It was just September when nextSTL broke the news that the city was set to blight 395-acres spanning the Central Corridor, likely giving development rights to Saint Louis University. Two months later, the outline of a redevelopment plan is in place and city approvals are nearly complete. In St. Louis, blight comes at you fast.
The redevelopment plan focuses on creating connections between the SLU Frost Campus north of Interstate 64, the medical campus south of I-64, and the development of north and south gateways for the area. Confirmed are plans to demolish the last standing Pevely Dairy building and Missouri Belting Building. The Desloge Tower is planned to remain. Once master developer powers are granted, demolition review will no longer exist within the area. The city’s Cultural Resources Office and Preservation Board have previously denied demolition of the two buildings.
The Chapter 353 “Urban Redevelopment Corporation Law” means, in short, that SLU would have the final say in all projects within the district boundaries. Acting as master developer, the school would be able to grant financial incentives such as tax abatement.
According to SLU, the four proposed areas of focus are:
- Medical and educational uses including offices and training facilities for those in the health care and life sciences; classrooms and related instructional, laboratory, research, hospice, nursery and day care spaces; and pharmacy facilities.
- Office facilities for private, public and non-profit institutions, businesses and agencies; research facilities; retail, dining, entertainment and other services; hotel and conference facilities; recreational and community facilities; and parking.
- New residential housing near SLU’s south campus, where it’s estimated that 60 to 80 single-family or low-density dwelling units could be constructed on vacant lots in the area.
- A future connection with the proposed Chouteau Greenway, which would flow through the redevelopment area.
There is significant vacancy across the 610-parcel Midtown redevelopment plan area. It’s clear that SLU has contributed to this condition of the course of the past couple decades, but impossible to determine to what extent, or how the area might have changed without the school’s demolition and landbanking. The tenor of the university is less bellicose today, but its looming actions, and now near complete development control, should encourage scrutiny.
Sure Father Biondi threatened to move the hospital and medical school to St. Louis County or elsewhere if SLU wasn’t allowed to demolish the Pevely complex, but today’s redevelopment plan dedicates an appendix to hospitals abandoning urban centers over the past half century. At the same time as the redevelopment plan posits a massive relocation away from the city, it touts the already underway $550M commitment to build a new SSM/SLU hospital. It would seem that the veiled threat of abandoning Midtown is both toothless and unnecessary. The granting of master developer powers to the university by the city wasn’t a close call.
Since this site first shared the St. Louis City Economic Incentives Report in May, there has seemingly been an emerging consensus that incentives such as tax abatement and TIF should be dialed back. A stronger “but for” measure should be applied, most seem to say. However, no one in a position to do so has done so. Just today, half a dozen development proposals seeking incentives were made public. None appear set to be challenged.
In a statement posted on the school’s website, SLU lays out its vision for the redevelopment process, as well as the hoped-for result, explicitly stating its desire to be “a leader in just land use and responsible urban design.” The university is also undertaking its first campus master planning effort in nearly three decades.
Not noted for its previous efforts to engage residential neighbors and the larger community, SLU states that it will hold open forums for residents of the Gate District and Tiffany neighborhoods. An advisory board of area residents, business owners, and others is planned. The school also stated that eminent domain will not be sought, and no residents (above and beyond those who have been displaced in recent years) are expected to be displaced by new development.
The redevelopment plan itself explicitly cites Cortex as the redevelopment model. SLU has been a partner in the Cortex effort, which began in 2005. Similar to Washington University in St. Louis with Cortex, SLU will act as an “umbrella” redeveloper, facilitating development by other interests, including the acquisition and assembly of development sites. It’s unclear if SLU will look to sell portions of its extensive land holdings in the area.
According to the redevelopment plan, nearly 30% of the area is vacant, including land and buildings. By including surface parking and “institutional open space”, that number reaches 45% of land either vacant or underutilized. “Institutional open space” doesn’t include areas such as the expansive setback of the Doisy building, or other planned green space. SLU, SSM, and affiliated organizations currently own 53% of the land within the area. Prohibited uses include adult bookstores, pinball and video arcades, tire and muffler shops, pawn shops, discos, and various other business categories.
The economic impact analysis completed by Development Strategies presents the following: The “Build” scenario is projected to generate $101,304,628 in total tax revenue, compared to total tax revenue of $66,715,167 under the “NO BUILD” scenario. Thus, the impact on taxing jurisdictions of the proposed Phase One redevelopment is estimated to be a net gain of $34,589,461.
While specific development details have not been determined, much of the plan is focused on connecting the existing SLU campuses. Specifically, the school states it will actively “encourage and facilitate” a pedestrian connection at Spring Avenue between the planned $340M City Foundry and $82M Armory project.
What else can be learned from the redevelopment plan? Hickory Street is planned to be vacated and a new private street built adjacent to the existing Missouri Belting building. Access to the hotel and garage at The Armory would be directly from Grand Boulevard. It is desired that direct access from Grand also be introduced to the areas north of Chouteau, but south of the rail lines.
So what to think of the blighting of 395 acres of what seems to be a hot area for redevelopment in the city? In one view, the designation and granting of master developer powers allows and encourages the type of holistic planning needed, and too often missing, in the city. In another view, the granting of such powers to a private entity is an abdication of city responsibility and highlights the continued inability of the city to perform proactive planning. Now, as it did then, the whole process makes us wonder if there exists a consistent, fair argument against simply blighting the entire city.