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Residents say NGA is not welcome in St. Louis Place

ST. LOUIS PLACE – Every Sunday evening, Larry Chatman and Gustavo Rendon walk to the 100-acre site of the new NGA West Campus near North Jefferson and Cass avenues. It’s where they set up a candlelit vigil, complete with a stone altar to pray. In fact, it’s a tradition that the men have practiced every week for the past four years now. 

Together, Chatman and Rendon post signs that call for peace on Earth. In their protest, the duo have made one thing clear, just as it’s written on their hand-made sign: “no NGA.”

Having spent nearly 70 years combined in the historic St. Louis Place neighborhood, it’s the love for their community that won’t allow them to turn a blind eye to the construction of the federal spy facility there.

St. Louis Place, in north St. Louis, was chosen as the building site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) West campus. 

According to the NGA’s website, “anyone who sails a U.S. ship, flies a U.S. aircraft, makes national policy decisions, fights wars, locates targets, responds to natural disasters, or even navigates with a cellphone relies on NGA.”

It’s also the largest federal investment project in the history of St. Louis, to date.

The campus will feature a nearly 700,000-square-foot office building, visitor facility, parking garages, inspection facility and access control points. 

Sheila Rendon, a lifelong resident of St. Louis Place, recalls the winter of 2015 when she was first notified that the NGA was considering making north city its new home.

“The first time we heard about it was when the ordinance was set forth. It was like a precursor to  the eminent domain ordinance … so that everyone could be cleared out,” she said.

“But this was in the event that the NGA chose the spot,” she went on to say.

Shelia said the area’s residents were left out of the decision-making process.

Approached twice by the city to sell her home, Sheila and her husband, Gustavo, refused both offers. The first time, the Rendons, who have been married for 20 years, were offered $58,000. The second offer was double the first, at $116,000.

“There were offers that were so low that were made to people in the community, but most people had been in the neighborhood for over 50 years, and they didn’t know the value of their homes,” Sheila said.

“They had not bought a home in so long, they didn’t know how much homes cost, so the lowball offers to them seemed fair,” she added.

But by April 2016, the decision had already been made. Shelia, Gustavo and their two children were forced out of their home by eminent domain. Forty-seven other families faced similar circumstances.

According to Sheila Rendon, the Saint Louis Development Corporation had the task of moving residents up and out although no effort was made to engage with them.

“There was a great need for most to stay here because this is all they’d known, but had they done that and utilized the resources that they had in order to keep people here it would have been a better outcome,” she said, speaking of the SLDC.

“When the NGA made their choice, we all got certified letters in the mail the next day saying, ‘Hey, the NGA is choosing this spot, you guys need to start preparing to move,’” Rendon stated.

The site was officially transferred from the city of St. Louis to the U.S. Air Force in December 2018.

“It was like watching a family member die, because it’s like slow tear-down,” Rendon explained. 

Shelia’s parents and grandparents purchased their home in 1963. It was something that she and Gustavo hoped to pass down to their children and to build a legacy on. 

“It’s like a rape. If you’re telling the city that it’s important to you to carry on a legacy and they don’t care, you have a feeling that politics matter more than human beings,” she said.

Many may argue that the NGA will benefit the north side of St. Louis. But Rendon thinks otherwise.

“We don’t need military installation to revitalize our neighborhood,” she said.

Gustavo Rendon has lived in St. Louis Place for nearly 20 years. 

“The city of St. Louis has lost something real big by allowing these 47 families to leave,” Gustavo said.

“It was Paul McKee that brought the NGA here,” he said, speaking of the controversial St. Louis property developer.

McKee is the owner of multiple properties around north St. Louis, most of which neighbors complain have been blighted and are eyesores.

“City officials never thought about the NGA coming to north St. Louis,” Gustavo said.

“I think this is really important to all those people that think that the city officials are doing this because it’s good for their community or for the city – it’s not. If it would have been good for us they would have thought about it a long time ago,” he went on to say.

“They keep on saying that the NGA is going to be the anchor that is going to spur development. The NGA announced that they’re coming to this area in 2016. Nothing has happened since 2016; it’s 2019.” 

“There haven’t been any real studies to show this is going to benefit us,” he said.

Other areas residents echo those sentiments.

Larry Chatman has been a resident of St. Louis Place for 48 years.

“I think that if people really understood what is happening, they would be in opposition to what’s going on in our community,” Chatman said.

“Our elected officials and our leaders in the north side community as well as the broader St Louis community have seized the property and land of longtime African-American residents, forced them out of the community with the intention of implanting a United States Air Force installation in the midst of the remaining civilian population,” he said.

Chatman said that in addition to the nearly 100 acres that were seized, the NGA’s establishment of a Special Use District that is approximately 958 acres was even more concerning.

The NGA Protection and Enhancement Zone Special Use District (SUD) would surround the NGA site by approximately a half mile all around.

Having the district will allow the NGA to regulate business development surrounding its facility. 

According to the SUD ordinance, there are at least ten types of business structures that would be prohibited from being developed in the area.

“The reason why I do not want the NGA in the community is because I think it’s devastating to our community,” Chatman said. “It’s the most diabolical plan for gentrification that I’ve ever heard of throughout the entire country.”

“It takes someone particularly creative and interested in the real needs of the community who can come in and work with a situation that already exists, and I don’t think that we’ve had that kind of talent in our city planning commission,” he added.

The NGA is anticipated to open and begin operating in 2025.

Chatman and Gustavo Rendon say they will continue to show up at the NGA site every Sunday at sundown, praying, hoping and wishing for a better outcome.

Bria Gremillion

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