Paul McKee’s option to buy the old Pruitt-Igoe site invites needed perspective
by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
March 13, 2012
|From the St. Louis Beacon's "Pruitt-Igoe: Visions for renewal"|
I’m attracted to visionaries. And I, like many other residents in the region, would love to see something economically powerful, and sustainable take root in the city’s long-ignored and often-neglected north side neighborhoods.
Yet, news of the city’s plan to give McKee an exclusive two-year option to buy the massive former 33-acre Pruitt-Igoe site is troubling. It underscores the clandestine, behind-the-scenes maneuverings gifted to the privileged and powerful. It shines a light on legalized bribery--where rich campaign contributors receive special perks, legislative support and exclusive deals backed by taxpayer money. Finally, the Pruitt-Igoe property-now a part of McKee’s holdings-demands historical perspective. It places the Northside Regeneration project side-by-side with the short-sighted “big idea” for urban revitalization pursued by city officials almost 60 years ago.
In 1950, downtown St. Louis was surrounded by slum properties. Backed by the 1949 Housing Act, city officials came up with a grandiose idea to lure middle class whites back to the downtown area of the city. The plan was to acquire, clear and sell huge tracts of slum properties to private developers at reduced prices and designate areas for the construction of public housing. One of the downtown “slum areas” pegged for clearance was the Mill Creek area where some 20,000 blacks, many who had migrated from the South in the early 1900s, had set up homes and businesses.
St. Louis received federal funds to build the 2,700-unit projects that were to become Pruitt-Igoe. The initial designs included high-rise, mid-rise and walk up structures. The vision of a “city-within-a city” designed by the architectural firm, Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth, was greatly curtailed by the outbreak of the Korean War, inflation, material shortages, and a conservative backlash against public housing. As a result, Pruitt-Igoe was built on the cheap. Designs for lush, green children’s play areas, airy “vertical hallways,” ground floor bathrooms and other landscaping and safety amenities were eliminated.
The government provided the money to build Pruitt-Igoe but maintenance was to be based on a working class formula that never materialized. Pruitt-Igoe was built as a segregated development with blacks living in the Pruitt and whites living in the Igoe sections. Segregation was ruled unconstitutional before the project was completed so the black/white working class formula was thwarted before a single tenant moved into the complex.
With the GI Bill and other incentives, working class whites had the option to leave the city and buy reasonably-priced homes in the ‘burbs. Pruitt-Igoe, which opened with a majority black, majority poor occupancy, was doomed from the outset.
Overly optimistic city planners failed to note that the same federal dollars that fueled the public housing boon also kicked off housing construction in the suburbs. With the GI Bill and other incentives, working class whites had the option to leave the city and buy reasonably-priced homes in the ‘burbs. Pruitt-Igoe, which opened in 1954 with a majority black and majority poor occupancy, was doomed from the outset.
Fast forward 58 years and we have another plan based on land clearance and optimistic predictions. The 1950s plan was undercut by short-sighted city officials. Today, Paul McKee-a bona vide visionary–has a plan in the same neighborhood that’s been marred by personal and political secrecy, elitist maneuverings and the stabbing fear of long-time residents who believe they will, once again, be uprooted and displaced in the name of “development.”
In 2005, as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I started a series on Pruitt-Igoe. I had lived there as a child in the late 1960s and my former editor, Dick Weiss, suggested we do a series exploring why the 33 acres of land had remained fallow for more than 30 years.
About a year into the project, the series was stalled after I tried to find out the city’s plans for developing of the site. After months of unreturned phone calls, obstructions, and a request filed through the “Missouri Open Meetings Act” better known as the “Sunshine Law,” I was finally allowed to review records and documents regarding the sale and development of Pruitt-Igoe.
Over the years, several developers had proposed different ideas for the site -- single-family homes, mixed-income housing, retail business marts, a sports arena and other projects. I had interviewed developer Richard Baron, whose firm, McCormack Baron Salazar, had already invested millions in mixed-income housing developments near Pruitt-Igoe. At least two developers told me the Slay Administration had flatly rejected their offers. Baron said the “mayor's people" had ignored his proposal and had not solicited his input on any future developments.
Over the years, several developers had proposed different ideas for the site -- single-family homes, mixed-income housing, retail business marts, a sports arena and other projects.
When I spoke with Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, he told me the city was looking for the “right project” that would generate tax revenue, improve quality of life and mesh with "broader developments" in area.
I got the distinct impression that they already knew exactly what they wanted to do with the land. My suspicions were validated when I found a 2003 grant application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking for federal funds to develop "one million square feet of retail, commercial and light industrial space" that would generate as many as "500 jobs" on the Pruitt-Igoe site.
Back then, in 2006, Crim denied that the city had any particular developer in mind. Yet, this was the same time that Paul McKee – using various withholding companies with names like Dodier Investors LLC, MLK 3000 LLC, Union Martin LLC and Blairmont-was secretlypurchasing hundreds of parcels of land across a wide swath of north St. Louis City, at first without public notice or input. It’s hard to believe that Mayor Slay had no knowledge of a heavy campaign contributor’s desire to develop in the area. In fact, Jeff Rainford, Slay’s chief of staff helped draft the language that would help McKee secure millions in taxpayer money for the project.
In a lawsuit filed against Mckee, residents said that he neglected the properties he bought. While politicians turned a blind eye, many of the properties decayed further, turning into havens for drug activity and vice. Plaintiffs claimed the city declared the area “blighted” to help McKee win tax incentives. Their plaintiff’s attorneys argued that “fine print” in McKee’s deal with the city would indeed allow him to take people's homes through eminent domain, if necessary. Critics cried foul, charging that politicians improperly used state and local tax credits, not to create jobs, but to assemble land for a private developer.
I’m not naïve. This is how the power players play. Still, it’s irksome when no requests for proposals (RFP) had been issued for the development of Pruitt-Igoee and the city basically hands property over to one of its favored developers. A resident or small developer without political connections would have had to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to purchase even one parcel of land. McKee, on the other hand, gets to buy 1,233 pieces of land, has first options on the old Pruitt-Igoe property and a cadre of local and state politicians ready to advocate for more tax dollars in his behalf.
A resident or small developer without political connections would have had to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to purchase even one parcel of land.
With history as backdrop, we see that city planners made a huge, costly miscalculation 60 years ago based on a “big idea” for housing the poor and low-income individuals. The scheme backfired. It never enticed middle class white people downtown and wound up displacing poor black people. It led to the destruction of whole communities and fueled more than 30 years of neighborhood decline.
I’m not saying McKee’s intentions are nefarious, nor am I saying his project shouldn’t go through. I’m saying this modern day “big idea” has the same inherent pitfalls as the 1954 plan. Despite claims to the contrary, the city and the developer want to entice a different, more influential demographic to the proposed area. Millions of federal dollars earmarked to raise buildings; clear and clean up land in the disadvantaged neighborhoods including the Pruitt-Igoe site, don’t necessarily mean that disadvantaged people will still be around when the development is done.
McKee has a contagious vision for a neighborhood long in decline. It’s enhanced with predictions of a new clinic run by Grace Hill Health Centers, a biotech company and various other office, retail, industrial and new housing possibilities that might bloom as the proposed development moves to fruition.
The operative word, however, is “might.” What if current residents are displaced or “blighted” out of the neighborhoods and, as it was decades ago, war, the economy, market forces or re-directed federal funds lead to a watered-down, unfunded vision and a desired demographic that decides to stay put or relocate elsewhere?
Pruitt-Igoe as an added perk to the Northside Regeneration project re-introduces thoughts of backroom, clandestine deals fostered by arrogant city officials who are intent on helping an influential developer carry out another big idea.
McKee has a contagious vision for a neighborhood long in decline. It’s enhanced with predictions of a new clinic run by Grace Hill, a biotech company and various other office, retail, industrial and new housing possibilities that might bloom as the proposed development moves to fruition.
I once had a conversation with McKee about “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” a documentary film that explores the human side of a development widely considered the downfall of public housing. McKee told me he wished he had seen the film before starting his project. If so, he said, he would have had a better understanding of the mistrust and pushback from residents in and outside the area skeptical of his plans.
It’s not too late. The film is a reminder of the downside of poor planning and displacing entire populations all in the name of development. It hints at the possibilities of true success if residents are empowered and involved in the growth, stabilization and benefits derived from neighborhood revitalization. The documentary ends with a message that might help us avoid a repetition of the 1950s big idea:
“The city will change but in ways different than before. The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a freelance writer and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.