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Saturday, February 3, 2007

The BJC Park Lease and the Public Sphere

To all those people who bemoan the fact that some citizens are hesitant to grant BJC Healthcare a 99-year lease of a supposed forgotten corner of Forest Park: please examine the public sphere in the age of neoliberalism. Under policies at all levels of government, the ideal of the public good has become politically gauche. To talk openly about holding the stewardship of park land by our city government over the economic benefit of BJC's expansion seems a political third rail, when even twenty-five years ago widespread opposition would have been a given, and few city officials would dare have favored a 99-year lease of public land to a private hospital group headed by a real estate developer.

In the past few years, we have watched the public school system sell off or discard assets of the public trust; not so long ago, the public hospital system was dismantled; city government has gone from a collective trust among citizens to provide for their needs to a near-sighted machine for favors, cobbled-together compromises and defensive gestures. Things that should belong to the citizens have been sold off or promised to private interest, and there seems to be widespread acceptance among leaders that government is now a tool for endorsement and acceleration of market forces. Once, government was the check against those forces that ensured that no matter what the city's commercial fortunes the citizens had good parks, clean water, schools and the infrastructure needed for living.

While the opposition to the Forest Park lease may be more symbolic than anything given that BJC already has a lease on the land it is posed to get, the opposition recognizes the precedent the lease sets for future "needs" by big corporations like BJC. The lease makes law the trend of using city government to aid the powerful at the expense of safeguarding the public trust.

In that light, the lonely votes of opposition cast by Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (D-22nd) and Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury on the perfection of the lease deal are not foolish or ignorant acts. After all, BJC could seriously have chosen many other lands for the expansion project; the site is a red herring of epic proportion. They are the bare minimum we should expect of our elected officials in an age in which the very purpose of democratic government is under attack by hyper-capitalists who have managed to influence our government, nonprofit and intellectual spheres. This attack should be resisted everywhere, but it is especially pernicious on an urban city with relatively scarce resources like St. Louis.

Thankfully, we have two representatives in city government who are wary of the attack on the public sphere. We may every well have a third, if Comptroller Darlene Green votes against the lease when the final and binding vote by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment takes place.


Doug Duckworth said...

For a few dollars a politician would sell of the interest of the City to "corporate citizens" who care nothing about their physical address except how it effects the bottom line. While these corporations provide valuable jobs, goods, and lately sometimes revenue, they also have interests which may conflict with that of the public. This is a clear example of this conflict. If politicians do not step up then others will.

Anonymous said...

Agree on most points but one is glaringly wrong. The idea that government is used to enhance the power, wealth and privilege of private entities is not capitlism at all. It is rather a mix between fascism and liberal principles. This is especially true in this instance as it is a non-profit entity. Failing to understand and appreciate this inevitably leads to more wrong-headed and sets the stage for more destructive policies.

Anonymous said...

The absurd nature of this is if there is not an agreement, they still get to keep the land. So what are people really saving?!

Second, and for me more important, the City get's to take it's 1.6 million of general revenue out of forest park and spread it throughout the city, thereby make all parks in the city valuable assets.

If you care about parks, you should care about ALL parks and not just what is going on in Froest Park. What about he northside parks that have been neglected bacause there has not been any money to support them.

Care about all the parks, pass the BJC lease and get some money on the north side!!!

Anonymous said...

Most city parks have deferred maintenance.

Forest Park is the most invested park we have.

How much of the improvement went in east of Kingshighway?

The city needs to be fiscally responsible.

We already complain about being taxed too much. Some of us get taxed way more than others.

Yet, the opponents of the BJC lease proposed more tax increases for park maintenance as the solution to the revenue problem.

I would rather have 80 percent of the parkland we have now well maintained, then 100% of what we have and see it poorly maintained, and continually undefunded.

As far as the precedent argument goes, let's examine that further.

How would it work?

Say McDonalds wants to build a store in Fairground Park on Natural Bridge or Grand.

Say the alderman says, yeah, let's do it.

The deal would then have to go to E and A for the sale of the land.

Do people who fear the precedent set in the BJC lease think E and A members would say,

"Well, we approved a lease to BJC at Forest Park, so I suppose we have no basis to turn down McDonalds"?

If the city determines the Forest Park land surplus or underutilized, then it ought to be able to make a decision appropriate for today's situation.

And actually, for those talking "precedent", where have they been?

Check to be sure, but isn't there a plan to build new homes at Terry Park in the Buder neighborhood. If so, where was all the uproar aabout that?

Likewise for the old public school nursery and grotto site in Carondelet. It's got a housing development underway that built environment folks are saying good things about.

Where was the opposition to the loss of that public land?

We are not only an "ad hoc" city, but we are equally ad hoc in how we exercise our protests.

Michael R. Allen said...

"It is rather a mix between fascism and liberal principles. This is especially true in this instance as it is a non-profit entity."

Very, very good point! The neoliberals really are fascists in the true sense of the word.

As for the silly McDonald's argument, c'mon -- those entities most likely to want public land are not going to be small franchise owners seeking a small lot but big companies wanting big land and making big threats. The next lease proposal will come from a BJC, or a homebuilder, not a small businessman. After all, small businesspeople often have trouble with aldermen anyway. It's those with the power to squash who scare our politicians into submission.

As for the opposition's not being around for other fights -- what members of the opposition do you mean? The "Save the Parks" effort has supporters including architects, conservationists, FPSE and CWE neighbors, leftists and others. Many people are involved for many reasons. Some of them have been involved in other attempts to block leases of public land; for instance, folks in FPSE who are involved in the current effort successfully stopped the ridiculous attempt several years ago to build on Adams Park.

One could turn the table and say: Where was BJC as the northside parks crumbled? Nothing has stopped this corporate citizen from making large donations to pressing needs over the years.

Anonymous said...

The last effort to build a commercial operation in a city park was Bosley's push for a Walgreen's in Fairground Park.

Despite aldermanic and neighborhood support, city development offiicals killed the project in the predevelopment phase.

Why? Because of the historic significance of the desired Bear Pit corner.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Fairground Park one of the potential sites for the northside rec center that is to be built with Prop P monies?

Anonymous said...

It's also the site of the proposed "Public High School Stadium".