Developer Paul McKee knows how to build things – his planned community, WingHaven, is proof of that.
But those homes and office buildings went up on vacant farmland in a suburban hot spot – a much different setting than the two square miles of north St. Louis he plans to rebuild. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann reports, even McKee supporters admit he’ll face major challenges translating his experience from the suburbs to the city.
By most accounts, WingHaven is a success.
Thousands of people live and work on the former site of a Monsanto research farm. There’s also retail, dining, and a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. In 2006, the development generated 18 percent of the city of O’Fallon’s tax base with less than 18 percent of the population.
MasterCard built its global data center there, lured by free land and significant state tax breaks.
Retiree Tom Shepherd and his wife moved to WingHaven in 2000 for the golf, and to be close to grandchildren. They stayed for the close-knit community they found.
“We have developed literally hundreds of friends here,” said Shepherd, the president of the WingHaven Residential Owners Association. “There’s a retirement aspect to it, but you have a lot of first-time homebuyers, you have a lot of new families here with young kids, and that sort of keeps I think the community young at heart.”
McKee has promised a similar blend of mixed-income housing, shopping, churches, and office buildings in two square miles of north St. Louis.
John Haman sees great potential in McKee’s plans. He represents Shepherd and other WingHaven residents on the O’Fallon City Council, but his day job takes him to north St. Louis.
“A lot of people I work with have all left the city,” Haman said. “A handful of them say all the time if Paul McKee is able to do half of what he’s done in WingHaven to north St. Louis, they’d love to go back into north St. Louis.”
They’d join hundreds of residents like Barb Manzara who already live there.
“We don’t trust this guy. We don’t trust him for a lot of reasons,” she said.
Manzara is rehabbing a house just two blocks from the proposed development site – a chunk of land bigger than Forest Park. It’s large enough that McKee wants to develop it in four phases, starting with two pieces of property downtown. One is at the foot of the new Mississippi River bridge. Another is just a few blocks west of Union Station; McKee wants it to build a new interchange.
Most phased projects, especially those supported by public money, never make it out of the first phase, Manzara says.
“If he completes phase one, downtown projects, successfully, and we never move on to the later phases, what will happen to our neighborhoods,” she said “ If the neighborhoods are already condemned, they’ve already had wide demolition, if the tax credits have already been gathered, what more does he have to gain?”
North side alderwoman April-Ford Griffin says McKee will have to meet strict deadlines to receive the public money he wants.
WingHaven was also built in phases. And while “For Lease” signs outside office buildings and vacant storefronts show the toll of the recession, just six percent of WingHaven’s original 11-hundred acres are undeveloped today.
But Manzara takes no comfort in that success. Vacant land in a suburban hot spot is not north St. Louis, she says.
Longtime St. Charles County development official Darrell Roegner agrees, but he says even though it was built of farmland, WingHaven wasn’t easy.
“How do you get money to build an interchange when there’s no interchange planned there,” he said. “How do you get money to build those roads? How do you take all the incentives that are out there, or that you can find, to make that happen?I think if you have those skills to do that, you can transfer those skills.”
O’Fallon alderman John Haman has similar faith in McKee’s ability. He sees nationwide impacts if the plan succeeds.
But it’s the steps between then and now that concern some residents of north St. Louis. The politics of race and class weren’t a factor at WingHaven, they say. And nobody was forced to move.