th century, the federal lode provided outstanding civic monumentalism with the Old Post office (1872-1884; Alfred B. Mullet) and even a humanely-scaled munitions depot at the Federal Arsenal (c. 1840). The arsenal, built to serve times rougher than ours and even reaching a peak employment of 500 during the Mexican-American War, shows that a fortified federal compound can enhance the beauty of a city. The security standards of NGA are far more exacting, of course, but essentially they are building the same type of compound, on even more land.

As the Army Corps of Engineers prepares environmental impact statements for the four sites, St. Louis might have a shot to reconcile the sunshiners’ abiding faith in letting NGA do what it wants and the dour realists’ fears of a smothering and unsightly federal behemoth. Here is where the city government can lead through advocating for a smaller footprint that protects homeowners and businesses on the site and retains as much of the grid as possible. Mehlville is offering a 101 acre site, the smallest of the four, so trimming the fecund fields should be feasible (if possibly disfavored by the land-selling developer, who already received some subsidy to buy the land). On top of that, the city should urge NGA to pursue a juried design process, with an independent jury that can ensure any possible design is worthy of a visible urban location. Those are the compromises.

NorthSide Regeneration - St. Louis, MO{downtown St. Louis and the Eagleton Federal Courthouse as seen from the NGA site}

The lamentation of the realist, however, would continue despite acceptance of compromise. St. Louis faces a greater stake than the calculations of job loss, property taxes and design attributes. The city is staring headlong at whether an entire portion will even be recognizably urban, a prospect that city leaders have faced again and again with jejune pandering to the myths of real estate development. Time after time, removal of viable and resilient city fabric has depleted our wealth and population, while decimating architecture that peer cities have used in place of tourism magnets.

As south St. Louis enjoys the web of economic growth that is transmitting across the state streets like a slow and bright fuse burn, north St. Louis could see the same growth. The area around Pruitt-Igoe is devoid of dense and continuous building fabric, but it runs along intact historic streets to areas of greater density. Could those areas see the growth that has stabilized neighborhoods like Shaw and Fox Park? Of course, but only if the city uses its urban planning powers to prevent damaging blunders.

If we want to improve the chances of the rest of north St. Louis to develop the same web of economic and social opportunity that the city is incentivizing in south city, we need to dare to dream that the physical fabric of north city can regenerate as urban and accessible to people as it was historically. If this conclusion sounds like sunshiner territory, this writer concedes that he was wrong back in the day. The 2009 NorthSide Regeneration plan, with its promises of careful reinvention of damaged urban fabric, was the right plan after all, at least in letter. As for spirit, well — seems that the optimistic spirit behind that plan has been thrown to the winds of random opportunity.

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  • Patrick Richmond

    There are lots of places in the City of St. Louis that needs to be headed to the cleaners. North St. Louis is well known for stupid gangs. And it is time we clean it up. Right now, there are lots of gangs and crack houses that should be scrapped. The NGA is one idea and something else could be done to help clean up St. Louis. I would like to even see a truck museum in it’s place.

  • Definitely worth a look to see what’s happening with the old north Cabrini Green project site in Chicago. Both are sites of former low-income housing that was torn down and left vacant for years, both are just north of each city’s downtown.

    Now, their housing authority and leadership is putting shovel to dirt there — they added in a Target via a land-swap at the southeast corner, large multi-purpose construction has begun on the northwest side (mixed-income housing, bowling alley, movie theatre, commercial, etc.), and they’re efforting to make a north-south route a preferred bike route with dedicated/separated lanes. I think a lot of the remaining space is slotted for low-income units, but those will likely be a small part (20% or so?) of larger market-rate structures.

  • That Dude

    We probably should stop calling what exist in the project area a street grid. It isn’t a street grid. A street is surrounded by a built environment. What exist in the project area might be a road grid, but it isn’t a street grid.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I get what you’re trying to say, but the streets there are literally from the original street layout of the residential neighborhood. It’s the scale of the paved path – the width, the length between intersections that define it as a street. The question is whether to adhere to this long established pattern, which is repeated across St. Louis City, or build on a different scale.

  • tbatts666

    Michael Allen is sure making a Google problem for north side regeneration. What is this the fifth article he’s written on it?

    To burrow some Strong Towns thinking I think the most important question to me is the financial sustainability of this model.

    So specifically for the nga we got no real estate taxes (that is bad), but what about the extra income taxes?

    The extra jobs should also bring in more service jobs too right? Is there someone who can make a prediction?

    • tbatts666

      Sorry I sound critical of Michael Allen. His articles are really important for expanding my understanding on this stuff.

      Thanks michael

    • Alex Ihnen

      Two quick thoughts: the new building is being planned to hold about the same number of workers as the current site. There wouldn’t be extra services jobs beyond the current site, at least lot substantially different – maybe more people to cut more grass? The earnings tax is an issue, but we should remember that it’s under attack and much be reaffirmed by city voters every five years. If that goes away, it erases one of the big reasons why people want NGA to stay in the city.

    • Presently we would get a relocated mass of earnings taxpayers, as long as the city has an earnings tax. We would probably get additional jobs, eventually, depending on Congressional acts yet unintroduced and unpassed.

      The other issue for Northside Regeneration is not only would NGA not pay land taxes, it would not pay any taxes into the Northside Regeneration TIF that keeps failing to monetize. Property and sales taxes fund TIFs. This use essentially kills the chances of the $390M ever being realized.

  • RealityCheckingIn

    I feel like everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room. Until you confront the issue(s) behind the notion of “oh no why isn’t north stl’s urban form more appealing”, you all will just be having empty conversations. Meanwhile other people are making real decisions to affect change.

    The shadow of the projects this proposed site is replacing is an interesting spot, due to the very fact the projects were an effort to improve the city and the lives of those within it. And look how it turned out. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    “we need to dare to dream” = complete junk of an article

    edit: Btw, I generally love nextstl.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I understand disagreeing with the language used, and the reality of failed developments in this area, but for me it’s really tough to get past its potential. It better connected and closer to downtown, the central corridor, SLU, Cortex, etc. than many south side areas. There are no rail lines or Interstates between this area and those attractions and economically resurgent areas. I think the elephant in the room is the city gave development rights for 1,500 acres to one person. This means that there are no competing plans, no experimentation, no incremental development, just a decade of hoping for a home run and perhaps settling for whomever/whatever the biggest thing may be that comes along.

      • John R

        I believe the official Downtown West northern boundary is Cole Street, which places the P-I site just a block or two from downtown. Having said that, the enormous super-warehouses/distribution centers from Delmar to Carr are a big disruption to connectivity/walkability between DW and the near northside…. it would be great to figure out how to relocate those suckers to a more industrial area and rebuild with mixed-uses that create a more seamless connection.

        • STLExplorer

          Yup – The warehouse superblocks on MLK/Delmar, vacant land like Pruitt-Igoe/Urban Prairie and public housing/residential-only neighborhoods are as big of a barrier as the interstates and railroad yards. Downtown is completely surrounded by a moat (Mill Creek Valley redevelopment like Wells Fargo Advisors forms the western edge). Having the NGA occupy this key space with a monolithic and impenetrable complex will only reinforce this barricade to inclusion. We need to knit the city back together not build more walls.

          • John R

            I wish there were a plan to do something about this…. it comes to mind that McKee claims as a success the renovated distribution center right across the street from City Museum; it is one of his few completed projects in the city. “Downtown North” should be a transition zone from high-rise to mid-rise to single family…. we’re not quite there yet with demand to do anything on a large-scale but the potential is there; unfortunately these ill-suited fortresses increase the challenge.

        • STLExplorer

          Yup – The warehouse superblocks on MLK/Delmar, vacant land like Pruitt-Igoe/Urban Prairie and public housing/residential-only neighborhoods are as big of a barrier as the interstates and railroad yards. Downtown is completely surrounded by a moat (Mill Creek Valley redevelopment like Wells Fargo Advisors forms the western edge). Having the NGA occupy this key space with a monolithic and impenetrable complex will only reinforce this barricade to inclusion. We need to knit the city back together not build more walls.

        • At Central Baptist Church in 2009, Paul McKee Jr. proclaimed that he was going to find a way to demolish the GPX warehouse because north side residents did not deserve to be walled off from downtown. Oh, those were the days!

          • John R

            Somehow we need to make this happen! Being in the CBD earlier this week reminded me how awful the transition/connection is east of Tucker as well where it is not a problem of warehouses but of soulless. life-sucking office buildings and streetscaping in the Board of Ed/11th Street area and then of course the Convention Center and Dome further east. Except for some vacant parcels near Tucker where proper buildings could infill, the near north side pretty much is walled off the entirety of Broadway to Jefferson by bad urban form.

    • tbatts666

      I think McKee believe what he is doing is right…. He knows how to manipulate the current system to build a type of place.

      Now that he has the land, should we put our faith in him? I still prefer incrementalism, I don’t trust public private partnerships…. incrementalism is not an option anymore.

      Could our system be so janked that we have to put our trust in McKee’s way of doing things?

      What is the alternative?

      • John R

        McKee certainly has put forth some pretty decent conceptual visions along the way as well as a few solid specific proposals but, sadly, nothing inspiring has moved forward. If he were to have successfully executed small projects such as the Clemon’s House restoration and pilot new housing construction on St. Louis Ave. he would have built up momentum and good will. As it stands, one has to question his ability to deliver quality projects in an urban environment and I think it would be a good move for him to publicly announce a partnership with a capable partner like McCormack Baron to move things forward.

        • tbatts666

          I feel like we could work out a better system that would ensure a sort of smart urban development through incremental investment!! Why should we need public private partnerships to redevelop an area of prime real estate? Why should we need TIFs? Why do we need to bend over backwards for gigantic organizations that have no ties to St Louis?

          Old North is on it’s way up, did they receive any massive State subsidies?

          It appears to me the problem lies with current system. We have a legacy of roadblocks and regulations and subsidies to deal with.

          I don’t understand this stuff well enough to suggest any way we as human beings can change the system other than trying to learn more about it.

          This is the way I am currently seeing it. Northside Regeneration is working with the current (shitty)system. Are they trying to leverage positive change using the current mechanisms? Is this a good thing?

          Meanwhile we complain that it isn’t perfect. It’s up to us to hold Northside Regen accountable for what happens to this city in the future.

      • John R

        McKee certainly has put forth some pretty decent conceptual visions along the way as well as a few solid specific proposals but, sadly, nothing inspiring has moved forward. If he were to have successfully executed small projects such as the Clemon’s House restoration and pilot new housing construction on St. Louis Ave. he would have built up momentum and good will. As it stands, one has to question his ability to deliver quality projects in an urban environment and I think it would be a good move for him to publicly announce a partnership with a capable partner like McCormack Baron to move things forward.

      • One alternative is presented through the Community Development Administration’s Market Value Analysis basis for allocating Community Development Block Grants. This system could replace the willy-nilly subsidy of fabalistic growth engines with dubious pro formas with investment in housing development where social indicator data supports the investment. I’m not kidding myself that this will be the end result, as data is no substitute for effective decision-making (and is only as good as its user), but it will hamper the next dirt-farmer seeking city support.

        The system is not as big of a problem as the reality that we live in a static region, with minimal population growth. We have to adjust our expectations accordingly — no seas of shiny commercial buildings, new single dwellings or acres of fully-rehabbed historic buildings are likely without a massive population inversion or in-migration. The economics of urban change in the city are small scale as a result. One commenter mocked my call to “dream” but I think we have to have thinking bigger than the scale of our realities. Look at what Jason Deem is doing around Cherokee Street or what UIC is doing in McRee Town to see that big thinking realized on a small scale actually has considerable impact.

    • I’m not following your association of “the projects” (which ones? housing projects? warehouse projects?) with the Northside Regeneration effort, urban form and “real decisions.” Please draw out the details.

  • Sampson

    I’m all for rehab and new construction housing on the North Side but can’t help but wonder, does anyone actually want to live there? I don’t see demand growing for housing in NSTL and clearly so does McKee.

    • onecity

      In its current state, a lot of N city sucks, but North City is actually a prime location with a great street grid and a lot of great and still-standing buildings with strong urban form. Unlike south city, it isn’t severed from the CBD, Forest Park, the hospitals and universities, and the growing tech corridor in midtown by two interstates and a massive industrial/railroad valley. Why it isn’t attracting more investment is a mystery to me.

      • John R

        Our main problem across the board is a lack of strong regional economic and population growth… some parts of the City are starting to fill in but we have so much undervalued land even within the Central Corridor itself…. Grand Center alone has 40 acres of surface parking and vacant lots that have the potential for redevelopment. I think in due time as some of these more central corridor neighborhoods solidify we’ll see greater residential/mixed-use interest in the Near Northside. The weak single-family housing market also has set redevelopment of this area back…. its vast empty tracts might prove tempting to homebuilders if/when that market becomes hot again.

      • Frank Wheeler

        “Why it isn’t attracting more investment is a mystery to me.”

        To paraphrase Waka Flocka Flame, I’m inclined to think that developers are colorblind when it comes to money–as long as there’s a buck to be made, someone will go for it–but I also have to imagine that negative (racialized) perceptions of the area account for some of the problem.

    • Judy Woolverton’s development of new housing around St. Liborius Church, built starting around 1999, has been very successful. Before she started, the area was lifeless, dead. With minimal government assistance, she cultivated a market for single-family homes and built dozens. I think her work shows that there is market demand in the area north of downtown, on a modest scale and pace.

      The 2010 Census showed population increases in St. Louis Place (over 12% increase) and Old North (over 25% increase), fueled by successful single and multiple dwelling projects involving new construction and rehabs.

      With stagnant regional population and a definite regional housing oversupply, this area is growing modestly. Of course these factors impinge expectations of giant infill happening anytime soon. Yet there is a proven demand, and impressive population increase numbers for very distressed areas.