Building on a Promise: Redeveloping North St. Louis

Photo Slideshow
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)
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)
Map of the development phases
McKee supporters say WingHaven proves he can rebuild the north side - By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio

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Developer Paul McKee knows how to build things – his planned community, WingHaven, is proof of that.


But those homes and office buildings went up on vacant farmland in a suburban hot spot – a much different setting than the two square miles of north St. Louis he plans to rebuild. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann reports, even McKee supporters admit he’ll face major challenges translating his experience from the suburbs to the city.

By most accounts, WingHaven is a success.


Thousands of people live and work on the former site of a Monsanto research farm. There’s also retail, dining, and a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. In 2006, the development generated 18 percent of the city of O’Fallon’s tax base with less than 18 percent of the population.


MasterCard built its global data center there, lured by free land and significant state tax breaks.


Retiree Tom Shepherd and his wife moved to WingHaven in 2000 for the golf, and to be close to grandchildren. They stayed for the close-knit community they found.


“We have developed literally hundreds of friends here,” said Shepherd, the president of the WingHaven Residential Owners Association. “There’s a retirement aspect to it, but you have a lot of first-time homebuyers, you have a lot of new families here with young kids, and that sort of keeps I think the community young at heart.”


McKee has promised a similar blend of mixed-income housing, shopping, churches, and office buildings in two square miles of north St. Louis.


John Haman sees great potential in McKee’s plans. He represents Shepherd and other WingHaven residents on the O’Fallon City Council, but his day job takes him to north St. Louis.


“A lot of people I work with have all left the city,” Haman said.  “A handful of them say all the time if Paul McKee is able to do half of what he’s done in WingHaven to north St. Louis, they’d love to go back into north St. Louis.”


They’d join hundreds of residents like Barb Manzara who already live there.

“We don’t trust this guy. We don’t trust him for a lot of reasons,” she said.


Manzara is rehabbing a house just two blocks from the proposed development site – a chunk of land bigger than Forest Park. It’s large enough that McKee wants to develop it in four phases, starting with two pieces of property downtown. One is at the foot of the new Mississippi River bridge. Another is just a few blocks west of Union Station; McKee wants it to build a new interchange.


Most phased projects, especially those supported by public money, never make it out of the first phase, Manzara says.


“If he completes phase one, downtown projects, successfully, and we never move on to the later phases, what will happen to our neighborhoods,” she said “ If the neighborhoods are already condemned, they’ve already had wide demolition, if the tax credits have already been gathered, what more does he have to gain?”


North side alderwoman April-Ford Griffin says McKee will have to meet strict deadlines to receive the public money he wants.


WingHaven was also built in phases. And while “For Lease” signs outside office buildings and vacant storefronts show the toll of the recession, just six percent of WingHaven’s original 11-hundred acres are undeveloped today.


But Manzara takes no comfort in that success. Vacant land in a suburban hot spot is not north St. Louis, she says.


Longtime St. Charles County development official Darrell Roegner agrees, but he says even though it was built of farmland, WingHaven wasn’t easy.


“How do you get money to build an interchange when there’s no interchange planned there,” he said.  “How do you get money to build those roads? How do you take all the incentives that are out there, or that you can find, to make that happen?I think if you have those skills to do that, you can transfer those skills.”


O’Fallon alderman John Haman has similar faith in McKee’s ability. He sees nationwide impacts if the plan succeeds.


But it’s the steps between then and now that concern some residents of north St. Louis. The politics of race and class weren’t a factor at WingHaven, they say. And nobody was forced to move.

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