Feds vs. Developer vs. History: What’s Best for a Former St. Louis Housing Project Site? – Next City
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Feds vs. Developer vs. History: What’s Best for a Former St. Louis Housing Project Site?

Pruitt-Igoe demolition

The 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe building in St. Louis (Photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research)

If the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) purchases the 33-acre urban forest remaining from the site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, will it fulfill historic irony or become a virtual redemption? St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s administration sees the prospect as redemption, and has primed the way with an aggressive offering of funds included in a citywide bond issue.

Yet NGA’s decision is not as easy as following the incentives. Last week, NGA revealed that the agency was considering six sites around St. Louis for its new regional office, which houses 3,000 workers. Currently, the facility is located in a former pharmaceutical factory adjacent to the historic St. Louis Arsenal, first laid out in 1827. NGA is leaving that site due to its proximity to railroad tracks, its near-miss with flood waters in the 1993 flood, and the restrictive historic nature of the Arsenal site. The agency aims to occupy a new facility by 2022.

The likelihood of NGA felling the Pruitt-Igoe forest seems uncertain given the prospect of a location at Scott Air Force Base across the river in Illinois, where Democratic Senator Dick Durbin has already led the charge to convince his home-state ally Barack Obama that NGA belongs adjacent to the base. A fortified 50-acre federal intelligence compound might be a better match for a corn field near an exurban military base anyway.

Still, Mayor Slay has pulled out all stops to move NGA to Pruitt-Igoe. Slay’s administration inserted requests for $25 million in street improvements connecting the site to area interstates, nearly as much to reconfigure a nearby interstate interchange, and $15 million for “Economic Development, Land Acquisition & Site Development” that seemed a thinly veiled disguise of Pruitt-Igoe’s known costs for cleanup. Yet the Board of Aldermen failed to pass the bond issue legislation before adjourning last week, leaving the details to either a special session or the winds of the year.

From an urban planning standpoint, the NGA deal furthers Mayor Slay’s long-standing rhetoric that Pruitt-Igoe, owned by the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, must be sold for job creation (albeit in the context of shuffling jobs around the city). On the other hand, it contradicts the administration’s pledge to back developer Paul J. McKee Jr.’s 1,500-acre Northside Regeneration project, which calls for an urban, gridded retail and commercial center on the Pruitt-Igoe site. Northside Regeneration currently holds its second two-year option on the site, which runs through early 2016.

Slay’s chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that NGA would pay McKee for the land, a strange prospect given that the option expires before NGA’s expected 2016 site selection. Essentially, the city’s stance seems to be favoring a deal that would allow McKee to exercise his option to sell the site at profit while taxpayers fund cleanup and improvements. NGA banks on Congressional appropriation, which warrants the question of whether Mayor Slay has not considered the benefit of the cash-strapped city directly selling the site after letting McKee’s option expire. McKee has received nearly $42 million in Missouri development tax credits for his project without building a single new structure or creating a single verifiable job.

In 2009, McKee stood at several public meetings and promised the city that the old Pruitt-Igoe superblock would be restored to a grid and become an anchor for residential development around it. This promise was enshrined in a redevelopment ordinance that Slay’s administration spent years defending after a circuit court ruling invalidated it. In 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the ordinance, and the developer joined city leaders to assure residents that the terms of the redevelopment ordinance finally would be pursued.

The only backlash against implementing McKee’s New Urbanist vision for Pruitt-Igoe has come from cultural activists including artist Juan William Chavez and I, who have publicly stated that the land should be set aside as a cultural site. In 2012, I concluded management of the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition, which explored ways in which the site’s future could interpret its significant and haunting past. McKee’s latest site plan, released in 2013, showed a “Memory Wall” as an element of his proposed development — a seeming nod to the interest in publicly commemorating the unsettling past of the land.

The winner of the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition, by Heather Dunbar and Xiaowei R. Wang, envisioned nurseries that would supply plantings to St. Louis parks.

NGA’s restricted fortress likely would forestall any attempts at cultural commemoration, if it can pass muster with historic preservation officials. All federal expenditures that impact historic sites must be reviewed for what is termed “adverse impact,” or removal of character-defining physical features. The National Historic Preservation Act offers rules in its Section 106, which allows state preservation officials the opportunity to go so far as to block any projects that destroy buildings, archaeological sites or cultural grounds.

An NGA undertaking would trigger an exploration of Pruitt-Igoe’s ability to be officially read as a cultural site. From its public housing past to the U.S. Army chemical weapons tests in the 1960s to the semiotically-charged 1972 implosion of one tower, the site’s inscribed cultural heritage touches social, architectural, political and racial history. Still, its landscape is unkempt — it is a forest — and its towers absent. The remaining ancillary buildings, and the newer public school complex built on part of its site, might remove the historic integrity necessary to draw more than a second’s notice from preservation officials whose standards are more geared toward intact buildings.

Still, the crucible of significance for Pruitt-Igoe would be its ability to meet National Register of Historic Places’ standards of significance. Under one criterion, the potential to yield significant information — essentially, the potential importance of what is invisible below ground — is the base standard. Pruitt-Igoe’s site contains building footings, tunnels, building fragments and personal effects from the recent past. Its future significance as a historic site is unqualified.

The replacement of the serene forest where public housing’s worst chapter took place with a federal intelligence block probably won’t be stopped by preservation rules or insistence that a developer’s promised commercial center be built. Instead, the decision to relocate the St. Louis NGA branch will be caught up in federal politics, where senators hold more sway than mayors. Yet should NGA decide that the slanted but not enchanted woods of Pruitt-Igoe are their best home, there will be huge implications for preserving the site’s cultural history and promoting the north side’s redevelopment. As happened before on the same ground, a federal superblock could suffocate better futures.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Michael R. Allen is the founder and director of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His writing on historic preservation, architectural history and public art has appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Temporary Art Review, PreservationNation, nextSTL and other outlets.

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Tags: historic preservationst. louisfrancis slay