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New NGA West Location Will Gut St. Louis Place Neighborhood, Not Revitalize What Remains

The National Geospatial Agency decided to keep its Western headquarters in the City of St. Louis. The narrative around this decision is summed up nicely here:

The decision means the city will keep 3,100 jobs, currently housed at the Old Arsenal complex south of Anheuser-Busch brewery, and move them to a $1.75 billion development just northwest of downtown. The move is expected to further the city’s pursuit of redeveloping the near North Side with a massive federal anchor — something that could lure more investment to the struggling area, but also give a major boost to nearby Washington Avenue. (Post-Dispatch)

I get the first part — keeping thousands of jobs within the city. I do hear that many of the 3,100 don’t live in the City of St. Louis — they aren’t thrilled about driving to North City. But, it’s the second part that I don’t get — how does putting many acres behind chainlink fencing help those outside the fence?

The NGA will take a big chunk of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.
The NGA will take a big chunk of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.

The NGA’s high-security entrance will be facing Jefferson Ave — it’ll turn its back on the remaining neighborhood.  The NGA as an anchor institution? Hardly:

Anchor institutions are nonprofit institutions that once established tend not to move location. Emerging trends related to globalization—such as the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service sector, and a mounting government fiscal crisis—suggest the growing importance of anchor institutions to local economies. Indeed, in many places, these anchor institutions have surpassed traditional manufacturing corporations to become their region’s leading employers. If the economic power of these anchor institutions were more effectively harnessed, they could contribute greatly to community wealth building. The largest and most numerous of such nonprofit anchors are universities and non-profit hospitals (often called “eds and meds”). Over the past two decades, useful lessons have been learned about how to leverage the economic power of universities in particular to produce targeted community benefits. (Source)

Once open, the NGA will be like the current site. Thousands will drive there, do their job, drive home. They won’t be running outside the barbwire fence to grab lunch. An employee living in, say Arnold, isn’t suddenly going to move to the neighborhood. A high-security government spy agency will never be a neighborhood anchor.

Corner pf Jefferson & Cass, April 1, 2016
Corner pf Jefferson & Cass, April 1, 2016

For those employees driving to work from Arnold, they currently drive 15.8 miles, about 20 minutes or so each way. The new location will be 20 miles, roughly 30 minutes or more.  For others, the commute to work will be shorter.

The best we can hope for is its presecence convinces others to consider relocating to the former Pruitt-Igoe site, South across Cass Ave. MetroBus might improve frequency to the area…might.

Jefferson Ave & Cass Ave both need to be updated — fewer & narrower lanes, new sidewalks, crosswalks, etc.

Sadly, our leadership still thinks razing block after block — totally erasing the street grid — is a positive thing to do. Is is 2016 or 1946?

— Steve Patterson


Thoughts on McKee’s Northside Regeneration

Northside project area, 2011
Northside project area, 2011

It has been nearly a decade now since Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration plan was first made public. It was July 2005 when Michael Allen disclosed properties owned by Blairmont Associates and affiliated companies. At the time I was in real estate and was able to search & download bulk property records, which I’d given to Allen. At that point McKee had been quietly acquiring properties for a couple of years. In the years since McKee has received a go ahead from local & state official, and survived numerous lawsuits.

A recently filed lawsuit presents another hurdle:

The lawsuit says that the loans, originally issued by Corn Belt in October 2007 for $12 million, went into default in October 2009, but that McKee, his trust, NorthSide and Multibank entered into a forbearance agreement, in which Multibank agreed not to collect on the notes if the forbearance agreement was followed.

But McKee by November 2012 failed to make payments dictated by the forbearance agreement, the lawsuit states. (St. Louis Business Journal)

And unpaid property taxes yet another:

In examining real estate property taxes, St. Louis Public Radio discovered McKee’s company, Northside Regeneration LLC, owes the city more than $750,000 in taxes for 2013 and 2014. That total includes nearly $120,000 in interest and penalties. (St. Louis Public Radio)

Unlike the 2008 collapse of developer Pyramid Construction, I think McKee will find a way to survive. At this point, however, we need McKee to thrive — not just avoid the collapse of his plan. The areas where he has bought properties need to see buildings renovated and new construction going up. Sticking with McKee is a gamble — but backing his creditors would also be a gamble.

If only the city had put together a plan to attract employers, developers to unwanted/underused sites like Pruitt-Igoe and the 22nd Street Interchange.  City planners could’ve marketed the area where the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge meets a rebuilt Tucker at Cass.  Instead the city withdrew from planning, leaving the field open to private for-profit interests.

— Steve Patterson


Potential On 22nd Street Across From Possible National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Location

Let’s assume the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency selects the 100-acre site in North St. Louis, over three others in the region, for its new campus, see Urban Renewal Officially Ended In 1974, Still Alive In St. Louis. Will this help or hinder the redevelopment of the surrounding blocks?  The planned clearance of 100 acres will leave a one block wide strip across 22nd, to the East. To the South is Cass Ave and the former Pruitt-Igoe site, to the West is the excessively-wide Jefferson Ave. To the North will be the backs of properties facing St. Louis Ave.

Thus the biggest opportunity for positive impact on exiting development is East of 22nd Street, two corners stand out:

At 22nd & Mullanphy St is a vacant warehouse built in 1889. This is owned by the St. Louis Housing Authority. In the same block is the former Falstaff Brewery — successfully converted to housing a couple of decades ago — including new construction & adaptive reuse.  Click image to view the Falstaff project.
1890, 1904
Two blocks north at Madison you get these three buildings owned by Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration. The corner was built in 1904, the two on the right in 1890,.

Neither of these corners are architectural gems, but their age is a nice contrast to already built infill and the secure fortress of what the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would build. The old cast iron storefront at Madison might house a coffeehouse/cafe — a place for the new employment base to walk to for lunch. This could be a chance for an existing resident to become an entrepreneur, hiring others from the area.

I don’t know if the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency works without outside contractors, if so, the 3-story 19th century warehouse could become office space.   Residential is certainly another option.

If we’re going to raze a 100 acre swath of land adjacent to the long-vacant Pruitt-Igoe site we should begin thinking now about how to improve the edges.  If the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency doesn’t pick this site we’ll be area on ideas for the area, with other businesses perhaps being interested in the vacant blocks within the 100 acre site.

Great potential exists, but the private market often overlooks these less common areas that require greater creative thought.

— Steve Patterson


Urban Renewal Officially Ended In 1974, Still Alive In St. Louis

The redevelopment process commonly known as Urban Renewal, in retrospect, was largely a failure:

After World War II, urban planners (then largely concerned with accommodating the increasing presence of automobiles) and social reformers (focused on providing adequate affordable housing) joined forces in what proved to be an awkward alliance. The major period of urban renovation in the United States began with Title I of the 1949 Housing Act: the Urban Renewal Program, which provided for wholesale demolition of slums and the construction of some eight-hundred thousand housing units throughout the nation. The program’s goals included eliminating substandard housing, constructing adequate housing, reducing de facto segregation, and revitalizing city economies. Participating local governments received federal subsidies totaling about $13 billion and were required to supply matching funds.

Sites were acquired through eminent domain, the right of the government to take over privately owned real estate for public purposes, in exchange for “just compensation.” After the land was cleared, local governments sold it to private real estate developers at below-market prices. Developers, however, had no incentives to supply housing for the poor. In return for the subsidy and certain tax abatements, they built commercial projects and housing for the upper-middle class. Title III of the Housing Act of 1954 promoted the building of civic centers, office buildings, and hotels on the cleared land. Land that remained vacant because it was too close for comfort to remaining slum areas often became municipal parking lots. (source)

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities rebuked the ongoing land clearance policies advocated by supporters of urban renewal. By the late 1960s one of St. Louis’ most prominent urban renewal projects — Pruitt-Igoe — was a disaster. Before the 20th anniversary the first of 33 towers were imploded in 1972 — urban renewal was unofficially over.

In 1974 it was officially over:

The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 emphasized rehabilitation, preservation, and gradual change rather than demolition and displacement. Under the Community Development Block Grant program, local agencies bear most of the responsibility for revitalizing decayed neighborhoods. Successful programs include urban homesteading, whereby properties seized by the city for unpaid taxes are given to new owners who promise to bring them “up to code” within a given period—either by “sweat equity” (doing the work themselves) or by employing contractors—in return for free title to the property. Under the Community Reinvestment Act, lenders make low-interest loans to help the neighborhood revitalization process. (same source as first quote)

But forty plus years later the St. Louis leadership continues as if nothing changed. The old idea of marking off an area on a map to clear everything (homes, schools, businesses, churches, roads, sidewalks) within the red lined box remains as it did in the 1950s. The message from city hall is clear: don’t invest in North St. Louis because they can & will walk in and take it away.

Cass & Jefferson
Great old building near Cass & Jefferson would be razed for the campus

What are the scenarios at this point?

A) National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency selects the city option:

  • Businesses, residents, churches, etc are displaced.
  • A 100-acre swath is purchased and cleared.
  • The federal government builds a fortress-like campus, few workers would leave at lunch.
  • No benefit to the surrounding neighborhoods, access to public transit cut off by monolithic campus.
  • Adjacent areas now threatened as the next target for clearance, further eroding those areas.
  • Fire Station Number 5 would remain, but because of the new campus, firefighters would be unable to quickly reach the area to the West of Jefferson/Parnell.
Fire Station 5, in the narrow strip between St. Louis Place Park and the proposed campus, would be blocked to the West.

B) National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency selects another option:

  • Nobody buys into this area because it’s now a known target area.
  • It declines further because it’s a known target area.
  • It’s taken later for some corporate campus.

C) An alternative if National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency selects another option:

  • The city/community works with Paul McKee, existing businesses and property owners to develop a plan to revitalize the Cass & Jefferson/Parnell corridors and to coordinate with a new street grid in the long-vacsnt Pruitt-Ogoe site.
  • The existing street grid is left fully intact.
  • Infill planned with a variety of residential units with a concentration of retail & office at Cass & Jefferson.

But this won’t happen, St. Louis is forever stuck in the middle of the 20th century.  Clearance for a new stadium and a QuikTrip are other current examples. It has been nearly 70 years since St. Louis adopted Harland Bartholomew’s City Plan and we’ve yet to stray from the thinking he outlined.

Here are the results from the Sunday Poll:

Q:  Should the City of St. Louis use eminent domain powers to assemble a site if the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency selects the city option?

  1. No 20 [44.44%]
  2. Yes 14 [31.11%]
  3. Maybe 8 [17.78%]
  4. Unsure/No Opinion 3 [6.67%]

We shouldn’t be willing to raze 100 acres to retain earnings tax revenues. If there was hope the campus would help the surrounding area it might be a fair tradeoff, but it’ll further deteriorate and isolate. Still, this urban renewal mindset is so engrained I’m not sure we’ll ever break free of it.

Perhaps I should just give up?

— Steve Patterson


Readers Want Walkability and Long-Term Jobs at NorthSide Regeneration

northside regeneration map
Map of project area

Last week readers at least 135 readers took the poll, indicating what they’d like to see as priorities at Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration project. Here are the results in the order the software listed, two answers tied for the the top spot.

Q: Paul McKee’s “Northside Regeneration” project is slowly moving foreword, pick your top 5 priorities from the following:

  1. Good walkability 76 [11.33% – TIE]
  2. Jobs for locals: long-term work at various pay levels 76 [11.33% – TIE]
  3. Rail transit connected to downtown 64 [9.54%]
  4. Urban form with adequate parking behind buildings 60 [8.94%]
  5. Safety 59 [8.79%]
  6. Mixed uses, incomes 52 [7.75%]
  7. Good street grid with short blocks 48 [7.15%]
  8. Architecture that IS historic looking 43 [6.41%]
  9. Hoodlum-free zone 39 [5.81%]
  10. Renovation of the Clemens Mansion 35 [5.22%]
  11. Many builders/developers, not just a few 33 [4.92%]
  12. Good bikeability 24 [3.58%]
  13. Something…anything ASAP 21 [3.13%]
  14. Jobs for locals: short-term construction work 17 [2.53%]
  15. Architecture that is NOT historic looking 11 [1.64%]
  16. Easy access to highways 8 [1.19%]
  17. Plenty of free parking 3 [0.45%]
  18. Suburban planning, big blocks and cul-de-sacs 2 [0.3%]

I agree with most of the items in the top 10, very glad to see “Good Walkability” tie with “Jobs for locals: long-term work at various pay levels” at the top, followed closely by rail transit to downtown and urban form. I do take exception with one item: architecture.

I was disappointed “Architecture that IS historic looking” got 43 votes, but “Architecture that is NOT historic looking” only got 11 votes. Buildings in 2014 trying to look like they’re from 1914 end up looking cheesy.  Other cities do a great job building new urban buildings that relate to the sidewalk and neighboring buildings without being faux historic. We need to drop the expectation that every new building be given a bit of red brick on the front and a fake mansard roof on top.

— Steve Patterson




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