Development bills sidestep alderman, St. Louis political tradition

ST. LOUIS – Two largely procedural bills by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen related to the development of the Green Street St. Louis armory would have slipped into legislative existence in another era.

But the bills introduced on Friday drew attention not so much to what was in them as to who introduced them.

“I was surprised to see this board bill on the agenda,” said alderman Tina Pihl, whose 17th Ward includes the 1930s armory building that Green Street has been working on redeveloping for years. “That surprised me.”

The law, which extends the deadline in Green Street’s development agreement with the city and allows them to take advantage of some tax breaks approved by city councils years ago for the development, was introduced by Alderman Marlene Davis, whose 19th District is directly east the armory is located.

Davis’ introduction of the bills involving a project in another county represents a break with the city’s long tradition of “Alderman civility,” in which city councils control legislation for projects in their counties.

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It’s also another example of a developer hoping to build in the desirable Central West End and Grove areas of the 17th Precinct without being able to reach an agreement with Pihl. Cortex, the nonprofit tech district made up of some of the city’s biggest institutions like Washington University and BJC HealthCare, has also said it has failed to negotiate a deal with Pihl to expand a package of development incentives , which the city granted him a decade ago.

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“Maybe we need to push back on Alderman civility,” Davis said Friday. “We held off (the armory) for almost a year.”

It remains to be seen whether the move amounts to a rupture in the old city tradition of Aldermanian politeness or is just a one-off maneuver around a dead end with Pihl. Still, it hasn’t been tried for years.

“Historically, that would be considered a pretty aggressive move,” said former alderman Joe Roddy, who chaired the development-oriented Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee and represented the 17th Ward for over 30 years before Pihl was elected in 2021. “It’s very unusual.”

It’s not entirely unprecedented. Former CEO Lewis Reed handled bills related to the new Major League Soccer stadium rather than Alderman Christine Ingrassia, in whose district it was located. And in the mid-1990s, Freeman Bosley Jr.’s administration skirted alderman Sharon Tyus when she didn’t want to agree to bills that would allow Schnucks to build a store on Natural Bridge Avenue.

“I think that would be an indication that the administration has recognized that the project needs incentives and that there is likely a split with the city council at this point,” Roddy said.

The St. Louis Development Corp., which reviews and negotiates development incentives, has previously broken with Pihl. In June, despite Pihl’s protests, she promoted project funding – also for Green Street.

An SLDC spokeswoman pointed out that the Armory bills do not change the scope of the stimulus package agreed five years ago and that the legislation was “time sensitive” due to a deadline that had expired in the 2017 development agreement.

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“The approval of a city council should not be the sole determinant of the progress of a development project,” SLDC spokeswoman Sara Freetly said in a statement responding to questions for her and SLDC Director Neal Richardson. “It should be examined by the entire council of aldermen.”

City councils approved a 2017 tax hike funding package worth up to $10.4 million for the redevelopment of the historic Armory building, including $4.7 million for the first phase. Green Street struggled to get the project off the ground and was forced to drop plans for office space during the pandemic. But now it plans to open a resort there by the end of the year and needs legislation approving the TIF incentives for the first phase.

A Green Street spokeswoman declined to comment.

Pihl was elected last year on a platform that included a tougher stance on developer incentives. The message was similar to that of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, who was elected at the same time and whose administration initially worked with Pihl to renegotiate some development deals.

Green Street and SLDC were negotiating with Pihl on a package that included a $470,000 developer contribution for city schools or affordable housing as part of an agreement to advance the legislation, Pihl said. However, she acknowledged that it had been “a few months” since she last discussed the arrangement with SLDC or the developer.

Pihl said she received no notification from Richardson, SLDC or the mayor’s office that Davis would introduce the bills, which do not include contributions to public schools or affordable housing. Pihl said Davis told her she would introduce the bills at SLDC’s request.

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“This is not economic justice,” said Pihl. “It’s not justice for the city. … It only disenfranchises voters.”

SLDC’s statement states that “community benefits can take many forms”.

“SLDC has and will continue to negotiate with developers, including Green Street, to request, structure and document community service agreements in the manner most appropriate for each project,” the agency said.

Davis noted that part of the Armory area is in her community, and she has sponsored previous Armory bills along with Roddy. In any case, Davis said, city councilors should be willing to listen to the “experts from SLDC” professionally reviewing development projects.

The federal indictment of three councilmen in June for using Alderman courtesies and official letters of support to solicit bribes in exchange for development incentives has also prompted a rethink of Alderman involvement in development, Davis said. Legislation currently under consideration by the board could make some of those changes, she suggested.

“Maybe sometimes (SLDC) doesn’t even ask a city councilman for a letter of support,” Davis said. “And if you think about it, maybe that’s okay.”

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