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Building on a Promise: Redeveloping North St. Louis

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Activist: Barbara Manzara with the Northside Community Benefits Alliance was one of McKee's earliest opponents. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio).
Organizing: North St. Louis residents and other activists gathered at Shining Light Pentecostal Church in August to protest the possible use of eminent domain. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Vera Turner is the assistant pastor of Shining Light Pentecostal Church. The 20-year-old building is on the list of properties developer Paul McKee wants to acquire. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Andy Lowrey (left) and son Eric own Trojan Ironworks on North 25th Street. They make everything from stair rails to steel beams. Paul McKee wants to buy their building, and plans to help pay for this and other small businesses to relocate. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Lilly Cage has lived on University Ave. in north St. Louis since 1974. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Eric Little, 20, grew up in the proposed redevelopment zone. He was part of a protest against Paul McKee's request for nearly $400 million in tax-increment financing. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Paul McKee's companies have been buying properties on the near north side since 2003. This one, on College Ave., will be demolished next year if city officials approve McKee's redevelopment proposal. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The St. Louis Commerce Center, which covers six blocks along Martin Luther King Dr., was built early this decade with the help of $1,045,600 in brownfields remediation tax credits. McKee has not said what he wants to do with this particular property, but his plans show it will be a "mixed use" area. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The proposed Northside Redevelopment Area includes much of Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin's fifth ward. "For people who say 'why would you work with Paul McKee?' Well, who else is there?" says Ford-Griffin. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
In the 1950s and '60s, thousands of people lived in 33 high rises at the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
In the early 1950s, 57 acres on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Cass Avenues were cleared of what was considered to be slum housing to make way for Pruitt-Igoe. The first residents moved there in 1954.
Doomed to fail: Pruitt-Igoe's common corridors, first thought to be an innovation that would build community in the public housing complex, quickly deteriorated.
Jill Mason holds photos of her First Communion at the former St. Bridget Church. Mason's family was one of the first to move into the new Pruitt housing project in 1954. She still lives in the area and finds herself within the footprint of Paul McKee's redevelopment plan. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Today there's scant evidence of the thousands of people who once lived in Pruitt-Igoe. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Man with a plan: Developer Paul McKee wants to rebuild more than two square miles of north St. Louis. He says a public-private partnership is the only way such a vast project can work. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Development is already underway in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, but it is not part of Paul McKee's plan. The $36 million face lift for North 14th street near the landmark restaurant Crown Candy will include commercial and residential space along two blocks. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
North 14th street was turned into an outdoor pedestrian mall as part of an earlier revitalization attempt in the 1970s, but the area continued to deteriorate. Construction equipment sits on the site today, but eventually the street will reopen to traffic. (photo: Matt Sepic/St. Louis Public Radio)
Urban prairie: While parts of north St. Louis have already benefitted from extensive smaller-scale rehabilitation efforts, much of the area Paul McKee wants to develop includes empty city blocks.
A 1996 satellite image shows Paul McKee's signature WingHaven development when it was still a Monstanto research farm. (photo: Google Earth)
The Winghaven site today. (photo: Google Earth)
MasterCard's decision to locate its headquarters at WingHaven was key to the project's success. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
New homes are also a key component of WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
A lake at WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The golf course at WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)

Uncertainty over development plan raises concerns in the community - By Matt Sepic, St. Louis Public Radio

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Developer Paul McKee wants to spend $8 billion to revitalize two square miles of north St. Louis near downtown. He's already spent millions buying up property. Still, he controls just a fraction of the land he needs, and he wants the city to grant him the right to redevelop the rest.

 

That has some people who live and work in the area concerned about their future, and the possibility of eminent domain.

 

The building that houses Trojan Ironworks is – by owner Andy Lowrey's admission – nothing fancy. Just four brick walls, some grates over the windows, and a painted metal sign. Among other things, Lowrey's company makes steel beams – a key part of modern construction. In 2005, Lowrey received a letter. Someone – it didn't say who – wanted to buy his building. He called the number and got an offer for $10,000

 

"I [told the real estate agent] I wouldn't be interested in that," Lowrey said.

 

Today, Lowrey finds Trojan Ironworks on a long list of properties Paul McKee wants the city to declare blighted. The developer wants to tear down old buildings in this area to make way for a planned community. McKee says it's still in the conceptual phase, but the idea is this: three "job hubs" for more than 20,000 workers, plus 10,000 new homes, parks, schools and churches.

 

Andy Lowrey said he is willing to relocate if St. Louis aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay green-light this plan. But with the recession, Lowrey said any new expenses could upset a delicate balance sheet.

"Here at Trojan Ironworks, everything is paid for," Lowrey said. "The building is paid for. All the equipment is paid for. So the overhead is pretty small."

 

Lowrey said permit fees or a new mortgage could spell the end of his family's enterprise. But it's not just business owners who are concerned about their property rights. Lilly Cage still lives in the north side home where she raised 13 children.

 

"I've seen four generations come through that house," Cage said. "It has plenty of room in it, high ceilings. It's well kept."

 

Cage said she planned on retiring in the home, and is concerned about the future of the neighborhood if her home and others are claimed by eminent domain.

 

Publicly, McKee has said he prefers to buy property from willing sellers. Eminent domain would cost him a lot of money and time. In July on St. Louis on the Air McKee said one of his goals is to keep the community intact.

"There's roughly 8,900 people who live within these boundaries," McKee said. "We want everyone to stay and not leave. It's very important. These people are pioneers. It's their community."

 

But later, in an interview he declined to let us record, McKee said he needs the power of eminent domain before bankers will give him financing. Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin's ward covers a much of the proposed redevelopment zone. She supports McKee's plan, but said she understands her neighbors' concerns about property rights.

 

"There will be no eminent domain for sure on any residential [property] or churches," Ford-Griffin said. "There may be some eminent domain on commercial property."

 

McKee's initial proposal, submitted last week, does not request eminent domain rights at all. But that same document indicates developers could ask later. At this point anything McKee wants to do faces a lengthy approval process at city hall. 

 

All that is no consolation to metal shop owner Andy Lowrey. The mixed messages he's heard about this project have made him uncertain about the future of his own business.

 

"What do we do?" Lowrey asked. "I think we look for another building if we can."

 

At the same time, Lowrey said he would like to stay and be part of a revitalized north side. As a maker of steel beams, metal hand rails and other building materials, he'd welcome the construction boom Paul McKee is promising.

 



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