After three years bogged down in court, the NorthSide Renovation Project will break ground by the end of the year, says developer Paul McKee.
The project, a massive plan to transform vast swaths of derelict and underutilitized land north of downtown St. Louis into vibrant neighborhoods, had been stuck in limbo since 2009. Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that McKee could receive $394 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to alleviate the costs of the project. Now, on the heels of that ruling, McKee has promised that development partners are still on board and that construction will begin in a matter of months.
The TIF is bounded by Interstate I-70, Natural Bridge Road, Grand Avenue, and I-64, an area of two square miles that covers the eastern half of the city’s struggling North Side. Over the course of a decade McKee quietly bought up vacant and abandoned parcels in the area, amassing a small empire of urban prairie on the doorstep of downtown. While his plans stalled in court, McKee’s parcels languished, and the structures on many of them collapsed. Residents and aldermen grumbled that his ownership was only accentuating the North Side’s decline.
Now, McKee must win the approval of longtime neighbors as he embarks on St. Louis’ most sweeping and ambitious inner-city project since the days of urban renewal. The first task is a basic one: the NorthSide Renovation Project will tear down disintegrating structures, rebuild roads and utilities, and prime the area for development. Then, in conjunction with private developers, it will construct homes and court commercial tenants. The project is expected to stretch over a period of years, if not decades.
Some factors indicate that McKee might succeed. The area experiences lower crime rates than the western half of the North Side and it abuts downtown and Midtown, two neighborhoods that have grown even as St. Louis continues to bleed residents. Supporters further stress that nobody else is investing north of downtown and there are no other signs of renewal on the horizon. If McKee’s ambitious project fails, the status quo would remain unchanged.
But St. Louisans, for now, are reacting with skepticism and hostility. Those who live within the affected TIF zone contend that McKee has neglected them for a decade and only seeks to force them out. Citizens outside the zone are critical of the city’s considerable investment in the project. Most remember the failed St. Louis Marketplace, a shopping center that the city funded with TIF in 1992; today, it sits largely vacant as St. Louisans continue to foot the bill.
In a slow growth region where municipalities compete for basic retailers – in the process showering WalMarts and KMarts with TIF subsidies – the city needs residents to support TIFs if it wants to compete with the suburbs that surround it. Before McKee begins clearing and building, then, City Hall may want to reassess its commitment and require more specificity from the plan.
If McKee is true to his word, that window will only last a few more months.