Chapter 1 – The Promise & Potential
When Centene announced the expansion of its Clayton headquarters, the proposal revealed one of the largest economic developments in terms of dollars and scope seen in decades for the St. Louis County business hub. Planning a series of “subdivisions” including several new glass-clad towers, residential, retail, and even a luxury hotel, Centene presented an unforgettable and undeniably valuable opportunity to Clayton. In a metropolitan area known for a declining, but still large number of corporate headquarters, the proposal demonstrated a strong commitment to a region that has recently taken a few punches.
Centene is #42 on the Fortune 500 list, and has utilized the Affordable Care Act healthcare marketplace to become the 49th quickest growing company on the Fortune 500 list. With its remarkable growth came a need for office expansion, having quickly surpassed the capacity at its oldest building at 7711 Carondolet and its 18-story glass tower at the intersection of Hanley and Forsyth.
With its rapid growth came perceived opportunity for Clayton, something that Centene was proud to proclaim at every point during the planning and review process. Alongside the development would be an estimated 2,000 jobs that would be brought to the city. 1,000 of which would likely be brought from outside of Missouri. Beyond the intrinsic benefit of a densified Downtown, improved skyline, and property tax benefits for the city, Clayton could count on an even larger pool of people to support its local businesses. Leadership at Centene appeared completely behind Clayton and the region as a whole.
“As Centene continues to grow worldwide, we are committed to the City of Clayton and we want to continue to be the anchor in this region.”Bill Reichmuth – Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate at Centene, 08/01/2016
Hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, thousands of jobs, an impressive amount of retail, and a wide-range of Clayton desired amenities all found their way into the proposal. It was something of a dream come true for the municipality, which has been experiencing an impressive amount of growth and demand for office and residential. To many, Clayton is becoming a downtown region to rival even that of Downtown St. Louis.
Chapter 2 – The Subsidies
There is little doubt that Centene has solidified its position as an anchor to the region, and the hundreds of millions it has spent on development coupled with the thousands of jobs it provides to the area absolutely deserves recognition. Yet, its success and growth should not be viewed solely as its own creation, and its sheer size means that its failures are that much more harmful to the community.
Note: Centene did not respond to requests for comment.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that Centene sought a total of $147 million in public, taxpayer funded assistance to construct their massive campus outlined above. Of that total, Clayton’s tax incentives would total nearly $101.3 million, with the majority of the other funds coming directly from the State of Missouri. When presented in front of the Clayton Board of Aldermen, the proposal was approved unanimously. With that being said, the Board wisely instituted some control measures, such as ceasing “real property tax abatement on Phase 1 and Phase 2” if the civic auditorium is not complete by December 31, 2024. Additionally, no property tax abatement would be provided for the proposed apartment building.
Notably, this incentive package was structured in such a way to protect Clayton and its taxpayers to some degree. Each individual phase would receive its own tax abatement period of 20 years, but that phase would only receive its tax abatement after its completion. In other words, Centene has not yet been granted the total tax incentive package.
The picture isn’t all that rosy, however. When looking at the incentive package more broadly, it is still overwhelmingly weighted in Centene’s favor. The insurance giant has until December 31, 2024 to build the civic auditorium. If it doesn’t, then property tax abatement will cease on the first two subdivisions. Yet, that is still more than half a decade of public assistance toward a giant corporation. Moreover, it isn’t even a penalty – the tax abatement would end eventually, after twenty years. It is merely reflective of the real cost they would eventually pay, sans Clayton’s public assistance. As of right now, there is no clear indication that any other construction will take place, still granting Centene nearly a decade of property tax relief on a project far less comprehensive than the one originally planned.
The biggest issue lies within the process itself, and the way in which a large developer or company might leverage its massive scale and pretty renderings to skew the benefits it receives. While it appears from a distance as though the tax abatement is structured to reward continued construction, it does just the opposite in reality. When Centene came to the Clayton officials and public, they did so presenting a huge, urban, dense, and comprehensive project all at once. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it anchors the conversation around the development. It is a de facto promise that what they present is what will be received.
Because of that, city officials are making decisions about individual, phased tax abatements and other incentives assuming that they will see the entire project completed. With that in mind, there is a motivation to grant larger incentives to each individual phase of the project. The first and second subdivision, in other words, receive the tax incentives a massive project might, even if that massive project is promised in the long term and never actually delivered. These phases are not being considered like the individual developments that they otherwise would be. They are treated preferentially, as is reflected in the commentary from Clayton public officials. Each phase receives an abatement under the context of this being the largest project in Clayton in a long time, paraphrased by a former Clayton mayor in a 2016 public hearing.
Chapter 3 – The Warning
UPDATE: The minutes that stated Louis Clayton served in the capacity of Project Manager for the Centene project were incorrect and the verbiage that suggested he was the Project Manager were a misstatement, according to Clayton officials. This update has been verified.
The idea that this project might have received preferential treatment goes beyond Centene using its scale as leverage. At the time the project was proposed, the Clayton City Planner, Louis Clayton, also served as the primary Project Manager for the development. (SEE UPDATE ABOVE) It is a substantial conflict of interest, one that was known and recognized publicly in the same public hearing. There were no concerns reflected on this conflict by staff or residents, but this cannot be ignored especially with the city granting Centene tens of millions of dollars in subsidies. That is not to say, however, that nearby residents were enthused about the development. The public hearing was packed, overflowing out the door, with community members present to share their thoughts.
While neighborhood opposition is not uncommon, even with the best of projects in the form of NIMBY-ism (standing for “not in my backyard”), some residents had noted that the project being so huge and divided into phases posed risks for its overall completion. There were other indicators too that should have served as real warnings for city officials. For one, city economic development staff had real concerns about the parking garages and their compatibility with the neighborhood.
“a significant amount of ground floor space will be used for parking, which is incompatible with the vision of the Downtown Master Plan”City of Clayton Economic Development Staff
The Economic Development Staff continued that the parking proposed exceeded zoning code requirements and the recommendations of the parking study, warning that it might have a “detrimental effect on the future success of the area as a dense, walkable, transit oriented mixed-use district, as envisioned in the Downtown Master Plan“. This was a vision supported by Centene’s first new tower on Forsyth and Hanley, which even had its parking structure designed thoughtfully to have significant ground-floor retail, going so far as to even hide the parking itself behind a unique, artistic wind-screen.
If those statements sounded dire and like a potential death knell for the proposal, then consider that they very well could have been if Clayton had not helped Centene find a way around the zoning requirements, Transportation Development District, and Downtown Master Plan. Using the Special Development District (SDD) tool, a special zoning classification created for the largest of projects, Clayton awarded Centene’s campus a workaround for all of the existing zoning requirements.
SDD’s are intended for massive-scale projects, that due to their sheer scale, do not fit existing zoning classifications. The intent is to award an SDD to a developer or company that, upon delivery of its project, creates a higher and better use of the land that would not otherwise be possible. While the Staff warnings were severe, within the context of the entire four-phase proposal, it is reasonable to see how and why Clayton officials saw plenty of merit to take a hit or two for a greater good. With phases 3 and 4 to deliver high density residential and a highly saught after hotel to supplement their business district, sitting directly next to the Metrolink in the TDD, there were specific parts of the plan with very high value.
Yet, those parts with the most value were at the very end of the development pipeline, with no real guarantees of their completion or penalties if they never came to fruition. Their only incentive to continue construction ended with the auditorium on Forsyth, part of Phase II. After that, there were no threats to Centene’s continued enjoyment of tax abatement.
These issues aside, the City of Clayton’s Board of Aldermen unanimously moved to adopt a measure approving the Centene Special Development District on July 11, 2017.
Chapter 4 – The Rise
Construction commenced quickly, with Centene’s larger tower on Hanley and Forsyth breaking ground in April of 2017, part of Phase I of the new development. Local media reported a massive investment had broken ground, with the potential to reshape Clayton’s East end. The St. Louis Business Journal hailed the project that would cost $770 million and “include multiple office towers, parking garages, residential units, a hotel and civic auditorium”.
The new tower would contain over 600,000 square feet of office space, and the garages were to begin after the demolition of the Wellbridge Athletic Club on Forsyth. Wellbridge would go on to fill in the first floor retail area of the tower following its construction.
Even STL Metro was proud of what would provide a sizable Transit-Oriented-Development near their Forsyth MetroLink station. The two towers, one likely to be office space, and the other residential or hotel, would sit next to the proposed auditorium and provide an incredibly urban entry to Clayton and Centene’s campus for Metro Riders.
Metro reported that the apartment tower and hotel had recently even been approved by Clayton, with a rendering below provided by the St. Louis Post Dispatch after Clayton approved the tax incentive package in 2016. The two towers and auditorium shown in the image below include a 34-story office building with space for a luxury hotel and retail, as well as a 28 story office structure and auditorium.
With construction well underway and some really excellent renderings of what might come, everything seemed according to plan. The first new tower on Hanley and Forsyth even leased nearly all of its office space before it officially opened, highlighting the incredible demand for Class-A office space in Clayton and the functional utility of Centene’s newest tower.
The garages, while exceeding their recommended parking capacity and failing to mend Clayton Staff’s warnings about its future impact to Downtown Clayton and its current affront to retail and transportation development district requirements, are nearly complete. Centene has followed the core design guidelines they set forth, heeding some concerns of residents nearby in The Crescent in Carondolet Plaza, utilizing some similar, albeit cheaper looking materials.
Chapter 5 – The Fall
“By 2020, Centene hopes to build two office towers of around 30 stories each.”St. Louis Post Dispatch, 2016
The end of 2020 is fast approaching, and the quote above keeps replaying in my head as I write this piece. Regardless of your satisfaction with the garages or new tower, there is a distinct feeling of deception, fueled by a lack of transparency surrounding their future plans and the clear-as-day, undeniable lack of progress Centene have made relative to its promises.
The notion that Centene would finish the entire project continued as the tower and garages inched toward completion. Officials at STL Metro and Clayton’s then mayor, Harold Sanger, were hailing the dense development that would fill in the East end of Clayton and serve the transportation district set forth nearly a decade before.
There have been no official or public updates provided by the City of Clayton since July of 2017 on the Public Resource Center for tracking Centene’s campus development. More concerning, there was a meeting listed on the Clayton website for tracking Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board meetings for July 21, 2017 that seems as though it covered some very important information, yet it had no minutes available. The agenda for that July 21 Meeting can be found here, with the main agenda item being “Discussion Regarding Special Development District Regulations, Application & Approval Process (Article IX of the City’s Zoning Regulations[Chapter 405])”
The meeting appears as though it might have been hosted by Louis Clayton, who at the time occupied both the roles of Clayton City Planner. Having no public minutes available is an oddity in of itself, with the City of Clayton taking fairly meticulous notes for most Planning Commission meetings and having taken earlier pride in their record-keeping and transparency on the Centene project. I figured that this was likely an error, and filled out a Public Records Request with the City of Clayton to reveal the minutes or notes from the meeting.
UPDATE: Clayton officials have reached out regarding the July 21 meeting and clarified that no actions were taken whatsoever and that it served as a general discussion between Aldermen about what an SDD is and what it would look like.
Attached below is the correspondence, and another copy of the Agenda if it is taken down.
The response to my records request carefully indicated that there were no notes, minutes, or actions taken at the meeting. However, it also still suggests a meeting did take place, just that there are no notes available for it. This meeting came at a critical time in the Centene development process, and the regulations and decisions behind the SDD, one of the most powerful development tools granted to a humongous corporation are critical. That some elements of the decision making process are unavailable for public review is unacceptable.
Worse yet, after receiving the response to my request and at time of press, the link to the meeting from the Clayton Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board page has now disappeared. That is despite what seems to be a confirmation that a meeting has indeed taken place. The PDF linked above is still clearly hosted on the Clayton website’s servers, but I was only able to access it thanks to my web history having the link saved. This is not necessarily to allege a cover-up, but there is something strange about the July 21 meeting that seems likely to have taken place and decided how a SDD would look for the Centene Campus expansion that would grant millions in subsidies to the corporation.
These concerns are amplified in importance when considering the entire project and where it stands today. As of October 2020, Centene has completed nowhere near what was promised. With the massive lot where the auditorium would sit now vacant and covered in dirt and dust, and no clear plans for a continuation of development anytime soon or any public statements that provide any positive indication, something has clearly gone amiss. What is left is a shadow of the proposed development, with sharp edges that significantly detract from the entry toward Clayton from the Metro and the East down Forsyth, rather than provide any real pedestrian, density, or transit benefits promised.
Going East past the massive parking garages on Forsyth, the lots where an auditorium and two skyscrapers would sit remain empty. With no sign of construction aside from some minor infrastructure improvements with the sidewalk, these parcels sit covered in dirt and dust, leaving the part of the project with the most to add to the TDD and neighborhood density empty. With no apartments, luxury hotel, or auditorium, none of the community benefits promised exist. The TDD benefits that Metro and Clayton had hailed are nonexistent. Moreover, Centene is still enjoying the tax abatements on the garages and office tower and will do so until at least December 31, 2024 unless they manage to complete the auditorium before then.
One of the more egregious elements is the East-facing side of the parking structure shown above, with a massive, several story high blank white wall gracing pedestrians and drivers headed into Clayton. This is despite the Downtown Master Plan denouncing use of these walls. Centene, however, found a way to have one of the largest blank walls in Clayton save for its other parking structures on Forsyth. The company has completely shunned the wishes of Clayton, despite the incentives and community disruption, delivering none of what would actually benefit the community.
These are now indications that these empty lots are here to stay for some time. The picture above on the right side includes a tiny structure, which will be a small “Welcome Center” for the Centene Campus. When exploring the “Pending Applications” page of Clayton’s Planning and Development Services website, the Centene application appears to have been updated on May 29, 2020 with the rendering provided below and some language that does not bode well for the future of the development.
What appears to be something of a security kiosk, if anything, will fill out a few square feet on an otherwise empty lot where prior plans called for real density. This rendering fuels the flame beneath concerns that the East end of the campus will not see what was promised for years to come, if at all. The very premise, the promise of the development laid out before the public in 2016, never held this possibility. The tax incentives for each project, even if not granted for each phase before construction, are applied on a false notion and pretty renderings of a project that would benefit Clayton in theory, but not in reality.
On the application for the “Welcome Center” is one small paragraph, which states:
Subdistrict 2B (1.337acres) was originally slated to be developed with a corporate/civic auditorium, but development approvals on those plans have expired and the property owner has no immediate plan to develop the site. The Subdistrict 3 property (2.47 acres including a portion in University City) is not currently slated for development at this timeCentene Welcome Center Application
In one of the least transparent ways possible, Clayton writes Centene no longer has any immediate plans to develop Subdistrict 2B or 3. Bob Clark stated to the public in 2016 how important the connection to the MetroLink was to Centene, suggesting how valuable the program will be to the MetroLink. Mr. Clark went so far as to even say that Centene CEO Michael Neidorff was a “champion of the St. Louis community, for Clayton”. His colleague at the presentation to the public, Mr. Reichmuth, stated that they were “committed to a transparent, thorough process“.
And yet, both towers, including the apartments and luxury hotel, as well as the civic auditorium are effectively axed.
The very connection to the Forsyth MetroLink is no more, and there is no indication it will ever be revived. The entire project seems to be experiencing cancellation or severe downsizing. While writing this piece, another piece of information dropped quietly on the application page for Clayton, which seems to confirm that the original plans are no more.
On October 5, 2020, Centene submitted an application to Clayton for its original office building at 7711 Carondolet, which was to be the final, long-term element of its Special Development District. The building was to be razed and replaced with a much larger tower resembling the two at the intersection of Hanley and Forsyth. We know now that Centene has scrapped Subdistrict 4 as well, opting instead to simply re-clad the building standing with a design similar to the other towers.
Between the most recent two applications, we can see that the massive campus proposed is no more. This is not to suggest that the redesigned older tower is a bad thing, but that it is very obviously not what was promised to Clayton officials or the community at large. It is confirmation that not only Subdistrict 2B and 3 are dead, but the long-term Subdistrict 4 is gone too. That means that barely half of the entire proposal may ever be completed, and the “largest” project to ever grace Downtown Clayton is significantly smaller than expected.
Chapter 6: The Salt in the Wound
Somewhere between 2016 and 2020, a seismic shift occurred in Centene’s commitment to the St. Louis region. Neidorff and Centene had proposed incredible facilities, and notably had invested $25 million in a Ferguson Centene office to employ local residents with daycare facilities following the protests. Following the investment in Ferguson, Neidorff was recognized as the St. Louis Citizen of the Year in 2017 by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Since then, however, Neidorff has publicly pulled back from institutions supporting St. Louis, while simultaneously cutting off the Centene expansion detailed above. Neidorff had served as the “Regionalism Chairman” on the Board of Civic Progress until at least the end of 2018. He worked to spearhead the Better Together campaign that would see a unification of St. Louis City and County, widely viewed by business leaders in the region as a means to reducing civic redundancy, increasing safety, and reducing competitive economic development barriers between municipalities.
Neidorff has since left Civic Progress, seemingly following the collapse of the Better Together proposal. Moreover, he recently issued a strong condemnation of St. Louis, going so far as to threaten moving the Clayton headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina should St. Louis not “get its act together”. The threat was delivered alongside news that Charlotte would become a regional headquarters for the company regardless of St. Louis’ actions. Whether Clayton will remain as the headquarters for the insurance giant is “up to the people that create an environment that a Fortune 25 company wants to be in.”
His remarks centered on rising crime in St. Louis, complaints about the MetroLink system, the number of flights at Lambert International Airport, and more. His suggestion that should St. Louis not improve its reputation and these issues, Centene will move elsewhere cuts deeply. One of the largest employers of the St. Louis region, certainly in Clayton, moving would be extraordinarily harmful, and the multi-interview broadside regarding St. Louis and its leaders where he aired his grievances do little to convince other companies to move operations here. Most would likely agree that St. Louis must improve on these issues, but as one of the region’s largest stakeholders, he too is partially responsible for the region’s health and his actions do little in offering progress, despite his claim that it might shake leaders into action.
Digging deeper, his criticisms of St. Louis and idolization of Charlotte. Like many cities across the country, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, crime is up significantly in Charlotte. With double digit increases in assaults and murder, Charlotte is experiencing similar crime trends. Even before COVID, crime had been rising in Charlotte, with 2019 seeing over 5% more incidence than 2018. It is true that St. Louis is more well known for its crime problems, but his threat is undercut by crime statistics. Similarly, romanticizing Charlotte’s light rail system falls into the same issues, with “high rates of crime” at transit centers. Moreover, the St. Louis light rail system is more than twice as large as Charlotte’s, which in theory should provide substantially more living options for residents and employees.
While Charlotte is a wonderful city, deserving of growth and corporations that invest in the community, Neidorff won’t find what he says he is looking for. His open threat to move headquarters, like the Centene Campus expansion originally proposed, is shallow.
Chapter 7: The End
Quietly, the Centene project in Clayton has been suspended, perhaps indefinitely. Promises made were abandoned, not just to Clayton officials, but also to nearby residents who took the time to engage with the development process.
What’s left is a shell of what was proposed in 2016, with almost none of the public benefit despite massive public incentives. What remains unfinished is left in worse shape, with the entry into Clayton on Forsyth facing a massive blank wall and vacant lots. As part of the decision to create a Special Development District, Centene was granted the ability to shirk the zoning requirements in place and create a district meant for cars. With more parking than recommended and garages that don’t meet Clayton’s own stated requirements, the Transportation Development District is named ironically for what exists in its borders.
Clayton’s Staff warned about this possibility with a stunning degree of accuracy. The future of the project they warned about exists now, with the East end of the project contributing little for the public, instead offering the opposite of urban design and pedestrian experiences.
To rub it all in, Centene is considering leaving Clayton behind, which would serve as a massive blow to the local economy, even after said economy and public has contributed tens of millions of dollars and its literal physical landscape for the company’s benefit. For a corporation to leave its promises unfulfilled, shirk local regulations meant to improve livability, literally leave behind dust and vacant lots, and do it on the city’s dime is a phenomenal display while simultaneously slamming the public and its leaders. To threaten the city after benefiting so much from it, having experienced historic growth and taken advantage of vast incentives, physical capital, and human resources and sharply rebuke it is almost unthinkable.
Perhaps there is a lesson, or something at all to learn from this whole ordeal. Maybe it is about how cities handle phased developments like Centene’s proposed campus in the Special Development District. They pose massive risk for cities and their economic development officials. Corporate citizens don’t always act responsibly, and when awarding incentives, officials need to be cognizant of the fact that renderings are nothing but a pretty picture without a commitment to build. Without penalties, they might just be something sweet to distract from real plans or to keep the city hoping for what might eventually be.
Maybe it is about tax abatements as a whole as a strategy in a fragmented St. Louis Region. Or, perhaps about conflicts of interest and listening more to staff recommendations and warnings. Or, maybe it is that St. Louis must truly improve to keep its employment centers.
To break the fourth wall for a moment, I find myself at the end of it all feeling unsatisfied with each lesson, searching for something greater to end this article with to distract from the massive loss this represents. The damage to Clayton is done, and the risk of St. Louis losing a huge asset for its economy is huge. The deception on full display by Clayco and Centene officials, promising full transparency hurts. Without facing the public, they have escaped the scrutiny of abandoned promises and will not even comment for this article. Their comments at the public hearing read today as thinly veiled mistruths and simply as means to achieve the incentives they wished for, rather than real commitments to the community who cared enough to show up.
Let this be a costly, effective lesson for the region. Massive parking structures, phased developments never delivered, massive tax incentives, vacant lots, thinly-veiled threats, conflicts of interest, and thousands of jobs on the line – each of these should be their own headline. Together they represent an economic development tragedy for the region.