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St. Louis to begin using eminent domain in effort to lure National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

St. Louis to begin using eminent domain in effort to lure National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

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ST. LOUIS • City officials on Wednesday said they are poised to start using eminent domain to put together a large swath of land in an effort to lure the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency northwest of downtown.

The long-expected legal move would enable the city to take control of at least seven owner-occupied properties and more than 300 parcels owned by developer Paul McKee, the city’s onetime friend and potential development partner.

The agency is looking to build a $1.6 billion western headquarters within the St. Louis region, making it one of the largest projects in the area’s history. It plans to move from its current location south of downtown by next decade.

St. Louis has been battling against three other locations, including a site near Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. The federal government has stated it will only buy the land from a single holder — meaning the city or its economic arm must have contracts on hundreds of properties to put together a single clear site.

The prospect of keeping 3,100 government jobs within its borders has prompted the city to deploy a complicated real estate strategy involving everything from the controversial eminent domain to physically moving houses to new locations.

The city has been unable to reach an agreement with a total of 19 property owners within the site just north of downtown near the now-demolished Pruitt Igoe housing complex.

About 40 percent of the 100-acre zone is owned by business entities of McKee. The city once owned some of those properties before selling them to McKee for his Northside Regeneration project.

City officials said Wednesday that they will only use eminent domain if they deem it necessary to assemble the land.

Otis Williams, the executive director of the city’s economic development arm, said the city is still negotiating with McKee.

“It does not mean we are at odds,” said Williams.

Still, the public move shows the city’s relationship with McKee has somewhat frayed.

Jim Gradl, a McKee spokesman, said McKee’s Northside Regeneration is close to finalizing an agreement that will give the city control of the properties.

“Northside Regeneration’s parcels were apparently included in the city’s condemnation list out of an abundance of caution, to assure the city meets the NGA’s deadlines,” Gradl said.

The city and McKee have been negotiating for several months. The potential use of eminent domain on McKee could largely be a negotiating strategy. Proceedings involving eminent domain could lead to a protracted court battle at a time when the city needs to quickly obtain options on the land.

Williams acknowledged on Wednesday that McKee could potentially “fight value” in court, meaning he could argue he wasn’t paid a fair price for the properties.

But, the city could at least win control of the property before March, when the federal government decides which site gets the megadevelopment.

A resolution will be filed with the Board of Aldermen on Friday that will list the specific properties the city will exercise eminent domain authority over, a legal maneuver that will allow officials to buy the properties without owner approval.

Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, said the city will actually buy properties only if the spy agency selects the St. Louis site.

About seven owner-occupied homes in the area could be on the eminent domain list. The city has even offered to physically move a home if an owner wishes to keep it.

Charlesetta Taylor, who has lived in the St. Louis Place neighborhood for decades, was a vocal opponent of the project earlier this year. Taylor said on Wednesday she hasn’t reached an agreement with the city, but would consider allowing them to move her house to another location outside the neighborhood.

“My main goal is that they not demolish my house,” Taylor said. “The neighborhood is gone.”

Williams, of the St. Louis Development Corporation, said the city will “do what it takes to win.”

“This is an evolving story,” Williams said. “Forced to have a site and one owner, we have to begin the legal process.”

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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