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Benign Neglect Part IV: Hope for the future of north St. Louis?

ST. LOUIS PLACE – North St. Louis sits at a crossroads.

The largest construction project in St. Louis history is taking shape in the form of the Next NGA West project; but, some would argue, it comes as a result of a half-century of benign neglect. After all, many of the 97 acres of space became available for development because people left, homes crumbled and were eventually cleared. And something else is gone here besides the houses.

“There are a lot of obstacles,” Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline,” points out. “Money being the biggest one, but also the deep suspicion of remaining residents because of what has happened to them over [their] and their parents’ lives.”

And in the end, trust, or a lack of it, may be the biggest barrier to solutions.

Are people in these neighborhoods going to trust anyone after what they’ve seen happen here? For starters, should they trust Paul McKee? Some believe there is little choice.

“The way I see it is, nobody has created a north side development plan as long as I’ve been alive,” Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley said. “Never seen it. Nobody knows about it. The only plan we know about is the Team Four plan, which outlined detriment and depletion for our neighborhoods. There was never a plan we’ve ever seen that anybody has spent time putting together that can give you an idea of what it looks like to have some substantial investment in the north side of St. Louis.

“And whether Paul McKee has done it or not, we can at least see a plan from the man.”

However, some of those plans may have changed.

A small construction site a few blocks from the new NGA location is on some of the property McKee assembled. But he’s not the developer. It’s a company called Net Zero, looking to build extremely energy-efficient homes in this section of St. Louis Place. Their only dealings with McKee involve buying his land for their project.

“In the sense that he owns a vast majority of the land in this area, yes, and he has the desire to develop it, too,” Net Zero Business Development Manager Justin Terry said of McKee’s limited involvement.

Their goal of developing Montgomery Street near 20th Street addresses two keys for the north side’s future: They are using McKee-owned property and spinning off of the big NGA project. They would not be here without it.

“It’s crucial,” Terry said of NGA for the purposes of his plans. “It’s a multi-billion dollar facility that’s going in and all the jobs that its creating, its allowing us the opportunity to go forward with this development that’s been much needed.”

How much the NGA involves itself in interacting with its neighbors could be the determining factor in whether or not it’s the transformative project city leaders are insisting it will be.

“What I hope, and I do not know the answer one way or another, is that NGA itself is actually an active participant in neighborhood revitalization,” St. Louis University professor Bob Lewis said of the NGA project. “Wash. U, for example, took over, and SLU in the current time is interested in their surroundings. Ralston was the same way, etc. Because if they improve the neighborhood around them it’s safer for their employees and customers. It’s cleaner. You can stay there. People can feel comfortable, and by the way, you’ve done good.”

But will NGA be that, or a giant, walled-off government facility? A neighbor in geography only?

The Net Zero developers say they’re betting with real dollars that that won’t happen.

“I don’t see a big government thing with a wall,” Terry said. “While it will be secure and be what it’s supposed to be, I think it’s also going to be a point, an epicenter to start that growth.

“When we start building these houses here, these zero-energy, highly efficient homes, and start developing the feel of a neighborhood, we fully expect that to catch on and start to bring in different aspects like The Grove is doing.”

That sort of re-development is what city leaders hope will make the NGA investment pay off. The initial numbers – up to $45 million in city tax credits over the next 30 years combined, and $95 million in state credits – hardly seem in balance with the mere $14 million NGA’s website says they chipped in.

Critics of the deal, including longtime civil rights activist Percy Green, point back at city government.

“They’ll dance with the devil for all practical purposes in order to try and get re-elected, and in so doing, they’re selling out the community,” Green said.

And what about the places miles from downtown? Places such as Wells-Goodfellow, where much of the latest demolition is happening.

We told you in an earlier report about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s investment in tearing down some of the area’s most dilapidated buildings. He and partner Bill Pulte call it the St. Louis Blight Authority. We asked Dorsey, who grew up in the city, if it was hard to stomach watching so much be razed in the name of progress.

“While it looks like destruction right now, it clears the way for construction, and that’s what I’m excited to see,” he told us on that hot July day when the project was introduced. “So, I don’t put too much into this moment, because we have to come back and see how we follow through.”

Dorsey actually is bringing about some hope in the skeptics.

“Well, I have mixed feelings about it,” Green said of the demolition strategy. “I would like to think that Dorsey is operating in the best interests of the community.

“I would like to think that with him being born during these times, hopefully he has the type of experience that is far different in terms of righteousness than what his parents might have been subjected to.”

But will Dorsey, as he phrased it, follow through? Will the current version of city government follow through? That’s what remains to be seen. The decades-long track record, clearly, isn’t so great.

“I see the same type of impulse is still there,” Washington University professor Michael Allen said. “It’s a lot easier to start over. It’s easier to clean things out. And I don’t think it’s necessarily always racist or anti-humanitarian sort of thinking. Because you look at these neighborhoods, they do have huge challenges, and city government’s ability to solve them might look very, very small.

“And that’s, I think, why we need new leadership at the helm of city government. Maybe someone even like Jack Dorsey could play a role in that on a different level, because bringing in Jack Dorsey to demolish your house is like putting a very tiny Band-Aid on an enormous disease. Having Jack Dorsey as mayor, or an adviser to the mayor, you might start thinking of real strategies.”

Among them, finding the ways to provide the sort of support the Team Four plan recommended rationing all those years ago. That, nearly everyone agrees, will help bolster investment.

“The reason that doesn’t happen on any meaningful scale is because no one is stepping up and saying, ‘Yeah, if the population increases we will provide the schools,’” Gordon pointed out. “’We will provide the police. We will provide the basic services that neighborhoods expect.’”

And, finally, many believe it is time to finally break from Team Four’s habits and start focusing major resources in the downtrodden places most who live in the region couldn’t find on a map.

“Why are we using resources in public forms to support more development in the Central West End, maybe around Cortex, the Wash. U Medical Center, maybe even right here in Midtown, in the SLU area?” Lewis asked. “They’ve become, in my mind, places that are self-sustaining. We’ve made those investments. Maybe even over-made them in healthy areas. We need to go to the next neighborhoods out, if you will, so they can build strength that can help move further north and south and southeast, for that matter.”

In some spots it’s already happening, a block at a time. And it’s these spots of development that nurture the belief that momentum can be achieved.

The end goal being to leave benign neglect to the pages of history.

George Sells George Sells is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in news. He has spent the last decade on the St. Louis media scene, working for KTVI Fox 2, HEC Media, and more recently as a host for KMOX Radio. His wife of twenty years, Julie, was born and raised in St. Louis. They have two kids and a dog.

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