Do The Math: National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the City

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The Grim Reaper constantly lurks in our city, threatening to destroy the productive development patterns of the past with the scythe of 20th century ideas of progress. Before doing more of the same, let’s do the math!

{Buster Brown Blue Ribbon Shoe Factory – $17,171 property taxes/acre}

The NGA is going to move from its facility near the south riverfront. Of the proposed sites, one is in the city. The Northside NGA site is 136 acres north of Cass Avenue and the Pruitt-Igoe site. The city would vacate streets (except for Cass presumably) and alleys and no longer have to provide maintenance or services. The city would pay $8-10M for property acquisitions and use eminent domain where necessary. It’s unclear whether the Federal Government would buy or be given the city-owned land. Another $25M in infrastructure improvements surrounding the site were floated as being a part of a general obligation bond issue which has stalled in the BoA.

The jobs there would produce $2.4M annually in earnings taxes. Remember though that the earnings tax is under threat every five years. That revenue would go to zero if repeal ever were to pass. Since the facility would be owned by the Federal Government it would generate no property taxes. So the site would produce $17,647 per acre in earnings taxes which would track with salaries and staffing levels. The city would save money on the vacated infrastructure.

{Total earnings tax revenue over 50 years assuming 2% real payroll growth vs probability that the earnings tax is repealed assuming it’s constant for each election}

The current conditions are dire. The area is mostly vacant. The part north of Cass produces $64.686 in property taxes (if NorthSide developer Paul McKee actually paid them) on 72 acres or $902/acre. Dollar-wise, compared to the present, the NGA moving there would be a home run.

{NGA site in 1875 – Compton and Dry}

USGS_NGA_edit{NGA site in 1968 – USGS}

But we know what used to be there- “city.” Let’s take a look at a block off Grand to see what could be. I’ll use the block bounded by Grand, Connecticut, Spring, and Wyoming. It generates $98,500 in property taxes on 6 acres or $16,436/acre. If I take out the church on Wyoming, it’s $17,810. The block also produces undisclosed sales and earnings taxes. A less prosperous block is bounded by Cherokee, Ohio, Utah, Texas at $7,500/acre. And an all-star is Metro Lofts on Forest Park Avenue at Euclid at $169,500/acre. As far as neighborhood vibrancy goes, these are infinitely higher than the proposed NGA facility offers.

To create a neighborhood like South Grand at the NGA site would take a generation, as it took when it was developed in the first place. It may never happen so long as the region continues its slow growth and keeps undermining already built areas with state and federal infrastructure subsidies on the edges of the region.

{NGA HQ near Springfield, Virginia}

The hope by some is that the NGA coming will be a catalyst for development (and help bail out McKee) in the surrounding areas, though there is no evidence of that around its Springfield, Virginia headwaters, where approximately 10,000 employees are housed. In fact, there’s no real evidence of that around the current NGA facility in St. Louis. The new facility would have an on-site cafeteria. The NGA will also likely oppose any tall buildings around its perimeter. Can, or would, they institute a forgivable loan program for employees to buy homes in surrounding neighborhoods like Washington University does?

The Federal Government’s track record at city building is abysmal. It funded most of the highways and slum clearances. It funded the housing project towers few of which lasted more than a generation. It was the original redliner. Instead of fixing up historic housing, this crap was built. All orderly, but dumb things accomplished thanks to a top-down approach.

Recently, the Veteran’s Administration decided to move 800 jobs from downtown to Overland, in contrast to the White Houses’ supposed concern for cities. Instead of fighting to keep them, we’re told to think regionally and suck it up. Whereas with the NGA we’re supposed to sacrifice 100 acres of potential city and thank them for it.

Since the site will be tax-exempt, the biggest loser will be the struggling St. Louis Public Schools. 57.6% of property taxes goes to the SLPS. Whenever we trade property taxes for sales and earnings taxes the schools lose. Or the rest of us have to make up the difference. (Same goes for the Zoo-Museum District)

It boils down to what kind of city we want. Do we want the big, sooner-rather-than-later solution? In a city that can’t add land area, is this worth the sacrifice? Instead of low density development patterns, shouldn’t we be trying to build “city” there? That’s the only way we can afford all the infrastructure and services we expect.

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  • John R

    Interesting proposal from the guy who owns the Buster Brown… move it across the street for a hotel!
    http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/will-other-shoe-drop-buster-brown-blue-ribbon-shoe-factory

    • Adam

      Beat me to it. I hope to hell he can make it work, but I have a feeling the city is going to obstruct him so they don’t have to deal with it. The article makes it sound like they’re already trying to pick his plan apart.

      • STLEnginerd

        At the very least the city should be willing to commit the cost of purchasing the property AND the cost to demo it toward a move, And transfer the land footprint in the Pruitt-Igoe super-block. Not sure how close that would get him to the 5 Million estimate.

        Could he come up with the rest?
        Would he have access to Historic Credits for a redevelopment if the building was moved to a new location?

  • Danielson

    I live across the street from that piece-of-crap house pictured above. I have always referred to it as “the wart.”

  • AL

    The math is simple, the vision and the patience are tough. Eventually we, as a society, will learn that school systems (K-12) are the key to residential neighborhood development and long term success. If parents, and future parents, do not feel that a quality (K-12) education in a safe neighborhood is available, they will move to somewhere they can find one. Home values are directly impacted by poor schools, kids are the future and the present, and the current mindset of a lot of parents is to move-on if they cannot find what they are looking for here. That means that home values will deflate and then you are looking at rental property that is never maintained properly, and the descent of the community takes off. Just my .02

  • mm

    NGA East is located within the bounds of Ft. Belvoir. That is why there is no development.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Why is there no development (new housing, commercial, restaurants, etc.) on the vacant lots and empty buildings immediately surrounding the current NGA (besides obvious I-55 & industrial sites) in St. Louis City? And why isn’t there more development around Wells Fargo in St. Louis City? Or Ameren? Or Nestle-Purina?

      • mm

        Well, they are currently bounded by Anheuser-Busch on the west, the river on the East, Sigma-Aldrich to the south. I’m not sure why you think anyone is going to be looking at condos or new mixed-use development next to a chemical plant, beer manufacturer, and drydocks.

        I think you are discounting the impact that the current workforce has on commerce in and around Soulard, Benton Park, and even Downtown, where the site does support development. I’m sure people like Vinnie Valenza at Blues City Deli will notice when those 3,000+ employees (that number does not include hundreds of contractors who work on-site) pack up and move. There are also contracting companies that like to stay close to their customer; many have office locations throughout the city to stay close to NGA.

        • guest

          I live in Soulard right next to a beer manufacture and work for a chemical company that is right across the street from houses in Webster Groves. I think it can be done.

      • Because those campuses are built like little forts. People drive in, work, and drive home. They shouldn’t have been allowed to be built, but now we’re stuck with them.

        • Chicagoan

          You’re spot on. It’s a similar thing with sports arenas. When you have a building surrounded by a sea of surface parking, the incentives for development are about the same as developing around a vacant plot of land.

          This has been discussed in Chicago regarding the United Center, where the Blackhawks and Bulls call home. Around twenty-five years after it was built, there’s been some development (finally!). But, to be honest, it’s happened in spite of the United Center, not b/c of it. Building sports arenas with the hope of it fostering development is an intangible dream, at least if they’re designed in this American style, to be surrounded by an actual moat of surface parking.

          Architecture that causes a domino effect is architecture that causes people to linger. When people drive in, work, and drive home like you said, there’s no lingering to speak of. Yet, many people still don’t get this.

          • Alex Ihnen

            And not just surrounded by parking, but with blank walls and lacking multiple uses. A stadium, or corporate campus can work, but why not line the building with retail? It’s a model that may be coming as a urban-ish trend. Imagine a CVS on the same block as Wells Fargo…creates some life and would be an amenity for employees. Of course, this is what existing urban locations can already offer.

          • Chicagoan

            Detroit is going to try to make this happen with a new Red Wings stadium.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit_Events_Center

          • Alex Ihnen

            Right. They’re basically hiding the arena behind other buildings. It’s a good idea – though personally I’d love to see the arena incorporated into its surroundings more than hidden. Anyway, this is much more possible with a hockey/basketball arena, or MLS stadium than a football stadium, given the demand for parking.

          • because retail is dead. The US is seeing double-digit drops in year-over-year brick and mortar retail monthly sales. Outside of food and pharmacy (where you need it right now) and luxury, physical retail is vanishing.

            urban advocates are going to have to have a long, hard conversation about what’s supposed to go in street-level spaces. A city can only support so many restaurants and Walgreens, and that’s all that’s going to be left when Amazon is finished.

          • Alex Ihnen

            That, and brick and mortar Amazon stores, apparently.

          • Chicagoan

            I don’t feel like retail is dead, that is kind of pre-mature.

            Saying that is comparable to when everyone declared the end of the book due to the rise of the e-reader.

  • John R

    Add the near north riverfront as another large part of our core that we seem willing to hand off to inefficient single-uses.

  • Luftmentsch

    Excellent piece. You can’t save the village by destroying it.

  • Michael B

    You said it yourself: “Dollar-wise, compared to the present, the NGA moving there would be a home run.”

    We can’t compare the site to anything except for what it currently is, which is a whole lot of nothing and a reminder of projects failed. Will a new NGA campus miraculously revitalize the area? Probably not. But it’s a start.

    • rgbose

      I just wish they took up less space. If they just used the Pruitt-Igoe parcel and a block or two for parking garages it’s be great

      • Jesse

        Was the use of the picture with the Pruitt-Igoe buildings present as well as the neighboring houses, which don’t exist any longer an attempt to draw empathy since the article contradicts itself?

        • rgbose

          No, by showing that it used to be “city” I’m trying to help people visualize that “city” could happen again and be worth aspiring to. “City” would perform better than the NGA on 136 acres, but it’d take a long time to accomplish- let’s discuss.

          • Jesse

            No one wants to build anything else though. So the option becomes to have them or no one. Single family houses aren’t going back there without subsidies. Maybe form based code mixed use; with incentives.

          • John R

            I think the key to this whole area is what goes in the P-I site. As Downtown West makes slow but sure gains redevelopment is creeping closer to this site at downtown’s outer-edge. What I’d love to see is a good mixed-use project go in there that also helps spur residential-oriented development to the North. Even something like the mixed-use, mixed-income North Sarah Apartments project developed by McCormack Baron would be a big win for north of Cass and probably more realistic and community-based than a slew of 300-400K single-family homes.

          • rgbose

            I continue to be a fan of this idea. I think it would be attractive enough for people to buy places in it.
            https://nextstl.com/2013/01/what-should-be-pruitt-igoe-as-a-walkable-mixed-use-neighborhood/

          • rgbose

            There are a lot of subsidies at play. McKee has a $390M TIF and land assemblage tax credits. Anything built will probably get a property tax abatement for 10 or more years. And the NGA gets a property tax abatement in perpetuity.

      • Richard

        Does anyone know the exact parameters of this 136 acre site? North of Cass east of Jefferson, does it go up to St. Louis Avenue and east to 22nd street? The reason I ask is there has been newer housing developments in the area east of 22nd and most of the area is vacant with not too many historical buildings to be demolished. I would prefer they rehab the great old housing stock along St. Louis Avenue. The City can’t afford to lose 3,000 jobs and this area is prime for this type of development with the possibility of an additional 2,000 jobs or more and hopefully the employees will be encouraged to buy into the surrounding neighborhood. I can certainly understand the concern over the loss of the city grid and a large piece of city real estate but unfortunately most of this property is a loss. as a result of racial indifference. It is vitally important for the City to get this development as a catalyst for new infill mixed income housing around the NGA building. It would be great to see $300,000 to $400,000 housing units as well as other housing in the rehabbed buildings that are salvageable and new infill that has decent architecture. When you drive around this area there is an opportunity to fill in the vacant land from Old North St. Louis and Hyde Park up to Jefferson with rehabbed and new infill housing creating a critical mass. My concern is this development will be a massive fortress because it is a Federal Government building that handles the security of the world. As a result this building will resemble a fortress or prison so the developers need to make sure there is plenty of green space around the development, However one good item to help allay fears of crime in this neighborhood is that since this is a major Federal Government complex the area will be wired for security as well as satellites observing everything that goes on around the neighborhood and that may become a selling point to encourage people to live in the neighborhood and help deal with the crime issues. One final item the old Pruitt Igoe site should be cleaned up and made into a city park.

      • Adam

        The Buster Brown building takes up such a tiny fraction at the very edge of this enormous parcel, yet I’m sure it will be razed immediately and the land left empty. You know, for safety and stuff.

        • Roobah

          The Buster Brown Building is a historical building and will not be razed. Unknown what it could become, but it will not be torn down.

          • Alex Ihnen

            It *should stay, but I wouldn’t bet against its demolition.

          • STLEnginerd

            Maybe Roobah knows something we don’t but historical significance didn’t save St. Bridget de Erin.

          • John R

            Feds certainly would look at the issue if it’s on the National Register. But there wouldn’t be any guarantee they’d save it.

          • John R

            Looks like the Federal Draft EIS sez it would be a goner:

            “Within the footprint of the St. Louis City Site, there are known historic properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The construction of the project would require the demolition of the Buster Brown-Blue Ribbon Shoe Factory and homes within the footprint of the St. Louis Place Historic District. NGA, USACE, and the city of St. Louis are currently reaching out to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office, and local historic interest groups to determine the appropriate mitigation for impacts to NRHP-listed resources.”

            https://nextstl.com/2015/10/high-resolution-images-of-nga-west-vision-for-north-st-louis-city/

          • Alex Ihnen

            Yes. The images and plan, as it is, in the PDF is simply what the city put together to help the NGA envision a new HQ on the site. It was done with NGA guidance regarding the number acres needed, setback, parking, etc. In the end, the feds could decide to keep the building – and wouldn’t that be great – for whatever use.

          • Adam

            Well, according to page 14 of the City’s NGA report,(https://nextstl.com/2015/10/high-resolution-images-of-nga-west-vision-for-north-st-louis-city/) the City has no intention of saving it, and I highly doubt the federal government cares enough to try.

          • Adam

            Screwed up the link. Try this one:

            https://nextstl.com/2015/10/high-resolution-images-of-nga-west-vision-for-north-st-louis-city/

            It’s the last PDF at the bottom.

          • Adam

            “Located near the edge of the NGA site, would the city consider letting the historic building remain? Williams said there’s no chance.

            ‘We’re 100 percent certain the building can’t stay,’ he said. ‘We had conversations with the NGA over a year ago and it doesn’t work on the site.'”

            http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/will-other-shoe-drop-buster-brown-blue-ribbon-shoe-factory

            Guess that answers that.

      • It’s likely the feds will want a very large perimeter between the buildings and the street and want to keep the entire outside area clear of trees or other decorations, to make electronic eavesdropping more difficult. so they’re going to need every acre.

    • Alex Ihnen

      This same rationale – the whatever’s better than the current state – can be a slippery slope. This is what people say when a vacant building is proposed for demolition – dollar-wise, demo may make sense in isolation, but clearly there’s more to consider.

      • Michael B

        That’s true. Of course there’s more to consider, but this idea that this area could be better used, even though there’s no viable alternative in the foreseeable future, is also a slippery slope. It’s that kind of thinking that doesn’t give good propositions a chance, and instead hoping that something better will come along. It’s not always best to demolish that vacant building even if it makes sense dollar-wise, but in this case, I think this is the best option we have had in a long time, and will have in a long time.

        • Alex Ihnen

          We’ll see, but some people don’t believe NGA is a viable plan. Yet even if it’s never built, the idea will eliminate any other ideas for a couple years. Having McKee virtually own all deveopment in this area for a decade has also eliminated any other ideas. I completely agree that we got to this point because no one wanted this land. Now we sit and how the city and McKee can come up with something.

          • Nat76

            Do you really see any other ideas coming down the pike for that area within the next decade or two though? The areas that are getting investment are those in which the housing stock remains. This area is way down the queue when it comes to places that will garner that attention (as in the “what it could be” example): Shaw, TGE, Benton Park West, the Grove etc in S City still have a lot of capacity for that investment as do areas like Hyde Park in the north. There is a lot of absorption that will need to occur in these areas. In the mean time, we have something that will provide employment that could serve as an anchor to help the area. Not just stadium vendor or Dollar General jobs, but good jobs. IMO, the NGA campus, if anything, will be a catalyst for new opportunity rather than a deterrent a future idea that is highly unlikely to be feasible for a long, long time.

          • Adam

            If it’s built like a fortress (which is likely) it’s not going to catalyze anything.

          • Nat76

            It’s true that it won’t create synergies physically, but it can do so economically and in the broader area residentially. Nothing developed up there will be a magic billet. Employees are likely to want a couple alternatives to cafeteria food. The current site encouraged some employees to reside in B Park when it wasn’t where it is today. This might do the same for Old Noth, Hyde Park, Midtown (which still needs a lot of help). It’s a start.