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Messenger: St. Louis alderman puts urban planning lessons into practice
Tony's Take

Messenger: St. Louis alderman puts urban planning lessons into practice

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City Foundry project

The City Foundry project (left) and Forest Park Parkway as seen on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo by David Carson,

Alderman Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl loves “Mapping Decline.”

That’s the 2008 book by University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon that examines the history of white flight in St. Louis through a series of maps. They depict tax abatements and other policies that over the past century or so have consistently favored development in the city’s central corridor while ignoring the hollowing out of the city’s north side.

Pihl is an urban planner, with an architecture degree from Yale and a master’s degree in urban studies and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She narrowly won the race for 17th Ward alderman in April, and she has immediately made herself a major player in the future of development in the city’s central corridor. Her ward takes in portions of the sweet spot in development in St. Louis: the Central West End, Forest Park Southeast, Botanical Heights and Midtown.

In one of her first actions, she, along with Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, suggested to developers of the City Foundry project that some of the tax incentives for the project might be better spent helping north side redevelopment. Pihl says she was following a model that has been successful in thriving cities, such as the Linkage program in Boston that distributes millions in development fees to affordable housing and other poverty-battling strategies.

The move was a twist on a similar negotiation that took place a couple of years ago under the previous mayoral administration.

The new Major League Soccer stadium that is under construction in downtown west is in the footprint of the tax increment finance district created by the city for the benefit of developer Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration plan. Say what you will about McKee, who is a lightning rod for criticism, his plan in creating the map of the TIF was to get commercial development in the central corridor to help fund infrastructure investments on the neglected north side of the city.

The administration of Mayor Lyda Krewson turned that concept on its head, asking McKee to give up some of the approved tax incentives, so it could help pay for the soccer stadium, which he did.

To some degree, that is the story of St. Louis, as laid out in Gordon’s book, with the north side, and to a lesser degree the city’s diverse and dense south side, ignored while central corridor developments decade after decade receive abatements that public officials and developers promise will turn the tide of economic development. Those incentives divert millions of dollars from the public school system, which suffers, leading to even more hollowing out of the north side.

Rinse. Repeat.

Until now.

Gordon, who still pays a lot of attention to goings-on in St. Louis, and recently served as a consultant on a Forward Through Ferguson study on disparities in school funding in Missouri, sees the potential City Foundry move as a step in the right direction.

“The history of urban development in St. Louis is marked by an eagerness to use residential conditions (poverty, substandard housing) as a pretext for blighting an area, and then devoting all of the subsequent attention (abatements, reinvestment) to commercial properties,” Gordon says. “This not only leaves the original residential conditions untouched, but — adding insult to injury — it forces the school district to foot the biggest chunk of the bill. All of this is especially damaging under TIF, under which subsidies flow primarily to areas that would attract private interest anyway, and under which the very logic of the deal confines the benefits to the project footprint.”

For the activists and progressive aldermen who have been pushing for a serious change in how St. Louis handles tax abatements, there was never going to be any real progress until there was either a majority on the Board of Aldermen, or somebody in the mayor’s office who could channel former first lady Nancy Reagan’s advice and “just say no.”

In her first actions as mayor, Jones said no to previous central corridor abatements approved by the board and sent the projects back to the drawing board. She and Pihl are suggesting that those who want to redevelop prime real estate in the city’s central corridor need to be willing to help invest in the neighborhoods to the north that have been neglected for far too long.

Good for them, says Gordon, the man who wrote the definitive history of how St. Louis got where it is today: “I applaud the new skepticism about abatement, and the determination to wrestle genuine community benefits from them when they are used.”

In this week’s Chat Room video, Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger discuss the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on children.

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