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KWMU Reports on Land Assembly Tax Credit and the ‘Blairmont’ Scheme

Most of you have heard the deal by now, a huge tax credit for developers doing projects of 75 acres or more in North St. Louis.  That is the plan passed by the Missouri legislature and awaiting Governor Blunt’s signature.  But 75 acres is just massive.  For comparison sake, the old Pruitt-Igoe housing site was only 57 acres (source). From KWMU:

Missouri’s historic tax credit program has done wonders for the city of St. Louis. It allowed big developers to turn old downtown warehouses into lofts. It’s also helped individual rehabbers fix up houses that have seen better days.

But a new tax credit plan that Missouri lawmakers sent to Governor Matt Blunt this spring gives developers major incentives to buy up large tracts of city land.

Someone is already doing that on the near north side, and many people there are worried about the future of their homes.

Click here for the story and link to the MP3 audio report from KWMU’s Matt Sepic.  Sepic indicates that he had scheduled to interview developer Paul McKee but that McKee canceled.  Nice huh?

I’m personally not opposed to a tax break for developers on some larger projects.  I have issues with the minimum size.  Yes, a single home lot at a time will take longer than we have to revitalize the north side.  But 75 acres at a minimum?  St. Louis is blessed with a very nice street grid of very reasonable sized blocks.  Why not have the minimum be more along the lines of 4-6 city blocks, still a decent sized project.  Why is it we must always go for the gigantic silver bullet solution in this town?

Jane Jacobs calls this “cataclysmic money.”  From Chapter 16 of the Death and Life of Great American Cities:

Money has its limitations.  It cannot buy inherent success for cities where the conditions for inherent success are lacking and where the use of the money fails to supply them.  Furthermore, money can only do ultimate harm where it destroys the conditions needed for inherent success.  On the other hand, by helping to supply the requirements needed, money can help build inherent success in cities.  Indeed, it is indispensible.

So far the state has not required anything that will ensure these 75+ acre projects have any qualities for success.  The city, with its 1947 suburban zoning code, will almost ensure failure without massive variances.  Developer McKee and Mayor Slay are remaining quite on their intentions and unfortunately will likely try to avoid public or professional input into the overall plan.  My fear is the end result will be a huge “investment” but a long-term failure.  At this point I have no edvidence to suggest otherwise.


Will Third Alderman Finish Ville Phillips Estates?

In February I called attention to a segment of channel 2’s “You Paid for it” to talk about the political process in the city’s 4th ward (see post). Alderman OL Shelton was not interested in finishing a development started by his predessesor that he replaced in a special election after she was recalled. Last month, during the regular primary, residents of the ward gave Shelton his walking papers by electing Sam Moore to the seat. Moore will be sworn in later this month. He will have his job cut out for him, especially at Ville Phillips Estates.

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A sign promoting the development is now part of the debris scattered across some of the lots.

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At the corner of Whittier and Garfield, at the SE corner of the development, water is not making it to the inlet just to the left. New homes were to face Whitter but neither the homes nor the sidewalks have been constructed.
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Here is the same corner as much of the debris, Whittier & North Market. The curbing hasn’t been finished nor has the sidewalk.

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Something as simply as filling in dirt between the curb and sidewalk has not been completed. Worse yet is the hole you see above.

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Yes, a completely open man hole just waiting for someone to fall in or out of curiosity enter the underground system. Either way this is a safety hazard that should not be left open by the developers.
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Not dangerous like the open drainage hole but just as interesting is the new alley that didn’t quite make it to North Market St. The odd part is how low it is relative to the sidewalk and street.

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From this angle you can see how the area was excavated to get the alley this low.

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Another view, looking south from North Market toward Garfield. The alley connects to Garfield on the opposite side, just not here at North Market.

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At the West end of the block the alley again stops short, although this time it is a reasonable height relative to the grade. The fenced in area is behind the one old house on the block that has not been razed, this area was used to store construction materials & equipment but was left in a mess.

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Basically the alley T’s at both ends. Here we see the old power lines running through the alley. Owners understood these would be removed and replaced underground but that never happened. The alley used to continue all the way to Whittier (behind me in this image) and the power lines still run through what would be someone’s building lot. I’m assuming the developers ran out of money to finish relocating all the utilities.

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When you don’t relocate the power poles you end up with smart solutions such as this — a pole in the middle of your long driveway. I personally don’t get the whole driveway & attached garage thing anyway. Give me a good detached garage so that I can have a decent sized backyard.

Other areas around the block include missing sidewalks, the section along Whittier mentioned earlier and a section along Garfield near Annie Malone and then adjacent to the one existing house on the block. If we as a city are going to commit public funds to start a project such as this we need to make sure it gets finished, regardless of a change of aldermen. We also need to make sure improvements such as public sidewalks get done before the developer gets paid.


14th Street Pedestrian Mall, Thirty Years Ago Today

The first day of the grand opening of the 14th Street Pedestrian Mall was thirty years ago today, March 21, 1977. The big
official dedication followed on the 26th:


Three decades ago someone thought it a good idea to close off two blocks of a commercial street, intending to compete with then “open air” suburban malls. However, by 1977 the city had already experienced significant population losses, making it more challenging for the retailers, which included a JC Penny department store, harder to stay in business. Interestingly, a classmate of mine mentioned her family visited the new mall — once. They came to see what it was all about because it was new. After seeing the new mall they resumed their shopping at Northwest Plaza.

By 1977 the “pedestrian mall” movement was pretty well over, except in St. Louis obviously. By this point new suburban malls were enclosed. Thus, while 14th Street was intended to compete with the suburbs it was dated by the time it was opened. In the 1980s formerly open suburban malls, such as Northwest Plaza & Crestwood Plaza, were often enclosed.

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Today the mall is nearly vacant, with a few holes where buildings have been razed and as you can see, another is in the process of collapsing.  A long debate in the area is about the wisdom of the mall at the time.  Some suggest the mall helped preserve these buildings — that they would have fallen to the wrecker like so many others immediately around the area.  Others, myself included, counter that we would have seen abandonment and destruction in the area anyway but that the mall prevented revitalization efforts from taking hold in this former commercial district — that without the mall efforts to revitalize the neighborhood over the last 30 years might have gone further.

The neighborhood is on a role, finally.  Many of the remaining old buildings on the surrounding residential streets have been rehabbed or are in process.  New homes are being constructed on in-fill lots and of late organizations working together have purchased many of the buildings along the mall.  Plans are in the works to rip up the “mall” and return this to a street once again.  The only debate I am hearing at the moment is if the single cross street, Montgomery St, should be opened as well or remain closed.

The new 14th Street will most likely never be the major shopping destination it once was.  This would be the case regardless of the ‘malling’ or not.  The question is can it hold its own as an interesting commercial street anchored by the outstanding and popular Crown Candy Kitchen on one end?


“Blairmont Scheme” Is Fulfillment of Official City Plans

Much has been written lately about the sinister plot, known to many as “Blairmont”, to bulldoze North St. Louis (specifically the St. Louis Place neighborhood). The focus has been on various straw companies such as Blairmont Associates, LLC and part owner Paul McKee. McKee is a founder of well known commercial contractor Paric, an officer in McEagle Development and current Chairman of BJC Healthcare. In other words, a prominent citizen for all that’s worth.

The major issue has been these companies are buying hundreds of properties, including some very historic structures, and letting them sit empty and decaying. A few have had some devistating fires. Nobody has been able to track down any more information on the motives & intention behind these purchases. Interestingly, the answer was under our noses the whole time.

This is all part of a public plan, one of many actually.

The city’s 1947 master plan highlighted many areas immediately south and north of downtown, indicating they were obsolete. You know, places like the trendy Soulard neighborhood. This plan called for it to be wiped clean and given a fresh start with cul-de-sac streets and lots of the much touted “open space.” Subsequent plans have followed along this same theme with the “Team Four” plan, a reaction to an early 70s research report from the Rand Corporation commenting on the conditions in St. Louis, calling for reduced services to parts of North St. Louis so that people will leave.

In 2002 the city’s Planning Commission adopted the 5th Ward Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan. It should be noted the boundaries are the old 5th Ward, not the boundaries as changed around the same time as the plan was being adopted. Anyway, in the plan a large swath of land just north of the long vacant Pruitt-Igoe site is shown hatched out with the designation “Proposed Large Land Use (for further study).” In other words, level anything remaining and start fresh. There it is, fully adopted after numerous public meetings and everything.


[Above: 5th ward zoning proposal shows large white area with red diagonal lines as a proposed large land use]

McKee’s various companies own many properties within the large land use area as well as areas surrounding it. Much has changed since the first public meetings where held in the Fall of 1999, adoption in April 2002 and today. In places the change has been good — new infill construction (some of it actually attractive, the rest not so attractive) as well as strong renovation efforts. In other parts of the ward, however, people have left and buildings have continued to deteriorate and be razed.

In the Spring of 2005 the city adopted a new Strategic Land-Use Plan. For the most part it was simply a recording of uses already in existence but in places the plan does call for changes. Also, the city has failed to follow through with the next step which was to be new zoning which cooresponds to the land uses. In this land-use plan, however, we can see the large area from the 2002 5th ward plan designated as “Neighborhood Development Areas (NDA):”

Residential/non-residential areas with substantial amounts of vacant land and abandoned buildings suitable for new residential construction of scale/associated neighborhood services, respecting stable properties that may be considered as part of any new development. Opportunities for new housing construction/replatting at critical mass scale defining a new neighborhood character over time.

The land-use plan goes further than the 5th Ward plan, calling out additional land as “Opportunity Areas:”

Key underutilized locations where the use of the land is in transition. Location and site characteristics of these areas offer particular challenges/opportunities that could be advantageous to a range of development activity. This designation is intended to be flexible and specific development proposals will be entertained as they present themselves.

Stable areas such as the Old North St. Louis neighborhood and the area immediately surrounding St. Louis Place Park are designated as “Neighborhood Preservation Areas:”

Areas where the existing housing and corner commercial building stock will be preserved and augmented with new infill residential and corner commercial development physically integrated with, and primarily serving the immediate neighborhood. These areas generally consist of stable residential areas of the City, including but not limited to historic districts, where the character of the neighborhood is currently well preserved with relatively few vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The plan contemplates continued preservation and improvement, with quality rehabilitation and infill new construction that is sensitive to the character of existing residences. Commercial and institutional uses catering to the immediate needs of the neighborhood are acceptable and reflect the traditional role such activity has played in the history of the City.

So, in keeping with officially approved plans I expect to see some large-scale reconstruction in the area just north of Pruitt-Igoe as well as lots of infill housing in surrounding areas such as Old North St. Louis.

Local architectural firm Arcturis has been mentioned by others as being involved in whatever the plans are for the area. I asked Arcturis COO Vernon Remiger about “Blairmont” earlier this week and he declined to comment. This tells me their firm is most likely still involved. Of course, the bulk of this area does need large quantities of new housing. In places like Old North St. Louis the neighborhood itself is working with developers and they have been building attractive new housing and rehabbing other buildings. Numerous vacant lots remain throughout the neighborhood.

For me my concerns are several. In areas where large-scale redevelopment is proposed will it simply involve possiblly replatting the lots to be slightly wider or do they want to screw up the highly functional grid of streets & alleys? Furthermore, do they want to build a bunch of similar looking single family detached housing or will we see a mix of housing types such as townhouses, live/work spaces and condos/apartments over storefronts? What about new alley houses like we used to have and like those being built out in New Town at St. Charles.

The problem with building most new construction next to one of our older houses is no matter the condition of the old house it almost always looks more graceful than the new. The materials and proportions are better, the detailing is stunning. New housing, next to old, just pales. This, I believe, is why many suburban developers seek to raze existing properties.

For further reading check out the “World of Blairmont” on The Ecology of Absence webiste. They’ve compiled a list of their own posts on the subject as well as from other sources, including the RFT.


Ville Phillips Estates Latest Victim of Decades Old Feud in City’s 4th Ward

For decades the history-rich Ville neighborhood has struggled to retain residents, fight off crime and rebuild decaying properties. The same can be said for most St. Louis neighborhoods and the city as a whole. What seems to be different, are the very deep political factions at worth within the 4th ward.

Current Alderman and former State Rep, O.L. Shelton recently appeared on camera as the focus of an Elliot Davis “You Paid For It Segment.” Now I know many of you out there are probably rolling your eyes but I don’t know that anyone who saw this segment had any sympathy for Ald. Shelton. At issue is an unfinished housing development known as Ville Phillips Estates. Click here to watch the segment. The video was brought to my attention by two sources, one was the blog known as Brick City and earlier the same day via email from a frustrated resident of Ville Phillips Estates.

So basically O.L. Shelton is washing his hands of a project started by his predecesso and political rival, Peggy Ryan. Ryan, you may recollect, was recalled by 4th ward voters in 2005. But the real story goes back much further, roughly 1973 when Daisy McFowland was appointed alderman by the committeepersons after then alderman Joe Clark became the city’s director of public safety. I’ll attempt to explain the three decade trail of aldermen in the 4th ward later in this piece, but first let’s get back to the Ville Phillips Estates.

At the ground breaking on June 26, 2003 everything was all smiles. Below is from the city’s press announcement:

The caption reads:

June 26, 2003 — Mayor Slay participates in the ground breaking ceremony by Mary “One”/Taylor-Morley for Ville Phillips Estates, a new housing community in the Ville neighborhood. Ville Phillips Estates is Taylor-Morley’s first City housing project. (Photo by Charles Morris Jr.)

The project team included suburban home building Taylor-Morley and well-known REALTOR® and developer Mary “One” Johnson. I’m not sure why Elliot Davis didn’t question either the Taylor-Morley firm, Ms. Johnson, the city’s Community Development Agency or the mayor’s office as to why the project has not been finished. All received good press early on and apparently none of the bad press now that things have gone wrong.

The St. Louis Business Journal joined in the praise on June 26, 2003:

City officials and developers kicked off construction of a new housing development in The Ville neighborhood Thursday that will provide 50 homes in the city’s Fourth Ward.

Ville Phillips Estates is a joint housing development of Mary “One” Johnson and Taylor-Morley Urban Development LLC. It is Taylor-Morley’s first development in the city.

The next month, on July 24, 2003 the Business Journal ran a puff piece on Mary One Johnson, referencing the project which is now listed as 100 homes rather than 50 homes the month before:

In 1999, Johnson was recognized as the first minority woman to own her own development company in the St. Louis area, according to the St. Louis Minority Business Council. That company, Mary 1 Enterprises Real Estate Development, is building more than 200 homes in St. Louis city, including St. Louis Place Estates, the Gate District, and the Ville Phillips Estate, a 100-home development.

The Business Journal ran another story on Mary “One” Johnson as part of a series the ‘Most Influential Business Women in 2005.’

Some of the largest projects pending in St. Louis include the construction of 100 homes in St. Louis Place Estates at 2716 N. 21st St., 200 homes in Ville Phillips Estates at 1926 Whittier, and 60 homes in the Gate District, which is bound by Jefferson, Chouteau and Grand avenues and Interstate 44. Johnson said the support from city officials has been tremendous. “It takes a village to rebuild the city.”

Several of the developments Johnson took on were at odds with people’s belief that they could be done, one example being the Ville Phillips Estates. Initially, real estate in the area was appraised at $5,000, but is now $160,000, she said.

Now the year that Peggy Ryan is recalled the project, in the Business Journal at least, has grown from 50 homes to 100 homes and now to 200 homes. Keep in mind that only the first 10 were ever completed at a reported cost of $2.4 million to tax payers.

The City Development website for the project, not updated since July 2005, still reads:

A major initiative is underway in the historic Ville neighborhood for a new housing development called Phillips Estates. Taylor Morely Simon is teaming with Mary One Johnson to construct at least 10 new for sale homes annually. The long term vision is that up to 200 homes will be built.

The city’s CDA (Community Development Agency) 2004 Consolidated Performance and Evaluation Report talks about the project getting started. One could possibly suggest the project was a failure and that it shouldn’t be finished, better to cut & run? However, the 2005 Consolidated Performance Report goes further, proclaiming the project a “resounding success”:

Investment in site assembly for large-scale residential redevelopment continues to be an important use of CDBG dollars. Acquisition and site preparation continue in the Near North Side, the Ville, the Garden District, the old Gaslight Square, and along Delmar on the north edge of the Central West End. The resounding success of CitiRama, Botanical Heights, Ville Phillips Estates, North Market Place and Mullanphy Square attest to the importance of this program, as does the commitment of the St. Louis Homebuilders to a second CitiRama.

However, the CDA’s ActionPlan2006 does recognize the project was unfinished, indicating an intent to “focus on the next phases”:

CDA will continue construction of several large subdivisions in minority communities. In particular, attention will focus on the next phases for Ville Phillips Estates. This new single-family development, aimed at low and moderate income households, is the first newly constructed for-sale housing in the Ville neighborhood in many decades. The Ville is the historic heart of the African-American community in St. Louis, containing many of its premiere institutions and landmarks.

Keep in mind the above “ActionPlan” was prepared after Ald. O.L. Shelton won the special election. In what looks like an example of cut & paste, the CDA’s current ActionPlan2007 sounds much like the year before:

CDA will continue construction of several large subdivisions in minority communities. In 2007 CDA will launch a new Major North Side Initiative designed to provide financial support to affordable and mixed-income homeownership projects of scale on the City’s North Side. CDA will also work with the neighborhood housing corporation and elected officials in the Ville neighborhood to continue the new construction of owner-occupied units there that began with the first phases of Ville Phillips Estates. This new single-family development, aimed at low and moderate income households, is the first newly constructed for-sale housing in the Ville neighborhood in many decades. The Ville is the historic heart of the African-American community in St. Louis, containing many of its premiere institutions and landmarks.

What a mess huh? It is a shame this project has gotten caught up in a political fight, but like I said earlier this is nothing new for the city’s 4th ward. Here is a little history lesson for you. Pay close attention because this one has lots of twists and turns and many repeat players.

So Daisy McFowland was appointed in 1973 to finish out the term of Joe Clark who left to take a city position. McFowland was re-elected in 1975 but defeated in 1979 by Clifford Wilson, Jr. In 1983 she ran again for Alderman and won (and again in 1987).

However, in October 1990 Ald. McFowland passed away. Following her death were eight candidates to take her place, including ally and committeewoman Bertha Mitchell as well as her son, Ed McFowland. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2/24/1991:

All the candidates promise to mend the ward politically. But it’s likely to take more than a needle and thread. Bad blood between Daisy McFowland and Shelton, which dates back to about 1980 when Shelton became committeeman, led to Shelton forming a splinter group. Since McFowland’s death, committeewoman Mitchell and committeeman Shelton have been unable to come together. When Mitchell, who was aligned with McFowland, told Shelton she would run for the seat, he did not react favorably. Shelton is supporting Pointer, a 25-year-old student at Harris-Stowe State College who also works in his father’s appliance store on North Grand Boulevard. Pointer has worked as Shelton’s administrative assistant. Pointer said that if he is elected, the ward’s alderman and its state representative would be working in tandem for the first time in a long while. He said the split had hurt residents. ”In dealing with getting things done in the ward, it came down to whether you were a McFowland person or a Shelton person,” Pointer said. ”Most times the ward in general lost out, because a lot of people didn’t want to get in the middle of it,”he said.

For the record, most people in the ward still don’t want to get in the middle and they are still losing out. Back to the article, former one-term alderman Clifford Wilson was among the eight candidates seeking the office:

Wilson, 60, unseated Daisy McFowland in 1979 and served as an alderman four years until 1983, when the tide turned and McFowland beat him. He said he wants to finish several development projects he started and was urged by leaders of several community-based groups to get in the race.

So in 1991 Wilson wants to finish projects he started somewhere between 1979 and 1983? That is a long time for project to go unfinished. As I mention above, McFowland’s son was also among the 1991 candidates. First time running for office, oh no:

Ed McFowland, 34, mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Shelton for his House seat in 1988. He recently quit his $21,000-a-year job as an assistant manager at the St. Louis Housing Authority to run for his mother’s seat.

Yes, the McFowland-Shelton feud is a family affair with Ed having tried before to unseat Shelton, and now seeking to become alderman. And while Wilson wants to finish projects from the early 80s, apparently projects started by McFowland herself were up in the air following her death:

Jack Saunders Sr., a consultant for the non-profit Greater Ville Historic Redevelopment Corp., said a redevelopment plan for the Ville hangs in the balance in the 4th Ward race. The plan includes construction of single-family homes, creation of a light-industrial corridor and a movie theater for the old Homer Phillips Hospital complex. Saunders said city officials already have vacillated on their commitment to the project since Daisy McFowland’s death. He said to get it back on line, the ward’s alderman would have to support efforts to get incentive money for homebuyers and money to rehab the buildings. Most of the candidates said they supported the plan or some variation of it.

Bertha Mitchell, the committeewoman at odds with committeeman O.L. Shelton, won the election in 1991, and re-election in 1995. In becoming Alderman she would have had to resign as committeewoman. In 1996 she passed away while serving as Alderman.

Upon her death O.L. Shelton brought back 1991 candidate Sam Pointer, who was now nominated as the democratic candidate in the special election. Bertha Mitchell’s son, Mike, ran as an independent to fill the vacancy due to his mom’s passing. Mitchell won.

I need to explain something here which I just learned. When a special election is called the winner doesn’t necessarily finish out the balance of the 4-year term. The special election is only until the next municipal primary. So, if a term has say 3 years remaining you’ll have a special election which will be good for a year as municipal elections come around every two years. However, when you are after a mid-term municipal election the winner will finish out the term. Make sense?

So in 1997, the next regular municipal election only a year later, Mike Mitchell won again but this time as a Democrat. In 1999, the normal year for even wards to hold elections, Mitchell was re-elected. All the while, O.L. Shelton was serving as the state representative and ward committeeman. But even that was about to change.

State level elected officials and even those holding “county” seats such as License Collector and Recorder of Deeds can be committeeman or committeewoman. However, those in city offices such as Alderman, President of the Board of Aldermen or Mayor, cannot. Despite this fact, 4th ward Alderman Mike Mitchell runs for committeeman against O.L. Shelton in August 2000. Sources tell me that then President of the Board of Aldermen Francis Slay and others warned Mitchell that if he won he would be forfeitting his aldermanic seat as a result. Well, he won the election to become 4th ward committeeman and the Board of Aldermen immediately notifed the Board of Elections the 4th Ward Aldermanic seat was now vacant and to call a special election. Interestingly, as the newly elected committeeman Mitchell gets himself nominated as the democratic nominee to replace himself, winning back the seat in November 2000.

Remember that Mitchell was elected in 1999 for a 4-year term. However, because a special election was held to fill the vacancy he created winning the race to be committeeman, another election was held during the next municipal primary in 2001. In March 2001 he lost to Peggy Ryan, just a few short months after winning back the seat in November 2000. Again, had he not ran and won as committeeman, he would have been in office at least through April 2003 (unless he was recalled).

Ryan was re-elected in the regular even-ward election in 2003 but in 2005 she was recalled. In the recall election O.L. Shelton, now presumably termed out of the Missouri house, ran for the office himself. Ryan also ran again but she came in third, behind Sam Moore with Shelton winning the seat. Despite the city’s ActionPlans, work on the Ville Phillips Estates seems to have stopped after Shelton finally took charge of the aldermanic seat he had tried for decades to control.

Now it is 2007 and time for the even numbered wards to select their alderman. This year we have incumbent O.L. “Get a Lawyer” Shelton and his runner up from the 2005 special election, Sam Moore.

While the Ville Phillips Estates remains unfinished, other housing developments are slated to begin soon. Additionally, separate local groups are working on an open-air produce market and business incubator for the Ville. As has been the case for a good thirty years, it seems future development projects may hang in the balance of the March 6th election. This is what happens, or doesn’t happen, when you allow aldermen to operate their own little fiefdom.