Building on a Promise: Redeveloping North St. Louis

Photo Slideshow
In the 1950s and '60s, thousands of people lived in 33 high rises at the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
In the early 1950s, 57 acres on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Cass Avenues were cleared of what was considered to be slum housing to make way for Pruitt-Igoe. The first residents moved there in 1954.
Doomed to fail: Pruitt-Igoe's common corridors, first thought to be an innovation that would build community in the public housing complex, quickly deteriorated.
Jill Mason holds photos of her First Communion at the former St. Bridget Church. Mason's family was one of the first to move into the new Pruitt housing project in 1954. She still lives in the area and finds herself within the footprint of Paul McKee's redevelopment plan. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Today there's scant evidence of the thousands of people who once lived in Pruitt-Igoe. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Man with a plan: Developer Paul McKee wants to rebuild more than two square miles of north St. Louis. He says a public-private partnership is the only way such a vast project can work. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Development is already underway in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, but it is not part of Paul McKee's plan. The $36 million face lift for North 14th street near the landmark restaurant Crown Candy will include commercial and residential space along two blocks. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
North 14th street was turned into an outdoor pedestrian mall as part of an earlier revitalization attempt in the 1970s, but the area continued to deteriorate. Construction equipment sits on the site today, but eventually the street will reopen to traffic. (photo: Matt Sepic/St. Louis Public Radio)
Urban prairie: While parts of north St. Louis have already benefitted from extensive smaller-scale rehabilitation efforts, much of the area Paul McKee wants to develop includes empty city blocks.
A 1996 satellite image shows Paul McKee's signature WingHaven development when it was still a Monstanto research farm. (photo: Google Earth)
The Winghaven site today. (photo: Google Earth)
MasterCard's decision to locate its headquarters at WingHaven was key to the project's success. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
New homes are also a key component of WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
A lake at WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The golf course at WingHaven. (photo: Rachel Lippmann/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Activist: Barbara Manzara with the Northside Community Benefits Alliance was one of McKee's earliest opponents. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio).
Organizing: North St. Louis residents and other activists gathered at Shining Light Pentecostal Church in August to protest the possible use of eminent domain. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Vera Turner is the assistant pastor of Shining Light Pentecostal Church. The 20-year-old building is on the list of properties developer Paul McKee wants to acquire. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Andy Lowrey (left) and son Eric own Trojan Ironworks on North 25th Street. They make everything from stair rails to steel beams. Paul McKee wants to buy their building, and plans to help pay for this and other small businesses to relocate. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
(photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Lilly Cage has lived on University Ave. in north St. Louis since 1974. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Eric Little, 20, grew up in the proposed redevelopment zone. He was part of a protest against Paul McKee's request for nearly $400 million in tax-increment financing. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Paul McKee's companies have been buying properties on the near north side since 2003. This one, on College Ave., will be demolished next year if city officials approve McKee's redevelopment proposal. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The St. Louis Commerce Center, which covers six blocks along Martin Luther King Dr., was built early this decade with the help of $1,045,600 in brownfields remediation tax credits. McKee has not said what he wants to do with this particular property, but his plans show it will be a "mixed use" area. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
The proposed Northside Redevelopment Area includes much of Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin's fifth ward. "For people who say 'why would you work with Paul McKee?' Well, who else is there?" says Ford-Griffin. (photo: Matt Sepic/ St. Louis Public Radio)
Video of the implosion a Pruitt-Igoe high-rise.
Stories from Pruitt-Igoe
Planning Promises on the North Side: From Pruitt-Igoe to Paul McKee - By Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio

The heart of developer Paul McKee's ambitious plan for St. Louis' North Side is an empty lot that was once home to the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.

In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was touted as a model of urban planning, but it became a high-profile failure.

McKee is making even bigger promises, and says a more diverse plan to attract jobs and residents will help turn things around in North St. Louis.

Maria Altman begins St. Louis Public Radio's four-part series on McKee's plans for the North Side with a look at how one man hopes to succeed where others have failed.

The first of 33 Pruitt-Igoe high rises was finished in 1954, part of the post-war urban renewal spreading across the country.

Less than 20 years later, the promise of safe, affordable housing made by the federal government had crumbled into dust.

In 1972 it made the national news when the first 11-story high rise was imploded with the federal government's blessing. All of Pruitt-Igoe came down by 1976.

Today tall weeds and trees obscure the rubble. If not for the occasional broken-out street lamp, it would hardly seem that thousands of people once lived there.

Pruitt-Igoe was doomed before it was even built, according to Joseph Heathcott, chair of Urban Studies at The New School in New York City.

He says after World War II the city of St. Louis was planning for growth but steadily losing population. Heathcott says by the time Pruitt-Igoe was going up in the mid-50s, the trickle had turned into a steady stream.

"The flood gates were already open. People were leaving the city in large numbers and so that by the 1960s you have a situation in which there are fewer and fewer people even available to live in the high-rise housing projects," Heathcott said.

The government relied on tenants' rent to pay for maintenance. But as people left, maintenance suffered, the rent went up, and Heathcott says the downward spiral quickened.

The same could be said for much of North St. Louis. People and businesses left, buildings were abandoned, then blocks, then neighborhoods, and the city did not or could not stem the decline.

Now developer Paul McKee says he has the answer.

"If St. Louis is to be great again and to really grow, what does it take? It takes jobs, in my opinion," McKee said at a public meeting in May where he unveiled his vision.

That vision includes three business parks with the promise of attracting 22,000 jobs.

He's calls his concept Northside Regeneration. The massive project would cover more than two-square miles and include retail, mixed-income housing, and parks.

For the old Pruitt-Igoe site, McKee is planning what he calls a community hub.

But some long-time residents are skeptical.

Jill Mason grew up in Pruitt-Igoe and watched the deterioration of a place she says started out as a good idea. She still lives in the area today and now finds herself in the footprint of McKee's proposal.

Mason isn't sure there's a place for her in his plans.

"If I'm going to be a yuppie or a buppie then I can move in there," she said. "If I'm going to be one of them maybe I have a chance to get there, but it's not going to be something that's inviting to me. It's going to be geared at someone else, and that's what I don't trust."

Like many residents Mason resented the way McKee secretly bought up properties and let them deteriorate.

Mason's Alderwoman, April Ford Griffin, felt much the same way… at first. But she says McKee has become a better neighbor, and he offers the best hope for her downtrodden ward.

"For people who say "why would you work with Paul McKee?" well, who else is there?" she asks.

Griffin says McKee will bring the businesses, housing, and jobs her neighbors desperately need. She says McKee has already invested $47 million of his own money.

Yet the private developer's plan hinges on public money, including and unprecedented $398 million in tax increment financing.

Ford Griffin says Paul McKee will have to uphold his end of the contract to get the city's help, but she says the city needs McKee's help too.

Ultimately, if his promise is fulfilled, it could not only help heal the scar of Pruitt-Igoe, but a two-square mile area of the North Side that many have left for dead.

For all of the documented problems at Pruitt-Igoe, it was home to thousands of people. Many former residents have fond memories of their time in the housing development. In 1954, when the first of the 33 high-rises opened, many families living in the area did not have hot water, in-door bathrooms, or had to burn coal for heat. Pruitt-Igoe, by contrast, had hot and cold water, new appliances, and radiators in each apartment.

The memories are not all happy ones. Former residents vividly recall design and maintenance problems that inconvenienced their families and even endangered them. Elevators broke down often, leaving children and women to climb up to eleven floors in sometimes dark stairwells. Hot water pipes were exposed and could burn children until the Housing Authority had them insulated. One resident even recalled children falling to their deaths from windows without screens.

In 1972 the first of the buildings was imploded. They were all brought down by 1976 and much of the site is now covered by weeds and trees. Developer Paul McKee has said he wants to building a “community hub” on the former site, including housing, entertainment, and retail.

Yet each year former residents gather for a reunion to remember the happier times and enjoy the company of lifelong friends.

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