Rose Willis speaks at last night's meeting. Photo by the author.
Developer Paul J. McKee's plans for north St. Louis were the subject of last night's packed public meeting of Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), held at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park. Although invited, McKee did not attend.
The tenor of the meeting surprised critics -- MCU's leaders were openly critical of McKee. Although the matter was only discussed for 20 minutes, and no questions from the crowd entertained, MCU laid out their action plan on the issue. Lead speaker Roger Duncan laid out MCU's four development principles: community input (an item that received thunderous applause), creation of housing at prices all can afford, no displacement of residents, respect for existing character and street grid. Duncan and Father Rich Creason, pastor of Holy Trinity, made clear that MCU was not claiming that McKee had agreed to these principles. They admitted that McKee did not accept their invitation, and that they were unsure of his intent.
While few residents of the near north side actually attended the meeting (out of the few aware of the meeting), one of their biggest concerns was discussed. 19th Ward Block Captain Rose Willis spoke about living next door to a run-down McKee-owned property and the developer's pattern of negligence.
Creason unveiled a community stakeholders' table that MCU is assembling to build community consensus on a development agenda for the area McKee is targeting. This group includes organizations like the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, the JeffVanderLou Initiative and the Third Ward neighborhood Council. the group also includes the St. Louis Development Corporation, the quasi-governmental corporation that encompasses the city's alphabet soup of development entities. Even stranger was that mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford was on hand to represent SLDC.
Creason ended the meeting by urging all in attendance to send to McKee a signed copy of a card that MCU distributed urging the developer to meet with the MCU stakeholders' group. Creason stated that he wanted McKee to receive 2,000 cards in the mail.
MCU has put itself in a difficult spot by trying to forge communication between stakeholders and McKee. I commend MCU for making the attempt. However, I think that the process could be fruitless without real public engagement. McKee has already met with representatives of the stakeholders' group; as part of city government, SLDC will be involved no matter what. McKee has not met with rank-and-file members of neighborhood groups. These stakeholder groups have not necessarily even communicated to members their involvement in discussions with McKee. Some stakeholder groups are missing, such as those concerned with urban design, green space and mass transit.
Essentially, the stakeholders could end up being a nice compartment for negotiations already underway outside of the public eye. What MCU needs to do is to get McKee to make good on his promise to explain himself in public -- to the residents of the area he wants to develop. Anything short of that is not the starting point of a new direction, but one more step down a path without a clear end.
McKee had a great opportunity last night to make a public appearance before a tame crowd. With few affected residents present, vocal antagonism was unlikely. The developer could have cut through the polarization with even a silent appearance, and demonstrated the leadership that defenders attribute to him. He did not make that first move to address the public. If MCU wants to help, it needs to continue to urge him to do so. All residents of the near north side are at the stakeholders' table by default. Solutions start with them, and with McKee. As long as those parties remain apart, all we have is uncertainty, fear and cynicism. We need hope.