Redevelopment roadmap, or retread? New plan in works

Redevelopment roadmap, or retread? New plan in works

CITY HALL – St. Louis may be taking a new path to economic development. On Tuesday, the St. Louis Development Corporation released a report it commissioned from a Boston company that stresses unification of all the city’s various redevelopment efforts. This is the only way to achieve “equitable urban economic growth,” the report says.

Mayor Lyda Krewson said Tuesday via Twitter: “This new and comprehensive roadmap for redevelopment addresses decades of inequities & disinvestment and will change the way we do business in St. Louis.”

But 25th Ward Alderman Shane Cohn complained: “This plan is garbage. It isn’t equitable. It keeps the same frame and lens as we’ve always used. It doesn’t change anything; in fact, it’s basically just solidifying and echoing work that’s already happening.”

At the request of city aldermen in October 2018, SLDC, the city’s economic development agency, hired Mass Economics to come up with a strategy. Mass Economics spent 18 months talking with residents, business people and neighborhood groups, and produced its Equitable Economic Development Framework.

The report acknowledges a list of solid successes: More downtown residents, the NGA campus, the Arch grounds improvements, an MLS soccer stadium, the St. Louis Aquarium, the St. Louis Wheel and continuing projects in the Cortex area in the Central West End.

But a disturbing trend is obvious: Progress has been uneven and inequitable. Jobs, services, amenities, investment, health care – opportunities overall have skipped many city neighborhoods.

The new plan says development has to focus not just on the central corridor with its concentration of well-educated whites with high-paying jobs and big plans, but also on Black residents in neighborhoods that have largely been left behind.

Recently, the Census Bureau released figures indicating that St. Louis’ population has dropped to 300,576 in 2019 from the 2010 census count of 319,294. The drop is attributed to the exodus of middle-class African Americans who are leaving the city for a better life elsewhere, even as young whites move in for the urban lifestyle. The two factors have combined to bring an overall drop of nearly 6 percent in the population since 2010.

It’s Black flight, a counterpoint to the earlier flight of whites from the city. Whites now outnumber Blacks in St. Louis, 48.1 percent to 45.3 percent.

“There’s no doubt that St. Louis has a problem of Black flight,” said Todd Swanstrom, a political science and public policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “In many cases, it’s stable working- and middle-class families.”

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, said that in 2000, St. Louis had a substantial middle-class population on the north side. Most moved to the suburbs and some to the south side. Mallach notes that Black neighborhoods were hit especially hard by the economic downturn and foreclosures of the recession. Now, the stresses of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic are hitting Black families with disproportionate force.

Meanwhile, “There’s a constant outflow of working-class and middle-class whites,” he said.

So the people who are left are increasingly the poor of all races. 

Hoping for a turnaround

Redevelopment has to include more emphasis on entry- and middle-levels jobs that people can fill without extensive, advanced and specialized education, the Mass Economics Framework report notes. It suggests dozens of strategies and actions in three broad areas:

  • Opportunity to thrive – Finding ways to promote higher and more stable incomes and opportunities – and increased household wealth – and eventually to boost the population.
  • Clusters – Targeting industries that can help build jobs and entrepreneurship, especially groups of industries with quality opportunities for all educational attainment levels.
  • Place – Recognizing that conditions and opportunities vary across the city and that a place-based approach is vital.

Fighting historical bias

St. Louis has a long history of inequity, dating back decades.

In 1947, St. Louis came up with a Comprehensive Plan that followed common post-war American concepts, including urban renewal through clearing slums and making way for highways and other major infrastructure to support large-scale projects. Industry was booming; business concerns were king.

Neighborhoods and people who didn’t meet those criteria got shuffled aside, deliberately, to make room for those who did.

Decades later, the city took another stab at an official development plan.

In 1973, Rand Corp. published a report that discussed St. Louis and its suburbs. The Rand Report, as it was called, read like an obituary for the city.

“As things stand, the most likely prognosis is continued decline,” it read. Then it went on, “The city of St. Louis might assume a new role as a large suburb among many suburbs.”

This sent city leaders into a near panic, and led two young aldermen – Richard Gephardt, who went on to be our most powerful member of Congress, and John Roach, who would eventually run the Community Development Administration – to lead a charge to respond to Rand.

They put a pair of bills in front of the Board of Aldermen: Board Bills 19 and 20, which to this day some feel were a roadmap to the 1975 Team Four plan.

A November 1973 article in the St. Louis Argus laid out the outrage elicited among African-Americans, quoting one of the bills, which calls predominately black north St. Louis “an insignificant residential area not worthy of special maintenance effort.”

The bills called for 74,000 buildings in predominantly white south St. Louis to be preserved, and more than 70,000 others in north St. Louis to be torn down. The African-American community was collectively beside itself.

Percy Green
“They were gonna allow for north St. Louis to die on the vine,” longtime activist Percy Green, now 83, said of the proposal.

“And that’s when some folks became upset. Especially with this term, ‘benign neglect.’

“Benign neglect” was a phrase thrown around a lot back then, and on certain blocks in certain north side areas it appears to have been implemented.

In response to the Rand Report, the city hired a consulting company to come up with a strategy to turn the predicted fate of St. Louis around.

That document exists. The official name was Citywide Implementation Strategies: The Draft Comprehensive Plan. But for those around in the early and mid-’70s when it was written and published, it’s identified by the name of the consulting company that wrote it. They call it Team Four. And it recommended a kind of “tough love” – with very little love.

The plan identified three types of areas: “conservation,” areas that are already “nice”; “redevelopment,” places that have potential to attract investment and improve; and “depletion.” The depletion areas were the ones essentially being labeled as “too far gone.”

The report said, “They are areas of spotty city services and red lining – where large numbers of the unemployed, the elderly, and the recipients of welfare are left to wait for assistance which does not seem to be forthcoming.”

The plan recommended cutting resources as much as possible without completely abandoning people, but at the same time working to ensure there is no growth, with the idea that, eventually, the land can be cleared and “banked” for other uses.

Public can comment on Framework

The St. Louis Development Corp. is inviting the public to read and comment on the Equitable Economic Development Framework. The public comment period ends Aug. 28, and the final version will be presented to the City’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee in the fall.

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