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"If [McEagle] really was serious about not wanting power of eminent domain," Vickers says, "they would just easily guarantee it in the development plan. It wouldn't be any 'however-whereas' kind of language. Just 'no.'"
The ordinance clearly states that if McKee decides he wants someone's house, he'll have to convince the aldermen to pass a new piece of legislation in order to obtain it. That requirement, insisted upon by board members, is a very first for the St. Louis area, says Robert Denlow, chairman of the Missouri Bar's committee on eminent domain.
"That in and of itself will seriously disincline the redeveloper to use eminent domain," predicts Denlow, who for 30 years has represented clients fighting what they consider to be government land-grabs.
"It's a very time-consuming process, and the political climate is very anti-developer," Denlow goes on. "It would almost be cheaper for the developer to pay a premium for the home than to go back to the board of aldermen."
And a desperate homeowner, squeezed from both sides, can still appeal to the courts, Denlow points out. "At the end of the day," he says, "a jury creates a level playing field, stripping the developer of its power."
Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, in whose Fifth Ward Cheryl Nelson's neighborhood lies, states that she'll never allow McKee to seize someone's house or church. Under the tradition of aldermanic courtesy, whereby board members stay out of each other's wards, she holds the power to prevent it.
Schock is skeptical. "Let's say she's absolutely telling the truth, and she means it," he says. "Well, she's not gonna be in office forever. Why would anybody want ownership of their home to depend on whim of an elected official?"
Cheryl Nelson says she certainly wouldn't. She tried unsuccessfully to oust Ford-Griffin in the Democratic primaries of 2001 and 2005. Nelson notes that while her own property lies in McKee's footprint, the alderwoman's home does not. "It could be punishment for me having run for office," Nelson says. "But only God can punish me."
The alderwoman claims Nelson's lawsuit is politically motivated. Just like every other initiative she's brought to the ward, Ford-Griffin says, Nelson and her co-plaintiff, Isaiah Hair Jr. oppose this one.
Nelson denies any political machinations. "I should have the right to remain," she insists. "This house, this neighborhood is something called the all-American dream for me. Now it's almost turned into a nightmare."
Asked if she was considering running again, Nelson replies, "When one is preparing a political strategy, those kinds of questions people like to bypass."
Ford-Griffin says she refused to fully endorse McKee's project until she secured protections such as restrictions on eminent domain and a requirement that the developer stay on top of his crumbling vacant buildings. These days, she champions the deal, pending McKee's good faith and her constituents' support.
"I know people want development because I'm the one they've called and hollered at every week for twelve years," Ford-Griffin says. "Do I think everything that he put in [the plan] will get done? No. But do I think that the north side will look a whole lot better if he can do half of it? Absolutely."
"Is there more of Burnham or Barnum in one Paul McKee?" asks Judge Robert H. Dierker in a December 10 preliminary ruling on the lawsuit. In other words: Is McKee St. Louis' answer to Daniel Burnham, the grandiose Chicago planner who once said, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood"? Or is he more like P.T. Barnum, the circus con man?
Dierker reveals his own bias by ticking off a list of what he believes were flawed schemes — The Gateway Mall, Mercantile Center, St. Louis Centre, Ballpark Village — and lumping them with "perhaps the most ambitious of all," Paul McKee's NorthSide Regeneration.
Amon had attempted with an early motion to shut down the development pending the suit's outcome. In his ruling, Dierker declines to do so. But at the same time, he shows sympathy for some of the plaintiffs' arguments.
He refers to the TIF Commission chair as "indifferent," the commission's review of the TIF proposal as "superficial" and city officials in general as "lackadaisical."
Dierker does not spare the developer. He writes that the "record is rather hazy" concerning the ownership of McKee's company, an important detail if the project collapses. The judge adds that the plaintiffs may well prove that McKee's financial backing is flimsy enough to invalidate the ordinance.
Dierker's ruling suggests that the nature of public criticism of McKee has shifted, according to the St. Louis American. "The image of 'Bad Neighbor' Paul," the editorial board writes, "has been replaced by that of 'Deadbeat Developer' Paul."
Even St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan has joined the naysayers. "Let me make the first and easiest prediction of the new decade," he wrote on January 6. "Developer Paul McKee's ambitious project...will be a resounding bust."
"McClellan is usually so middle of the road, like the average Joe in St. Louis," says Michael Allen, the preservationist blogger who first found out McKee was amassing north-side parcels. "Losing his support doesn't bode well."