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ST. LOUIS — Work starts Tuesday on a massive construction project in north St. Louis, one that officials hope begins to push some of the central corridor's momentum north.

At an event sure to be packed with politicians and local officials, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will break ground on its $1.7 billion western headquarters at the corner of Jefferson and Cass avenues.

The $712 million construction project, led by a joint venture that includes Ladue-based McCarthy Holdings and Washington-based HITT Contracting, means the 97-acre site will be busy with construction workers through 2023. Some 1,100 construction workers are expected to be on site at the height of construction.  

Another $1 billion of equipment dedicated to the NGA's mission of mapping and analyzing imagery for the military and intelligence communities will be installed in the new headquarters before the agency's move-in in 2025. 

The project's kickoff marks almost four years since the federal government chose the north St. Louis site following a tense competition that pitted the city against its Metro East neighbors in the competition for the NGA facility and its 3,000-plus high-paying jobs.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to build its new Western Headquarters in the city, keeping a decades-long relationship with St. Louis and solidifying the spy agency's move into the digital era.

While the NGA had called the south Mississippi riverfront near the Anheuser-Busch brewery home for decades, the agency needed to modernize its facility, spurring a competition within the region to woo it. 

St. Clair County officials offered flat open ground next to Scott Air Force base for the defense installation. NGA leaders opted to stay in the urban core, hoping it would help them better attract talent and the tech companies that support the agency’s mission. That, coupled with what some saw as the Obama administration’s commitment to urban renewal, allowed the city to retain the facility despite the daunting task of buying out dozens of property owners and clearing land that had held generations of residents.

NGA Aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest.

Architectural rendering depicts a potential aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest. (McCarthy HITT, via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The city and state of Missouri invested in excess of $114 million to acquire and prepare the land in the St. Louis Place neighborhood — debt that will be repaid with state and local income taxes from NGA employees.

Now, with a huge federal campus that will be plopped down in the middle of an urban area, city and NGA officials are still working to strengthen relationships with surrounding residents and neighborhood organizations.

A gathering Monday night was billed as a reception for the neighborhoods surrounding the NGA, including St. Louis Place, Hyde Park, Jeff Vander-Lou and Carr Square. A couple of dozen people who lived in the area milled about with top city and NGA officials in the Polish Heritage Center at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, near the site of the planned intelligence campus. 

St. Louis Development Corp. Director Otis Williams, whose office led the effort to assemble the land from dozens of owners and deliver a clear site to the federal government, told the crowd that while the city's goal was to retain the jobs, it was "also to transform the community around it."

The SLDC has a planning effort, known as Project Connect, meant to serve as a bridge between City Hall and the neighborhoods to build consensus on development and other efforts in the area surrounding the future NGA campus.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who also spoke, thanked residents for their "ongoing input ... as we envision a future for this neighborhood."

"This project is so transformative for our city," she said.

While many former residents have said they felt they were well compensated for their properties in the NGA footprint, not everyone was completely happy with the process. Of the 551 parcels the city had to acquire, only 136 structures remained intact in the NGA footprint, and the city estimates 88 of them were inhabited or used for business. St. Louis eventually had to commence eminent domain proceedings on 44 properties when it couldn’t reach an agreement with owners.

Monday night, a group of about a dozen protesters stood outside the church, and at one point a handful began chanting inside during the reception with a sign that said "The Northside says no way to NGA." They were escorted outside after a few minutes.