Thursday, May 14, 2009

Business Unusual

So far, the general public has not seen a rendering of Paul McKee's plan for the north side. However, from word that is coming out, the project sounds like it is a monumental undertaking.

During a time of a national economic slowdown, with very challending financing markets, Paul McKee is proposing a revolutionary community development project for the City of St. Louis. From what it sounds like, the project is a city of the future.

It is being called transformative in the way it takes an area that has been largely neglected for half a century, and replaces it with a highly green, mixed use community. If the project succeeds, the narrative of St. Louis changes.

A project of this scale builds on themes promoted by the Obama administration and the nation's economic stimulus effort. There will be jobs created, and they will be green jobs. The opportunity exists to develop new, green infrastructure, lowering utlity costs across the grid of the redevelopment area.

While the plans are grand, and if successful remake St. Louis, are they on a track to make the chances of success the highest? Is there a way to improve those chances?

Does it makes sense to consider the formation of a blue ribbon panel of community development experts and city residents, to serve in an ad hoc capacity strictly for this project? The committee could include people from the areas of green building, community development, economic development, historic preservation, community representation, and transportation.

The committee could be established with no official power, but rather to serve as an initial advisory group to help build broad based community support for the project. With the right group, such a committee might bring added value to the overall design of the community.

Here's an example of a similar effort in Dallas:

Trinity River Corridor Project

The Trinity Commons Foundation - created to fully realize the vision of the Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee


goat314 said...

Dallas doesnt have anything like North St. Louis. Now if this was a project in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore we could compare, but de-industrialized cities have the worst ghettos.

goat314 said...

I do agree we need more transparency, but Dallas is a poor case study in comparison to St. Louis.

swilkeshapiro said...

Of all the things this proposed project may be (transformative, revolutionary, grand, green, monumental), it is most certainly not "community development", as you suggest, in any sense as commonly understood by community development professionals. Suburban developers like McKee have co-opted the idea of "community" and made it synonymous with "neighborhood" as in "Oak Ridge Valley Greens: A new exclusive villa community with private 18-hole golf course".

A true community development project builds human capital by engaging affected stakeholders (the community) as leaders in the decision-making process. A community development project may not necessarily need to be driven by a grassroots organization, but empowerment and capacity building must be a central focus. If anything, McKee's process represents the antithesis of community development.

To date it has been parochial, physically destructive, and nothing short of disempowering. Whatever it is and will become as it moves forward, it is unlikely that McKee's project can transform into a legitimate community development effort. Saying it is so doesn't make it so.

Indeed, your idea of a blue-ribbon panel with "no official power" may be necessary to build enough political support to get the public incentives and redevelopment plans passed, but that approach is not community development either.

McKee does real estate development, not community development - don't confuse the two. Obviously, there is no doubt that many sections of St. Louis desperately need active real estate development. In a perfect world, an effective community development effort would engage a real estate developer (or multiple developers) to implement its neighborhood vision. What you are proposing is a real estate developer paying lip-service to community engagement in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of politicians, power brokers, and the media.

Is a Blairmont-type redevelopment what St. Louis needs? I don't know. I suspect not. Yet this is not the sort of project where alternate realities can be accurately assessed, even after they are complete. My gut reaction is that without a significant (actual) community development effort as an integral component to the project, sections of the city may be physically rebuilt, but there won't be a huge impact on the overall community circumstances. Projects like Blairmont appears to be tend to push people and problems around by avoiding the act of dealing effectively with the underlying issues.

Rick Bonasch said...

Steve -

Thanks for your reply. When I wrote the post, "Business Unusual" I was trying to suggest a way the project could be returned to a community driven effort.

Clearly at this stage it is as you suggest. It is a big real estate development. Is it too late to have a valid community development effort?

For a project as large scale as the one McKee is proposing, I wonder if it can possibly ever happen without the role of community being restored.

Not doing so could spell years of struggle and disappointment. Empowering a community effort could make the project a more immediately tangible, positive, experience.

Steve, do you think it's possible to take the current plan, and bring it back to a community development opportunity?

What about the Trinity River example? That is a massive effort. If you read the materials, there is major public involvement. The project appears to be a source of tremendous community pride and empowerment.

Is there a way we could achieve a similar result with the Mckee plan? How do we go about making that happen.

With around 2,000 parcels of real estate in play, something's going to happen. What sort of experience do we want it to be?

GMichaud said...

I think Steve Wilke-Shapiro is right on. I just wrote a response on the Urban Review, Steve Patterson Site about this very subject.
It is correct that there is a huge difference between community development and real estate development.
And Rick you ask if we can do anything about inputing into a community development opportunity shows just how much this corporate, political structure owns its' citizens.

We grovel hoping for an audience.

Rick Bonasch said...

Greg -

I ask because I wonder if we could make it happen. It will take a lot of work. This project is about more than North St. Louis. It's of regional scope. The definition of community is part of the challenge. It spans a lot more than two wards. I'll look for your comment at Urban Review.


GMichaud said...

An urban plan dictating solutions is not necessarily the answer. To quote for Moshe Safdie from his book "The City After the Automobile." He states the problem thusly, "Nor, as we have seen, are individual developers motivated to consider their developments as a part of an urban whole. Sensitive specifically to vehicular connections, developers are generally indifferent to the notion that if combined with other developments, the sum might be greater than the individual, and in most cases, isolated parts. Thus each development is unto itself: a world with its own rules"

That is the primary cause for anguish among citizens right now, Paul McKee sets his own rules, the government falls over themselves to comply due to financial concerns.
St. Louis ends with a plan that serves McKee immediate profit motives handsomely, but is a failure for future generations.

In contrast the City of London has developed a Unitary Plan which, rather than define all uses, sets principles, strategies and the structure of development. These principles are published and available for debate. The governing body decides on proposals based on these principles and goals.
Developers and citizens alike know the structure that is being utilized to judge development projects.

St. Louis goes more with the "hey what do you want to do" approach.
St. Louis and America face serious problems, new approaches are desperately needed, it is questionable whether the leadership is in place to make those changes.

A failed plan in North St. Louis, based on satisfying personal greed will set St. Louis back generations.

This is an echo, in different words of what Steve Wilke-Shapiro said above, that real estate development and community development are not the same thing.

I want to add there are other cities that set planning principles and strategies, for example San Francisco.
Certainly principles are more accessible to the public that a set plan that may or may not be relevant by the time it comes into play.

Yes it is hard work, although I'm not entirely sure the political structure wants my input (or the input of others) if you are a sheep and agree with everything then it is okay, if questions are asked, then they have private meetings.

Finally developing planning principles and strategies will cover all wards equally, unifying the ward structure and the city.

swilkeshapiro said...


I definitely want to commend you for promoting this discussion. Of course anything is possible. However as I said above, I think it is unlikely that this effort will be able to incorporate a community development component. Why? I don't think McKee seeks, understands, or will even allow a community development component.

What community development is not:
* Presentations by a developer and politicians
* New homes and businesses
* A gassification plant and generators in the Mississippi river
* A job placement service
* A redevelopment plan prepared by McKee and hired professionals
* Distressed Areas land acquisition tax credit

All those things may be integral parts of a comprehensive redevelopment strategy, but they are not community development because they do not in and of themselves build capacity and power in community residents. One can look but a couple blocks down the street to the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group to see a true community development organization doing large-scale re-development as well as building capacity and power among community residents.

Reimagining Blairmont as a community development initiative is, in my opinion, futile. It is what it is: a real estate development initiative. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I simply don't see McKee giving up control to empower a more community-driven process. In my experience, that's just not how real-estate developers work. Particularly not ones that have proven that they do not understand community development in existing urban neighborhoods. McKee's actions and plan as I understand it assume as a fundamental truth that the existing organizations, residents, businesses, and structures in the proposed redevelopment area do not have value. The approach is incompatible with community development.

But, for the sake of argument, I imagine the following scenario:

First, the Missouri legislature repeals the distressed areas tax credit and passes a the Urban Community Development and Revitalization Act, which reallocates the same $100 million.

Community organizations may apply for a series of grants to build their organizational capacity, prepare local redevelopment plans, acquire property, and implement the plans. Community organizations are incentivized to be inclusive, community-driven, and cost-effective. In order to apply for the first grant, a community organization must define a redevelopment area and prove that it is representative of the business and residential community in that area. The first grant is a modest amount to build organizational capacity.

Once the organization has met a defined threshold of capacity, a second amount is awarded to fund and support a community-driven comprehensive planning process. The organization must coordinate with City planning staff and hires an outside consultant to assist in the process. The comprehensive plan must address a variety of indicators including sustainability, housing, public works, employment, commercial, social, senior, youth, and of course compatibility with the City's new long-term comprehensive plan. The newly empowered and funded community organziation partners with Paul McKee to create a vision for commercial, industrial, and residential development.

Once the comprehensive redevelopment plan has been approved, additional funds are awarded for implementation. The city coordinates public works projects with the redevelopment plan. Paul McKee convinces Google to relocate its headquarters to a new urban-style campus in the redevelopment area.
Obviously, that will never happen.

So in the meantime, I suggest simply backing up and involving established community organizations to help guide the process. Cancel the planned "unveiling" dog-and-pony shows - none of the people who will be most affected have had a say in the creation of this plan. Meet with established neighborhood leaders and give them a place at the decision-making table - given the amount of public money McKee is requesting nothing less should be acceptable. Partner with existing organizations. Bring on people and organizations who have some sense of what they are doing when it comes to community development. ONSLRG? McCormack Baron? SLACO? SLATE? Beyond Housing? SLCC? RHCDA?

The larger a project and "grand vision" get, the more difficult they are to implement as community development initiatives. This relationship exists because large projects by definition affect underlying power structures. It is entirely possible that this project could change the course of St. Louis. Unfortunately, it is also entirely possibly that it could be the greatest boondoggle the State of Missouri has ever seen. Given the amount of behind-the-scenes work going on, I don't think you will be able to sort it out for years. In either case, it is not all right that existing communities should be subjected to what essentially amounts to contemporary blockbusting.

Everything done so far on this project has either decreased the power/input of community organizations and neighborhood residents, or marginalized them.

Rick Bonasch said...

Steve, thanks for the detailed discussion. I agree with much of what you say, however, the Blairmont situation has some differences from more typical community development.

In many ways, McKee is proposing a plan to develop the hole in the donut. "Blairmont" was targeted by McKee because of the massive amount of vacancy and disinvestment. While there are some residents in the area, there are also many many vacant lots, vacant buildings, and nearly vacant blocks.

There really isn't a cohesive community based CDC serving the central Blairmont area, especially one with the capacity to carry out difficult real estate development. Old North is most likely outside the boundary of McKee's area.

That's why I suggested the idea of a blue ribbon panel to bring community to the redevelopment plan. McKee's project is so large it will have impact across the city and whole region.

I think a committee could be structured that would reflect a broad range of community interests relative to the planning and development of the Blairmont area. That committee could help resolve some of the distrust that has built up to date.

Serving on such a committee would be a lot of work.