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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

With NorthSide Project, the Villain is the Process


What a circus the NorthSide development has been as of late.

Talks of McKee's holdings in NorthPark facing foreclosure. A near meltdown by McKee himself over blogger Doug Duckworth's videotaping of a public meeting. Reports on Claire Nowak-Boyd's blog that McKee has indeed been empyting out North Side buildings and buying out landlords (only to later reneg and force them into foreclosure while also threatening the future of the buildings themselves). Oh yeah, and that whole bit about the city having to back its largest TIF request ever.


Of all the things that could be said, I would like to highlight one.

McKee, a private developer making this huge TIF request and subjecting the Near North Side to further degradation, can certainly be accused of wrong-doing. The jury has sort of already delivered that verdict.

The real enemy here, at least looking at the breaches against historic preservation and urbanist principles, is twofold:

A) we don't have a coherent plan to guide urban development throughout the city


B) we don't have meaningful ways for citizens to influence the decision-making process.

Therefore, I would argue, it's the process, and not Paul McKee, Jr., who's really to blame here.

That is a half-hearted indictment of the leadership of the North Side and the city as a whole coming from me. But a lot of the problems, of course, are due to an anemic, visionless, and bureaucratic leadership rather than one outright malevolent.

So this process? Well, you might hate that the San Luis is getting torn down for a surface parking lot; you might detest that Crown Plaza just north of downtown is your run-of-the-mill strip suburban center; you may loathe Loughborough Commons for its lack of a pedestrian realm; and indeed, you may despise McKee for trashing several sensitive, historic neighborhoods.

Yet our zoning allows all of the above. Our Preservation Board, and moreover the process of preservation in the city, is beyond circuitous. The process can only be described as so ridden with holes that it would puzzle a preservation expert much less a mildly interested plainclothes citizen. At any rate, a citizen's right to contest Preservation Board decisions has been taken off the table by Judge Dierker in the case Friends of the San Luis v. St. Louis Archdiocese. (Well, if you're a next door neighbor or have direct economic interest, then you're fine to contest...).

And what about planning? Does our city do it? We have a Planning and Urban Design Agency, but they're largely advisory. So the Strategic Land Use Plan of 2004 developed by then lead planner Rollin Stanley goes largely ignored because there was never any legislation to enforce it. So, the Building Division continues to issue demolition permit after demolition permit in neighborhoods deemed "Neighborhood Preservation Areas" by that same Land Use plan. Much of the North Side isn't under "Preservation Review" and isn't in a local or National Register historic district either, so the demolitions simply go unreviewed. If the vacant lot ever attracts the attention of someone willing to build something--unless they're going to receive tax abatement status for the property--they're not subjected to any sort of urban design standards. So we get more suburban-style commercial and residential buildings where they really just don't seem to fit.

Try to contest any aspect of any of this. What department do you start with? Who do you complain to? Will you even hear a response? Won't your alderman have the ultimate say in almost all matters anyway? It seems so.

So, if you want to be an activist for your own neighborhood, you better develop a friendly relationship with your local alderman. Better yet, run for the position. Because if that alderman already has enough friends that don't think like you do with regard to urban design and preservation, then you'd better rest assured none of the other alderman are going to throw a wrench in his plans (thank you, aldermanic courtesy!). It's as good as a done deal. So when the redevelopment agreement goes before the Board of Alderman, as it must in order to pass and become a reality, we have no assurance that any aldermen outside of the 5th and 19th Wards, primarily, will truly have a say.

Citizens of the North Side should not have had to fight to hold the TIF hearing at a time more amenable to public participation. And what's this about the removal of a NorthSide project naysaying commissioner from the TIF commission? That doesn't sound like a democratic process to me.

If St. Louisans' ability to access their government and the decision-making process were simpler, more straigtforward, and less politicized, our built environment's present state might not be so piecemeal. We have to remember that the biggest problem with the NorthSide project is that, when or if this TIF is approved, the city has no planners to assist McKee on appropriate urban design, and indeed, no means to demand it from him. There's no progressive zoning ordinance to rely on. The project area's not under Preservation Review and is not "officially" historic (it's neither in a local nor National Register district), so ultimately residents will have no say over which buildings stay or go.

So, if we're looking at the possibility of a suburban developer attempting to wave a magic wand over the North Side, and we have no means of either stopping what he takes from the built environment or influencing what he puts in, is it his fault? Or is it a horrible broken process that denies citizens due influence over the outcomes of major decisions affecting the built environment?

While Paul McKee's conduct thus far with the North Side has been highly questionable, this seems like an appropriate time for citizens to demand more power and control of the shaping of their city.


stlouismb said...

thanks for an evenhanded commentary. emotions are high as the TIF hearing is tomorrow. Fear is replacing information. However, I say:"good luck" to anyone trying to unseat one of the alderpersons in question.

Unknown said...

true dat

john w. said...

When hasn't the time been appropriate to demand more from our elected leaders regarding urban planning decisions and inaction?

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