Forefront Excerpt: The Subdividing of Pruitt-Igoe

Forefront Excerpt: The Subdividing of Pruitt-Igoe

An introductory excerpt from this week’s Forefront.

Credit: Laurie Skrivan

Developer Paul McKee has a plan for north St. Louis. At its center is the 33-acre footprint of Pruitt-Igoe, once an experiment in high-rise public housing but now an uninhabited forest symbolic of the failures of urban renewal. In Forefront this week, Tim Logan explores McKee’s vision and what’s next for this controversial testing ground.

At the corner of Jefferson and Cass avenues, two miles northwest of downtown St. Louis, 33 acres of forest sit in the middle of the city. Skinny trees sway in the wind and vegetation strains against a chain-link fence. But this is no park. There are no walking paths, no people. Aside from birds and an old electric substation, the place is abandoned.

Fifty years ago, 12,000 people lived here in 33 high-rise towers. The Capt. W. O. Pruitt Homes and William L. Igoe Apartments were supposed to be the answer to St. Louis’ crushing postwar housing crisis. But in 1972, less than 20 years after it opened, the complex was shut down and blown up. Today Pruitt-Igoe, as it’s widely known, stands as an iconic failure of large-scale urban renewal.

Now, four decades after Pruitt-Igoe’s last residents moved away, these 33 acres of urban wilderness are at the heart of a new, even bigger plan to remake long-struggling parts of north St. Louis. A plan, really, to remake the city itself.

It’s called NorthSide Regeneration, and it is a bid to redevelop about two square miles north of downtown St. Louis, to turn some of the most battered neighborhoods in all the Rust Belt into a showpiece of a 21st-century city, to create tens of thousands of jobs, blocks and blocks of new homes, schools, parks, clean energy, the works. It has already been a decade in the making. It may finally get started this fall.

NorthSide has the support of City Hall — the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a 1,500-acre redevelopment plan four years ago — and has been the subject of endless discussion in local civic circles. Nearly everyone has an opinion of what NorthSide should and shouldn’t be. But the driving force behind it is a single man: Paul J. McKee, Jr., a suburban construction magnate-turned-developer who 10 years ago started secretly buying empty lots in the area with a vision for a real estate project big enough to alter the fortunes of his long-struggling hometown.

McKee said he’s spent more than $60 million buying land, and his NorthSide Regeneration LLC owns 2,200 parcels. He spends his days endlessly meeting everyone from bankers to preachers, potential partners to wary neighbors, pitching his project with an evangelist’s zeal.

“If St. Louis is ever going to be great again,” McKee likes to say, “it’s going to come from the north side.”

It’s the sort of vision that can be hard to see. The area McKee wants to transform today is a mishmash of urban plights. It’s part post-industrial — old scrap yards and truck depots — part aging public housing, plus blocks of dwindling residential neighborhoods, where longtime homeowners live among empty lots and dilapidated vacants. Crime is high. Jobs are scarce. It’s been this way for a long time.

Changing this, McKee said, will take a massive effort. While other St. Louis neighborhoods have rebounded in recent years with a mix of organic development and small-scale rehabs of historic brick homes, McKee envisions the sort of mass infusion of capital that’s barely been seen in a single project in any U.S. city for decades. At a proposed $8.1 billion over 20 years, NorthSide dwarfs even Atlantic Yards, which brought a basketball arena and a projected 6,000 new apartments to downtown Brooklyn. And at 1,500 acres, it’s far bigger than Chicago’s Lakeside, which hopes to turn the site of an old South Side steel mill into a new waterfront neighborhood.

NorthSide is big. But in north St. Louis, the need is huge. And the urban fabric, McKee said, is too far gone for any other approach.

“We’ve got to do scale,” he said. “We need this area to be seen differently. We’ve got to change the market.”

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Tags: economic developmentgentrificationst. louispruitt-igoe

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