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Friday, January 29, 2010

North of Delmar / East of Troost: Dividing Lines and Redevelopment

For Kansas City, Missouri, St. Louis's cross-state urban neighbor, Troost Avenue "has been dividing rich and poor, black and white, jobless and employed since the days of Jim Crow when it was a legal line of segregation."

Sound familiar, St. Louis? Delmar Boulevard has become St. Louis's version of Troost. It's a line of demarcation nearly every St. Louisan knows, no matter which side of the line you're on.

When Paul McKee, Jr. began buying dozens upon dozens of parcels in several distressed "north of Delmar" neighborhoods in the early 2000s, many commentators would applaud his major risk in tackling large scale development on the North Side. Both McKee and supporters of his vision for his massive redevelopment area claimed that his initially secretive land assemblage was the only way to acquire the land needed to revive a chronically depressed area. Some even stated the obvious; who else was going to touch such a large collection of neighborhoods north of Delmar?

Well, as the above-linked article demonstrates, knocking down these barrier roads doesn't have to be a secretive process that alienates local residents. Kansas City's new "Green Impact Zone" initiative seems an innovative approach to a redevelopment of a distressed and stigmatized group of urban neighborhoods. Let's read more about it below.

Today the neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue still bear the marks of disenfranchisement: abandoned homes, an unemployment rate that’s as high as 53 percent in some census tracts and gun violence that takes many young lives.

But tomorrow, this area could be a center of green jobs, retrofitted energy-efficient homes, a green transportation system and hopeful residents if Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver’s plans for using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding come to full fruition.

U.S. Rep. Cleaver, D-Missouri, has developed an ambitious plan for a “Green Impact Zone” to be established in a 150-block area east of Troost Avenue. He convinced the Kansas City Council to vote 13 to 0 to allocate millions of dollars of ARRA money and considerable city effort to this part of the city. And he’s rallied dozens of community organizations, residents and even businesses to work on making it happen. Now Cleaver’s office and the team from the community are submitting applications to numerous Recovery Act programs, supplementing work that’s already begun to bring a greener, healthier environment to this area and jobs to its residents.

At the heart of the plan for the Green Impact Zone is a massive home weatherization project that would put area residents to work conducting energy audits and weatherizing the 2,500 homes in the Zone neighborhoods.

What do I see as a part of this proposal?

Number one: leadership with a vision. This scheme wasn't hatched by some private developer with a hidden agenda and no real commitment to the area in question. It was a local representative trying to better quality of life for his constituents and using his role in government to bring about positive change. Where does this happen in St. Louis? It has not happened for St. Louis Place and Jeff Vanderlou, at the very least. Further, Rep. Cleaver is arguing for a use of ARRA funding that goes beyond finding ways to better move vehicles on larger roads. He had a vision for the area and went about planning it and building a coalition--with neighborhood residents. No secretive "land assemblage" needed.

Number two: creating employment for local residents. It is clear to us now that Paul McKee, Jr. approached the NorthSide development idea with a slash and burn mentality. Many occupied apartments were emptied to lessen resistance and gain more control of the land. Residents who couldn't be bought out were subjected to little if any property maintenance on the acquired parcels, leading to brick vandalism and arson. Who wants to live next to that? Moreover, what resident who lived through this is going to find McKee  trustworthy in a redevelopment of the area? McKee's conduct with the NorthSide development is indicative of the fact that he merely wants to pull off a successful and profitable redevelopment--not better the lives of the people who currently live there. As he is a private developer, I can't say I'm surprised. While residents of the NorthSide project area are left to defend their own turf with little protection from the city of St. Louis (see the Community Benefits Alliance), residents of Kansas City can breathe a little easier. The Green Impact Zone would put residents to work weatherizing and rehabilitating area homes. This will contribute to quality of life for current residents and serve to refurbish the physical infrastructure of neighborhoods involved all at once. Which leads me to my next point...

Number three: preservation is a part of the plan! What a novel concept! You have a neighborhood full of solid, historic homes that have fallen into disrepair. Rather than landbank and demolish through messy eminent domain proceedings, you instead put people to work renovating the existing housing stock. A sense of place and history is preserved and everyone seems to benefit.

Number four, there's coordination with regional and neighborhood organizations. Kansas City's Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Mid-America Regional Council is administering the application process for the Green Impact Zones, while existing neighborhood organizations have already been consulted for their input and involvement in the initiative. Perhaps most importantly, there is public planning baked into the process. With St. Louis's NorthSide development, the prospects are much more glum. There are no true planning or urban design guidelines offered by the city of St. Louis--which may soon cut two full-time positions from its already weak, advisory Planning and Urban Design office. How can we ever expect sound urban development without a unified voice from the city as to the appropriate scale and design of new development in our neighborhoods? This vacuum of leadership has already lead to gas stations subsuming formerly dense mixed-use corridors, driveways and other suburban accoutrements in urban residential settings, etc. How can citizens be assured that the NorthSide development be above the current standard of development in the city of St. Louis: bare mediocrity? 

Maybe I'm giving this fledgling Kansas City plan too much credit. But do yourself a favor and read the whole article. Try your best not to be a little jealous. How does Kansas City "get it" and St. Louis does not? What might hold our activists back in realizing community benefits such as preservation and employment? We too can attempt to tear the Delmar barrier down, but I'd rather see it done the Troost way.


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