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McKee project could begin

McKee project could begin

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ST. LOUIS  • Paul McKee's $8 billion bid to rebuild two square miles of the city's north side is finally poised to take a few small steps forward.

Alderman April Ford-Griffin plans to file legislation today that would allow the developer to start a few pieces of his NorthSide Regeneration proposal, despite a judge's ruling that torpedoed city financing. If approved by the Board of Aldermen, work could begin next month.

But considering the project's massive vision, the work would be rather small-bore. The proposal includes cleaning up 14 vacant lots, tearing down six empty buildings and rehabbing seven more, including the old Greyhound Bus station at Cass Avenue and 13th Street. It also would build a $750,000 materials recycling center on 10th Street near Interstate 70, where bricks, wood and other materials from demolished buildings and ripped-up roads would be stored and sold for reuse.

These steps are things McKee has envisioned for some time. But the specific proposal to do it is designed to satisfy one man: Judge Robert Dierker.

Dierker is the city judge who derailed NorthSide last summer when he threw out its city financing package, saying the plan was too vague to justify a $390 million pledge of tax increment financing and the potential use of blight and eminent domain.

"There is no evidence whatever of any discrete, definable redevelopment project," Dierker wrote, and as a result, he said, the TIF was a reach too far.

McKee has appealed that ruling, but appeals take a long time, and nearly two years after going public, the developer wants to get started. This agreement, said his attorney Paul Puricelli, is designed in part to provide some of the specifics that the judge found lacking.

"What we're doing is in response to Judge Dierker's opinions, trying to lend a little bit more specificity to some aspects of the redevelopment plan, so that we can move forward," Puricelli said. They hope the new details will satisfy Dierker enough that he will undo his July ruling and let the development plan stand, which in turn would help McKee get financing for the project.

But it is by no means clear that Dierker will see it that way. And opponents of the NorthSide TIF say detailed goals for a few dozen properties misses the point of their lawsuit.

"There are still fundamental issues that have to be addressed, primarily the issue of eminent domain," said attorney Eric Vickers, who represented some of the plaintiffs who sued the city over the deal. "Without that, everything else is a nonstarter and will be met with massive resistance."

The deal McKee hammered out with the city in 2009 included clauses saying any use of eminent domain would require more votes of the Board of Aldermen, and the developer has said repeatedly that he won't use the controversial tool on any homeowners. Still, it has remained a sore spot for NorthSide almost from the start.

Just how sore a spot it remains may become clearer as this bill moves forward. It will need several readings before the Board of Aldermen, and probably a public hearing at a subcommittee in the next couple of weeks.

If the plan is approved, that doesn't necessarily mean the city will authorize TIF bonds for the work. Puricelli said NorthSide planned to pay for the projects — estimated to cost nearly $4 million all told — "out of our pocket," though he said he didn't know if McKee planned to apply for state historic or brownfield tax credits.

Reauthorizing the development agreement would also solidify McKee's eligibility for state tax credits that would help reimburse him for buying land — in December the Department of Economic Development awarded him $8 million under that program, on the condition that he prevail in the TIF lawsuit, either before Dierker or on appeal. If that case doesn't go McKee's way, he has to pay the money back.

The new plan comes on the heels of official word Wednesday that a piping supply company will move 42 jobs into a NorthSide-owned warehouse on Delmar Boulevard. Taken together, they are the strongest signs yet — however small — of progress on the long-awaited project. nd as McKee stressed in a statement Thursday, they are just a "first step."

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