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The Dictatorship of the Wealthy

A guest editorial by Greg Michaud

A law that gives Paul McKee access to 100 million in tax credits for North St. Louis shows clearly the Dictatorship of the Wealthy is alive in Missouri and in America. No matter what happens in North St. Louis there are serious implications in writing a law that benefit one man and his companies.

The tax credit is unethical and represents a pattern of continual transferring of government resources to benefit a small select group. This pattern occurs on the local level all the way to the nations’ capital.

There are three main aspects of this tax credit law which has turned the political process into a playground for the wealthy. The first problem is the law is clearly written for Paul McKee, he owns some 500 properties in the area, no one else could qualify. The state legislators do not explore alternatives; they simply pass, almost mindlessly, the law for their patron. Donations figure into the passage of this law to the extent we should stopping clowning around and call donations what they are, bribes.

Beyond that serious breach of public trust is the complete exclusion of the citizens in the political process. Apparently neither Mayor Slay nor the aldermanic representatives know of any plans. The State of Missouri passes a 100 million dollar tax credit without assessment of the needs of the area in question is poor leadership, management and shows a lack of legislative skill and judgment. (I wonder if they would give a citizens group asking for passage of a 100 million dollar tax credit the time of day)

The final problem is the lack of a new city plan to accommodate any redevelopment. Citizens without a plan are not represented. If there was a plan, citizens in general would have been less concerned about McKee buying up property, as anything he did with the property would have to fit into an urban framework already agreed to by city government and the people. Unfortunately the city government has a reputation of just the opposite, rather than protecting the interests of the citizens, the wishes of developers are put first, hence the alarm at McKee’s purchases.

For the Dictatorship of the Wealthy topics such as the welfare of the people are meaningless. McKee has a trail of donations/bribes solidifying his interests. There are many variations this 100 million tax credit could have taken to help rebuild north St. Louis. A small scale tax credit is just as likely to be successful. And just why is 100 acres needed before redevelopment occurs? The questions, the options, and the possibilities are endless. Yet the way the state has handled this law it appears granting McKee 1 million dollars an acre to insure his profitability is the only viable option

The city of St. Louis, like most cities was built by many individuals and developers. The delight of a city like St. Louis is the visual variety and beauty. With someone controlling 100 hundred acres the visual monotony would become deadening, if not grim. In any case Soulard, the Loop, Lafayette Square, the West End and other neighborhoods revived without the input of a mega developer.

And is he going to bring his suburban outlook to the City? Will it be cul de sacs and a major strip mall every so often? He controls the real estate; it means his chain store friends will also be in line with their hands out. The little guy will be locked out in a suburban format.

America is at war, possible energy shortages loom in the future, global warming is real beyond a doubt, and fully 40% of the energy America uses comes from the built environment and another 28% from transport. There should be serious debate about what type of city to build now and in the future. It is past time to rethink how St. Louis is doing business. It is astounding there is a lack of political or corporate leadership (and courage) in this area; the conditions are so obviously headed for a potential crisis. Yet like Nero playing his fiddle as Rome burned, these modern day Nero’s don’t want to upset their status quo money making machine.

Reimagining the built environment is essential. Any rebuilding of the city must include all transit, which means a city designed for bicycles, walking, streetcars, trains and mopeds as well as cars. Any rebuilding should consider densities, including energy saving row housing. Any rebuilding should look at dispersing stores into neighborhoods and public space and parks should be included and connected to a city wide system of public spaces (also connected by transit).

In his blog Mayor Slay said he doesn’t know McKee’s intentions are exactly the problem. Mayor Slay and the Board of Alderman as the representatives of the people should be telling McKee what the plans are for St. Louis, not the other way around.

Without taking hold of Urban Planning within the city limits, without a plan that integrates transit, public space, housing densities and commercial areas, city officials and the mayor are derelict in their duty. The citizens are left out of the process.

Mayor Slay attempts to reconcile McKee with the citizens in his blog by saying he will need a “battery of commission and legislative approvals, and a forest of hearings and meetings will be necessary” and he also says “should there ever be a redevelopment plan for the area current stakeholders must be included in the process.” It sounds good, except citizens have been systemically excluded in the recent past; so it is difficult to trust his words now.

However flawed the planning issues are concerning this project, the Dictatorship of the Wealthy is no more than an inside deal for insiders in the political process. It is a deal signed off by state legislators without investigation and without due diligence.

The Post-Dispatch has shown independence from the pervasive power structure, but cannot ignore this insider trading. Until it is stopped, the notion of a tax credit for one man graphically illustrates the nature and condition of a dictatorship. It is “an autocratic form of absolute rule by leadership unrestricted by law or other social and political factors within the state.” McKee operates beyond the realm of democratic principles.

In summary Governor Blunt should veto the measure. Upon the veto the House and Senate should enact new legislation in cooperation of the people, leveraged for the benefit of society, not to protect the profit margins of McKee and his entourage.

Failure to enact new legislation will demonstrate the corruption of government and its dictatorship towards the public. As stated in the Declaration of Independence “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

The Dictatorship of the Wealthy subverts democracy and severely limits debate. It directs government funds into the pockets of a few. In the end it is destroying America with decision making colored with attempts to fulfill the lust of the wealthy. It is not a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

– Greg Michaud has lived in various parts of the world and is currently raising his daughter in South St. Louis.

 

Spring in Summertime

A guest editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

This is a post about urban artifacts, connections made, broken and the potential to reconnect, and about the curiosity of a relative newcomer . . . As an older city, St. Louis has more than its fair share of urban artifacts, things in the built environment that no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally constructed. The downtown loft district contains many examples, the caves under some of the old and extinct breweries are another example, and the Spring Avenue viaduct will be the focus of this post. The what, you may ask? It’s the remaining portion of a multilane viaduct over the rail yards a couple of blocks east of Grand Boulevard, south of Forest Park Parkway and SLU‘s main campus.

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Apparently, at one time (from the early 1900‘s through the 1950‘s), Spring Avenue had been “improved”, widened and streamlined to provide a bypass around the congestion at Grand and Lindell. By the 1950’s and ‘60’s, other priorities became more important, namely double-decking Highway 40 to create the I-64 freeway that we have today. Something had to give, and a 2-3 block section of the viaduct was removed a block south of Forest Park Parkway and either end blocked off. For some reason, more than half (the southern half) was left in place, over the railroad. And in a token gesture to urbanity, one of those wonderful Highway Department pedestrian bridges was added over/under the freeway, that, surprisingly, remains open today. SLU also took advantage of the viaduct closure to also close Spring Avenue on their campus (where the clock tower stands today).

A few months back, Steve was pushing the idea of making the Grand Boulevard viaduct more pedestrian friendly. While I agreed that the Grand viaduct is a terrible place to be a pedestrian, I couldn’t see the financial viability of the concepts being proposed. However, in poking around this area, to try and “understand” the Spring Avenue viaduct, I see much more potential for a similar concept a block west of Grand. [See ‘Grand Bridge Should Follow Columbus Ohio Example‘ from January 2006 – SLP]

This map helps give some context.

I’m not the graphics whiz that Steve is when it comes to online mapping, but this is the basic concept: The line north on either side of Forest Park Parkway, between SLU and I-64 is my “Northern Segment”.

The line just south of I-64 is my “Middle Segment”.

Off the right is my “Metro Connector”.

The next segment (with no line) is the actual remaining viaduct.

And the final line is my “Southern Segment”, on either side of Chouteau Avenue.

To repeat some of the previous assumptions: SLU’s two campuses are separated by some inhospitable terrain. Both campuses are growing, and students are receptive to the pedestrian environments currently in place. The Aquinas Center recently relocated into new quarters on the NW corner of Spring & Forest Park Parkway. There’s a new redevelopment on the SE corner of Spring and Chouteau. The Grand Metrolink station isn’t very friendly or accessible to either campus. And, we have unused urban artifacts.

Which brings me to (I think) a relatively simple concept — let’s just fill in the gaps and create a pedestrian- (and bike- and skateboard-) friendly connection between both campuses and the Metrolink station. Taking it a block by block, starting at the north . . .

Laclede to Forest Park Parkway – just wider sidewalks

Forest Park Parkway to I-64 – remove the trailers, make a connection to the existing pedestrian bridge.

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I-64 to Scott Avenue (Metrolink, north end of existing viaduct) — this is actually one of the two toughest stretches — in an ideal world, it could be great to return to an elevated connection, connecting the pedestrian bridge on the north and the viaduct on the south. The two big downsides are a) the cost, and b) what it would do to any potential street-level activity (at the old armory to the east and/or the old Macy’s warehouse to the west)

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Scott Avenue to Gratiot Street – clean up, fix up and put the old viaduct back into useful service! Besides a great pedestrian and bike connection, it could become a skateboard park, farmers’ market, year-round tacky midway (like an oceanside boardwalk), homeless encampment or a SLU-sponsored sculpture garden – it’s essentially a blank canvas.

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Gratiot to Chouteau – lose a traffic lane or two, widen the sidewalks, and replace the truck dealer and other industrial uses with more pedestrian-friendly uses.

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Chouteau to Rutger Street – just better sidewalks and more of a focus to and from the SLU Hospital campus – someone’s obviously doing a major project already on the southeast corner of Spring & Chouteau.

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East from Spring, between Scott and the Metrolink tracks — a block long, gradual ramp down to grade, to access the existing Grand Metrolink Station platform (the other “tough” segment).

This is one of the truly fun things about the Urban Review STL website — the ability to ask questions and to dream big dreams. At this point I have a lot of both – I’d like to hear what the rest of you think can and should be done to flesh out this vision . . . Or to tell me why it simply can’t work here . . .

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.


SLP – I just had to add some additional thoughts. First, I want to thank Jim for his contribution — much appreciated!  On the Grand viaduct/bridge, it should be noted the city is planning a major renovation of the bridge to make it more pedestrian friendly — by widening the bridge and placing planters in the center.  My suggestion was to construct buildings on the ground on either side of the bridge and plan them so a main floor is aligned with the public sidewalk – quite feasible in my view.  Having said that, I am interested in Jim’s concept for Spring in addition to efforts on Grand.  OK folks, what do you think?

 

Who Represents Us?

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

With the recent changes at the School Board, I wanted to raise the following fundamental question – who do (or should) our politicians represent? Do they represent the people who nominated or appointed them, the people who funded their campaign, the people who voted for them and/or everyone in their district, ward, area or city? It seems like a simple question, but many times actions speak louder than words. And, having done time as both an appointed and an elected politician, I can vouch that it’s not an easy answer.

The “old”, elected School Board had one or more members with close ties to the teacher’s union. The old Board also had an appointed member who obviously split ways from the mayor (who appointed her). The “new”, appointed Board is being portrayed, negatively, as somehow more removed from the issues facing our schools. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, yet.

My own experience is that my actions and reactions changed as my constituency broadened and the role of the various organizations changed. In Denver, in the late ’80’s, I became active in a neighborhood organization, rising quickly to president. One issue facing us was a new light rail line. My personal, libertarian bent was that it would be highly subsidized and shouldn’t be built. The voters disagreed and it was built.

In the late ’90’s, a vacancy occurred on the transit district’s elected board. Denver’s mayor appointed me to fill the balance of the term. I changed my focus from a very-local, neighborhood perspective to a regional perspective. I made the commitment that my role was to make the system the best it could be and not to try and “destroy it from within” as some previous board members had attempted. I also tried to be responsive to constituent comments and concerns, especially individually-generated ones, and not so responsive to petitions and multiple, identical post cards and emails.

Which gets me back to both the St. Louis School Board and the Board of Aldermen. Who do they actually represent? Who “has their ear” and exerts the greatest influence in their decisions? Is it the Democratic “machine” and the ward committee people? The various unions and their political-action committees? The Mayor, Governor and President of the Board of Aldermen? Those parts of town that voted heavily for them (and not those parts that didn’t)? The major corporations and donors that funded their campaign? Every citizen who personally contacts them? Only those citizens that actually reside in “their” ward or live in the city? The politician’s own vision, education and close circle of friends?

I know, I know, everyone is different. That’s the beauty of “representative” government. But when the representative sample becomes too small and/or too closed, more and more people become disenfranchised and excluded from what should be a very public and inclusive process. And, yes, we can always get worked up and “throw the rascals out”, but that rarely happens, and even when it does, you still need to overcome institutional inertia. So two final questions – do the systems (and the people) we have now, work (well enough)? And if not, what should change and how should we get that change started?

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

 

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