Extreme Makeover

Rollin Stanley is a hotshot city planner -- which begs the question: What the hell is he doing in St. Louis?

As planning director, Stanley can use his clout to deny developers tax incentives for their projects. He has the power to make recommendations whether a proposed development is worthy of tax abatement, tax-increment financing, tax credits and the like, all of which can potentially save thousands of dollars on a project.

But, adds Stanley, "You don't have to slap people around. You just say, 'Hey, look, have you thought of this?' In an environment where people aren't used to hearing something else, it works real well if you just go and say, 'This can benefit you, it can benefit us.' If it makes sense, it makes sense, and people tend to see this."

Jim Shrewsbury, president of the City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen, is impressed with Stanley but cautions, "We've all had bad experiences with the wonder boys who have come in and told us everything we do is wrong, and everything has to be changed -- and then, two years later, go somewhere else."

Jennifer Silverberg
"Congestion," says Rollin Stanley, "is a good thing."
Jennifer Silverberg
"Congestion," says Rollin Stanley, "is a good thing."

The purpose of the 1975 interim, stopgap land-use measure was to stem the city's dramatic population decline. But the plan was quickly condemned as "a racist attack on the people of St. Louis" when it left the predominantly white south side intact while recommending the demolition of 70,000 north-side homes.

In an open letter to the architects of the so-called Team Four Plan, black leaders wrote: "It is a plan by which [Team Four] intend to first let the black community rot by cutting services and discouraging investments, then move the people out by condemning their homes....."

SLU's Todd Swanstrom says St. Louis' planning history has taught the black community to greet land-use plans with skepticism. "The people in the minority communities are suspicious, and rightfully so. There's not a tradition of trust that's been developed over the years in which responsible, grassroots organizations and ward leaders can work with the city to improve their areas."

Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. agrees. "Most of those plans were devoid of community and neighborhood input," he says.

St. Louis leaders have learned from that mistake.

Last month Mayor Slay introduced the fourth draft of the updated strategic land-use plan for St. Louis. The thirteen-member planning commission will ultimately approve or reject the plan. The Board of Aldermen is not required to vote on it. Addressing the commission, Slay said of the plan, "It's going to be something that's going to demonstrate to others looking at the city that we're not some backwards city working from a 1947 plan."

Window-size maps consumed one side of the room, each identifying a different aspect of the plan. In all, ten categories of land use suggest the proper uses of the entirety of St. Louis city. The most interesting parts of the new plan (see stlcin.missouri.org/landuse for details) are identified as "opportunity areas," dead zones ripe for imaginative solutions.

Under the plan, these areas are, in essence, up for grabs. They include the warehouse district just south of the Arch, where Stanley envisions an arts district with lofts, studios and galleries. Also, on land just south of the Cupples Station warehouse complex, near the mass of railroad tracks, a developer has proposed a lake surrounded by condos. A vast, 30 square-block chunk of midtown is also open to new ideas, as is a smaller south-city plot near the intersection of Gravois, Sidney and Jefferson.

Stanley was uncharacteristically brief in his statements. "It's a clear road map for investment. This is not cast in stone. It's a plan. And it's a plan that leads to other things."

Like the Team Four plan of 1975, the new land-use plan also opens large chunks of north St. Louis to redevelopment -- but does not recommend tearing down people's homes. Rather, says Stanley, who opted not to read the Team Four plan because he wanted to arrive at his own fresh conclusions, the plan suggests filling the vacant and abandoned property with new homes. Developers will build around old homes that are well-tended.

To avoid accusations of racism, Stanley and his team sat down with each alderman at least twice to have those conversations. "We went over this and fine-grained it as much as possible," he says. "Obviously there are more large tracts of vacant land up near [the] Pruitt-Igoe [housing project] than there are near Carondelet. That's a fact of life."

Alderman Bosley says he and other north-side community leaders are happy with what they've seen of the plan and have no qualms with the redevelopment zones. "It came with a great amount of input from our community," Bosley says. Concerns have been addressed, and "people [are] believing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not the train coming to run over them."

Will the plan fly? No one is certain. In the past, land-use plans end up looking like Swiss cheese as residents and developers petition aldermen to allow for exceptions, or variances -- which, Stanley notes, are illegal in Toronto. Aldermen, eager to remain in office, have the ability to grant variances to anyone who asks.

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