In case you haven't heard (and many University City residents I've been speaking to have not), the process is well underway to greenlight a large-scale, retail redevelopment along Olive Boulevard at I-170, featuring an as-yet-unnamed big box store. The project will be funded using Tax Increment Financing (TIF), an incentive package that siphons tax revenue to the developer to "offset" the cost of development. In this case, the TIF would last 23 years. In other words, it will be 23 years before the tax benefits of this project are realized by our city and our schools.
The project has been presented by the developer, Novus Development, as an opportunity to revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods, raising property values for both second and third ward properties. Agreed, raising those values is vital. Currently, residents who might qualify for home improvement loans based on their finances can't get them because appraisals are too low.
However, based on the research and reporting I have undertaken with the help of residents and subject area experts, I have no reason to believe the proposal currently on the table from Novus will lead to the revitalization they've promised.
To be succinct, from my understanding, the gains in property value Novus is alluding to rely on a myriad of unknowns, including the future profitability of Phase One of the development, and the design and implementation of an as yet undefined home improvement program.
In 23 years, when the TIF has expired, we can’t look back and say this story ended badly for U. City. We can't look back and say, oops, I guess that didn't work. Oops, residents and businesses were displaced. Oops, history was razed for nothing.
That's why, to the best of our ability, we must take the time now to ensure that benefits for the community are not only promised, but written into this deal as contractual obligations on the part of the developer. Novus has its own motives, but ours, as a community, must be the community.
A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a contract between community representatives and a real estate developer requiring the developer to provide specific benefits or protections to the affected community. It can address topics such as fair employment, affordable housing, youth resources, racial equity, and historic preservation.
Without a CBA, the playing field is not level, and community benefits are not guaranteed.
Right now is the time to negotiate a CBA with Novus Development. Once the project is approved by the City Council, the community will lose its leverage to negotiate a binding agreement.
I and fellow organizers call upon the TIF Commission and City Council to:
- 1) delay approval until a CBA can be negotiated, and
- 2) assist community representatives in accessing the information, analysis, and resources necessary to fairly represent their own interests.
Please see below for a list of questions/concerns we would like Novus to address at upcoming public hearings on May 15 and May 23.
Below are some of the matters I and my fellow citizen-researchers find problematic and worthy of the attention of the public and news media.
We are not aware of any projections or analysis of potential impacts on traffic patterns and congestion in the project area. We consider this a major impediment to evaluating the possible costs of this project to University City and the State of Missouri, which are responsible for maintaining transit infrastructure in the project area. (While these considerations will be taken up by the planning commission, at that point, it will be too late for public input.)
We are not aware of any projections or analysis of potential impacts on stormwater runoff and sewer systems in the project area. We consider this a major impediment to evaluating the possible costs of this project to University City, which is responsible for maintaining related infrastructure, especially because the “Anchor Tenant” will likely require an increase in surface parking, which impacts stormwater runoff. (While these considerations will be taken up by the planning commission, at that point, it will be too late for public input.)
Novus refuses to name the “Anchor Tenant” for the development, to which the specifications of the site plan will be tailored. Without this information, the public is at a disadvantage in evaluating the financial and infrastructure impacts of Phase One of the project. We suspect, too, that this lack of transparency represents an attempt to avoid newsworthiness, and thus scrutiny of the project.
Over 60% of properties in RPA1 were already under contract with Novus Development when they responded to the University City Request for Proposals (RFP) regarding the site last year. No other proposals were submitted. We do not believe this represents a successful RFP process, nor that all options for development of the site have been considered.
We believe Novus’s comparison of this project to others in their St. Louis County portfolio to be problematic, as this project impacts a larger footprint, involves more displacement of people and institutions, and impacts a significant minority population. We believe looking to more appropriate comparisons as models for development will yield better outcomes for all involved. We suggest the work of St. Louis-based, for-profit developer McCormack, Baron, Salazar as evidence that alternative models for development using tax incentives can be both beneficial to community and commercially successful.
A Notice of Public Hearing for the May 23rd meeting of the TIF Commission containing information about the redevelopment plan was received by residents in the project area on Friday, May 11th, leaving only 7 business days for residents to become informed about the project and organize to represent their interests, while Novus has spent over a year developing its proposal.
We do not believe the April 30th meeting, mentioned above, was posted to the website of the City of University City, nor are we aware of an agenda for the May 15th meeting of the TIF Commission. We have other concerns about whether University City has met all legal requirements in notifying affected parties and/or the public of 1) the existence of the proposed redevelopment, and 2) opportunities for public comment.
Furthermore (see section regarding racial equity), we believe the city should go beyond legal mandates in seeking public input regarding this project, as many who live in the affected area are members of minority groups systematically underrepresented in processes such as this.
Key parcels in Project Area 1 include the following. We believe these stakeholders should be vigorously engaged in the redevelopment planning process.
- The St. Andrew Kim Parish, owned by the Archdiocese. Our research suggests parishioners, many of whom speak primarily Korean, are not aware of the redevelopment plan.
- University School District’s Ronald E. McNair Administrative Building. At the April 30th meeting, the current status of negotiations regarding this sale were represented in conflicting manner by the District and Novus Development. (While this building is not located in the project area, it would serve as a relocation site for the Torah Prep School.)
- The Torah Prep School of St. Louis: Novus asserted that Torah Prep will accept relocation to the McNair Building, though we are not aware that any representative of the school has commented publicly.
We also question what stake Washington University may have in this redevelopment, and what standing they may have as community leaders to advance equity in University City through participation in the negotiation process.
This development is less than 10 miles from Ferguson, MO, site of the 2014 Ferguson Uprising. In the wake of the Uprising, the Ferguson Commission produced a report outlining 189 “Calls to Action,” concrete steps officials, organizations, and individual can take to increase equity in outcomes — educational, economic, and health-related — which are currently disproportionately determined by race.
We call on officials for the City of University City to take up relevant mandates from the Ferguson Commission Report, Forward Through Ferguson, in negotiating terms for the redevelopment of the intersection of I-170 and Olive, including:
- Enact Inclusionary Zoning Ordinances
- Optimize Existing Housing Support
- Build Healthy, Affordable Housing
- Assess Tax Incentives to Ensure that They Serve the Intended Population
- Implement a State Section 3 Hiring Program
We call on officials for the City of University City to take up relevant mandates from the report Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide, published by Washington University initiative For the Sake of All, in negotiating terms for the redevelopment of the intersection of I-170 and Olive, including:
- Increase affordable housing options in areas of opportunity.
- Support efforts in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County to reform TIF and other public tax incentive programs to ensure optimal community input, transparency, and implementation.
- Establish a Community Benefits Agreement policy in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County that gives neighborhood residents legal leverage to demand particular neighborhood improvements and remediation from developers.
- Establish “Consciously Inclusive Communities” to unite neighbors in focused action to make their communities welcoming and accessible in terms of income and racial and ethnic diversity to build ties that support human development and connection.
Evidence of Municipal/Public Benefit
We believe a binding Community Benefits Agreement or other agreement to protect the interests of residents should be negotiated between residents and Novus Development prior to project approval by the University City City Council, addressing matter such as: fair employment, affordable housing, and youth services.
Financial analysis provided in a memorandum from PGAV on May 2nd shows little benefit for the School District of University City during the term of the TIF (average of $65,300/yr). Documents provided do show significant tax income in the year following the TIF (2041), but provide little to no evidence that these figures should be relied upon.
Two financial analyses were mentioned at the April 30th meeting — one by University City consultant Jonathan Ferry, and one by the firm Stifel Nicolaus — that have not been made available for review by the public. We believe review of this independent analysis is vital to making an assessment of the potential financial impacts of the project on University City and its residents.