Denver, Colo. – The North Side of St. Louis is getting a sister city.
Her name is “Stapleton,” and she resides in Denver, Colorado.
Being the little sister city, the North Side will pick up fashion tips, mistakes made and lessons learned. Probably the most important lesson to inherit is how to bring citizens and developers together to design a vibrant community.
Meet urban designer and planner Mark Johnson. He’s like the “father seed” of the two neighborhoods. Johnson has worked with developer Paul McKee Jr. on the Northside Regeneration redevelopment plan in St. Louis for the past three years. And every major redevelopment Denver has experienced in the past decade, Johnson has had a hand in.
McKee’s controversial $8 billion plan aims at revitalizing 1,492 acres, mostly on the near North Side of St. Louis. The plan is broken into four stages of mixed-use development, including offices, retail, housing and parks, over the next 20 years.
Now that McKee’s $398 million Tax Increment Financing deal and the final development agreement became law on Dec. 11, the next step is agreeing on backing for the TIF bonds and limited right for eminent domain.
McKee has said the project will not move forward unless the City of St. Louis backs half of the TIF notes and agrees to limited right for the developer to claim eminent domain. These highly controversial elements of the deal have not been negotiated as yet.
In an interview with the American on January 14, McKee said that if the City does not provide credit for the TIF notes, he will have to figure out how to do it. But it has to happen.
“I’m not prepared to tell you that right now,” McKee said. “Give me the next six months to work on it.”
McKee recently secured a critical $19.6 million tax credits from the State of Missouri, and he is preparing to start environmental clean up and demolition once the permits come through.
“At present we are at the beginning of our sixth year of a 20-year project,” McKee told The American – “15 years to go.”
Being at the beginning stage with St. Louis, Johnson has flashbacks of the zygote phase for Stapleton.
Johnson’s biggest development project in Denver with 4,000 acres was Stapleton, which he started in 1988. Even as recently as 1998, Johnson said people were sure it would fail.
“People told me that no one would ever buy property. No one would ever live there. The neighborhoods are too terrible. It’s too dirty. It’s a bad address,” Johnson said.
“And, of course, now it’s a big success.”
Stapleton has a waiting list for property.
In the beginning, Johnson led over 150 public meetings regarding the Stapleton project, and many of the residents were skeptical and negative about the project. It’s not too far from McKee’s experience in St. Louis, which has faced organized opposition on several fronts and a barrage of critical media coverage.
“They thought that we were going to hurt them, and I see something very similar on the North Side,” Johnson said. “I see people are afraid because it’s change, it’s private development.”
However, Johnson recognizes that the secrecy in how McKee acquired land did not build trust or confidence.
“Now I think it’s Paul McKee himself who has to rebuild that confidence, but I play a part in that too,” Johnson said. “I have to put my money where my mouth is. Live up to my words. Do what we say we’re going to do and show that we intend to improve this for everybody.”
McKee said he has already had 52 meetings with the community in six years. “We continue to meet with the community – we never stop,” he said.
Similar but different sisters
With the Northside project being one third the size of Stapleton, Johnson feels that it’s completely doable, especially with all the similarities the two areas share.
In one sense, the demographics are challenging in the Northside redevelopment area, just as surrounding areas of Stapleton still are. The level of vacancy, level of crime and high dropout rate are obstacles to overcome in both areas.
St. Louis, however, already has a good stock of housing and historic buildings, Johnson said. There’s a fabric left, even though so much of it has been torn out or left to rot. There are streets. There are trees. Stapleton had none of that. In fact, it was an abandoned airplane field, with millions of dollars of debris to clean up.
“When we looked at Stapleton, we needed to design new neighborhoods that reflected the old ones,” Johnson said. “In the Northside we have to make an old neighborhood newer. We’d be doing extremely well if we could make it as good as it was 100 years ago, when it was a vibrant neighborhood.”
The most specific thing that makes the two areas different is that the Northside is an infill project, meaning that it’s not a project where you come in, tear everything down and start over. Planners will have to insert new development next to existing houses, schools, and parks.
In addition, there’s plenty of infrastructure problems to overcome, which is where the tax financing comes in. The Tax Increment Financing of $398 million would pay for major improvement in streets, sewers, the power grid and parks.
The vision for both of the sister cities is “mixed use,” Johnson said.
In the old days, mixed use would mean having a barber shop on the bottom floor with an apartment on top of it. That architectural style is part of the plan, but Johnson’s vision of mixed use also includes having various types of residences clustered together.
Instead of having 400 apartments in one place, he’d rather see a mix of single family homes, town homes and condo/rental buildings in the same couple blocks.
“Generally through the Northside, we’re talking about making development mixed – and our word is ‘compact,’” he said, “where you have smaller things clustered together.”
The areas with higher densities would be closer to Downtown, near the anticipated Mississippi River Bridge landing or the 22nd Street exchange, which is at the west end of the Gateway Mall.
But around St. Louis Place Park and in between Martin Luther King Drive and Cass Avenue, or west of Jefferson Avenue, the focus is single-family homes with mixed value and affordability. They will have outdoor space and good relationships to the street and parking.
The Northside project is broken up into four phases. The first will focus on 22nd Street as the entry way into the redevelopment from Interstate 64. This area will feature office spaces, retail and restaurants along 22nd Street and the residential condos and more commercial north of Olive Street.
The second phase focuses around the new Mississippi River Bridge and I-70 interchange.
The last phases are the neighborhoods. The third phase is the crossroads of North Jefferson and Cass Avenues, the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project. It’s intended to be the heart of the redevelopment area. The fourth phase is the intersection of N. Jefferson Avenue, Parnell Street and North Market Street. The plan shows that this may include a new medical campus.
Over the past five years or so, McKee has been buying land and houses in preparation for the development plan. Feeling powerless to redevelop their own communities, many people in the neighborhoods are frustrated and angry. To this McKee says, “You can’t make the market go any faster. As soon as the market’s ready to go, we’ll be ready to redevelop.”