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Bottle District

A giant Vess soda bottle, shown in a 2004 file photo, gave the Bottle District its name. Photo by Jerry Naunheim of the Post-Dispatch.

ST. LOUIS     An unusual thing happened Friday at City Hall: The Board of Aldermen put the brakes on a big-dollar development deal.

In a tight vote after an hour of debate, aldermen shot down a bill that would add the long-stalled Bottle District site into the redevelopment plan for Paul McKee's massive NorthSide Regeneration plan, and let McKee tap nearly $1.5 million in state tax credits.

The tally was close — six in favor, eight against, with 15 members either abstaining or not in the room — and the measure could be revived next week if one of the “no” votes changes their mind.

But for now, it stands as a rare rebuke of incentives for a high-profile project, the kind of thing that typically sails through the Aldermanic chamber with little dissent.

The opposition stems from concerns about the hurried nature of the bill.

Alderman Scott Oglivie pointed out that NorthSide's massive redevelopment plan — which the board passed in 2009 but has been hung up in lawsuits almost ever since — is due to go before the Missouri Supreme Court next month.

If he loses, McKee may have to repay some of the nearly $30 million in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage tax credits he's already received. So waiting for a resolution of that case might be wiser than helping him draw more, Oglivie said.

“Why do we have to do this now?” he said. “The real story is that McKee wanted to apply for land assemblage credits.”

But it was Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. — whose 3rd Ward includes much of NorthSide's two-square-mile footprint, though not the Bottle District — who swayed several votes against the bill Friday.

He wanted to know the project's specifics, and asked that the bill be tabled until he could talk with McKee.

“No one has ever sat down with me and said what they were trying to do,” he said. “I don't see anything wrong with just holding this bill.”

The bill's sponsor, Alderman Tammika Hubbard, argued the move was an important step toward coordinating the two projects, redeveloping neighborhoods in her fifth ward just north of downtown, and bringing in much-needed jobs.

“I stand in support specifically of job creation,” she said.

And time is of the essence, said Alderman Fred Wessels. He said McKee needs the bill passed this year in order to get the tax credits, and city officials ought to support him.

“This is a high-risk project for the developer,” Wessels said. “If they can get some money from Jefferson City, I'm all for it.”

It is not unusual for complicated incentive packages to get a last-minute rush at the Board of Aldermen. In July, for instance, members were told that delaying tax breaks for Ballpark Village could jeopardize that entire project, by making it miss fast-approaching deadlines for state incentives. That measure passed 25-2.

In this case, the Bottle District bill is essentially a re-do of something the Aldermen passed in December, when McKee proposed buying the long-empty site north of the Edward Jones Dome from Clayco and developer Larry Chapman.

After closing on the $12 million purchase, McKee applied for state land assemblage tax credits, which reimburse him for some of the cost of buying land for NorthSide. But the Missouri Department of Economic Development told him the Bottle District had to be part of the NorthSide plan to qualify.

“This is a lot of i-dotting and t-crossing,” said Chapman, who called in response to questions e-mailed to McKee. “We're trying to make sure this will be satisfactory to the state.”

As for the urgency, Chapman pointed to that old developers' adage: time is money. McKee has used most of the nearly $30 million he has collected in Distressed Areas credits to pay down debt, and the longer he carries loans, the more interest he's paying.

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And unless those loans get paid down, Chapman said, it'll be hard to make anything happen at the Bottle District.

“Until the tax credits come in there's nothing we can do,” he said. “We've got some cost hills we cannot overcome.”

They may get another chance.

The bill can be revived next week, if one of the aldermen who voted “No” asks for the board to reconsider its vote. Then it would take 15 votes to put the measure back on the aldermen's agenda. Hubbard said she was confident she could change some minds in the next few days.

“I don't think it was skepticism” about the project that led to “no” votes, she said after the meeting. “I think there were some procedural concerns within the board. I believe we'll work them out, and I believe the bill will pass.”

Still, it was made clear during the meeting that, for some, even next week is far too early.

Wessels had argued that the upcoming Supreme Court decision, which could force a full re-working of NorthSide's development plan, is McKee's problem, not the city's.

But Oglivie pointed out that the developer controls two square miles of the near North Side, owns thousands of properties, and has dominated the development agenda for years now.

“McKee's problems,” he said, “are our problems.”

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