No-Look Pass

Magic Johnson's proposed north St. Louis development is dead

Oct 13, 2004 at 4:00 am
How's this for a no-brainer: A real estate group, fronted by ex-basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson and focused on going where no big-shot national venture capitalist has gone before, is interested in constructing a multimillion-dollar retail/residential complex on the downtrodden north side of St. Louis.

Not so fast. This is St. Louis, where even the most mutually advantageous propositions have a way of getting sucked into the city's perpetually acerbic stew of race and politics.

"One of the reasons I don't follow these things as closely as you might think is because I sort of know they're going to get derailed," says Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren, a longtime analyst of city politics. "I've been here since the 1970s, and developments in north city have been disappointment after disappointment for the obvious economic and political reasons."

Early in the summer of 2003, a city delegation led by Alderman Mike McMillan's office took Peter Houghton, vice president of Canyon-Johnson Realty Advisors, on a tour of potential development sites on the north side, which includes McMillan's 19th Ward. Houghton's firm manages the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund (CJUF), a partnership between Canyon Capital Realty Advisors LLC and Magic Johnson's Johnson Development Corporation that fosters inner-city commercial development.

Headquartered in Southern California, CJUF has a solid track record of spearheading mixed-used developments in economically challenged neighborhoods in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland. Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Foot Locker, RadioShack and Home Depot are among the tenants Canyon-Johnson typically recruits for its ground-up developments, which occasionally employ a residential component.

A few months after Houghton's excursion, Johnson came to town and spoke at several gatherings sponsored by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, where he assured all present that he and his partners were committed to investing in St. Louis.

More than a year later, there isn't a single hard-hat-and-shovel photo-op to show for the pledge.

Not to worry, says Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, the city's quasi-governmental, not-for-profit economic-development arm.

"We continue to stay in touch with Canyon-Johnson," Crim says. "St. Louis is still on their radar screen as an area they can devote some dollars to."

That would be news to Houghton, who says the St. Louis flirtation is so distant in his company's rearview mirror that neither he nor Johnson -- who was in town a few weeks back to receive an award from the Gateway Classic Sports Foundation -- can so much as make out the silhouette of the Arch anymore.

"We're not active in St. Louis," says Houghton. "There is no progress. We haven't made any inroads."

Sometime between his visit and Johnson's, Houghton received a letter from the St. Louis-based Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression.

"We are writing to you to urge you, in the strongest of terms, not to invest in St. Louis at this time," reads the letter, dated July 7, 2003. "Until we achieve some measure of relief from police brutality, it would not be beneficial to your company to invest in an area where the workforce is saddled with the disruptions caused by unfair police practices."

The missive was signed by coalition co-chairs Zaki Baruti and Jamala Rogers.

"We didn't relish the fact that we had to take that kind of action," says Baruti, a University City resident. "Many people used to criticize Dr. King's tactics. Any time there are tactics to bring about social change, there are going to be those who will be critical."

Baruti says the coalition remains irked at the city's inability to form a viable civilian review board to independently review incidents of alleged police misconduct. While St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has proposed a board whose members would be appointed by the mayor, the coalition has demanded that the majority of the seven-member board be elected by city residents. The matter is in the hands of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen -- where it has resided for the past three years or so.

Slay, who received a copy of the coalition's communiqué, attempted to apply a tourniquet. In a letter to Houghton three weeks later, the mayor asserted that the project was needed -- and wanted -- by the city's black community at large. "Those citizens would be angry if they knew someone was trying to keep you out of our city," Slay wrote.

But the damage had been done, says Houghton, who adds that his group was "absolutely" taken aback by the coalition's letter and has seen no evidence since to assuage such misgivings.

"I know that [the coalition] had an impact because I spoke with [Canyon-Johnson's] people regarding that issue," seconds north-side developer Mike Roberts. "[Canyon-Johnson's] position at that time was, 'Look, we have plenty of cities that have the type of harmony that we would prefer, and we don't want to get caught up in a political quagmire.'"

Still, Roberts questions Canyon-Johnson's level of commitment.

"Comments like that from a business group that's that sophisticated come across as an excuse," the developer says. "Canyon-Johnson would have to be extremely naive, sophomoric thinkers to allow those utterances to reach a level of credibility to stop them from proceeding.

"At the same time," Roberts continues, "I think the folks who are making these statements are credible in their own mind. They use the 'by any means necessary' strategy, and personally I'm okay with them using this strategy in a reasonable manner."

Starsky Wilson, former president of the Urban League's Young Professional Chapter, was privy to the early stages of the Canyon-Johnson negotiations and doesn't doubt that the organization was serious at the outset about investing in St. Louis.

"They were very sincere," says Wilson, who is now CEO of the Urban League of Madison County, Illinois. "They took the opportunity to add at least an extra day's travel to their itinerary and did some visiting of various sites."

The coalition's scorched-earth tactics strike Wilson as overzealous. "That has not been the strategy of the Urban League in the past," he says. "In relation to economic development, it doesn't seem [the coalition's letter] was fruitful. I believe in mediation and moderation."

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor David Klinger is less diplomatic.

"Anybody who knows anything about crime and justice knows that people in low-income communities have been clamoring for economic development as a way to provide employment to people who might otherwise turn to crime, as a means of providing an alternative to the hopelessness that sometimes leads to crime," says Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer. "And yet now you have an opportunity to do exactly what people have been clamoring for and you're going to torpedo it? That makes absolutely no sense."

Wrong, counters longtime local civil-rights activist Percy Green.

"I understand the argument, but that's almost like saying that the Ku Klux Klan, instead of having white people hang black people, would like to open up employment for black folks to hang black folks," says Green, who describes himself as an "active supporter" of the coalition. "[A Canyon-Johnson development] only perpetuates people who've been carrying out injustices to continue to do so.

"I'm not only happy with Magic, but with others who've chosen not to do business here in St. Louis," Green adds. "The worst-case scenario would be to come in and do business with an administration and a mayor who is perpetuating racism for his own self-interest."

Are you still (not) listening, Professor Warren?

"According to the black community, the only administration that hasn't been racist is the Bosley administration" in the mid-1990s, says Warren. "I mean, even the Harmon administration [1997-2000] was presumed racist."