St. Louis Alderman Reintroduces Measure to Nullify Voter-Passed Ward Reduction

In 2012, St. Louis City voters approved “Proposition R”, a measure to reduce the size of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from 28 members to 14. This would mean that the city would see its Ward count reduced to 14 as well. At the time, advocates suggested that the measure would increase efficiency, reduce corruption, and more sensibly represent a city less than half the size of its former population.

As the vote would amend the Charter of the City of St. Louis, it required 60% or greater support to pass. In 2012, voters were able to accomplish this goal after a few prior attempts with a citywide result of 61.5% in favor of the amendment. NextSTL has a useful ward-by-ward graphic that showcases the wide support the measure received almost 9 years ago. The proposition was written such that it would go into effect following the 2020 Census, a milestone we are nearing rapidly today.

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In the near-decade since the passage of Proposition R, the Board of Aldermen has made few attempts toward implementation. With no proposed Ward boundaries whatsoever, the Board has declined to prepare for the inevitable. Rather, it has done just the opposite. Aldermen John Collins-Muhammad Jr. and Joseph Vaccaro have led the charge.

  • In the 2018-2019 session, Collins-Muhammad Jr. introduced Board Bill 25, which would reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. This Board Bill was eventually withdrawn by Collins-Muhammad Jr., but was co-sponsored by Aldermen Bosley, Moore, Kennedy, and Williamson. At the time, Collins-Muhammad Jr. had suggested that without a plan, they should not move forward. nearly 3 years later, it is unclear if he has worked to create one.
  • In June of 2020, Collins-Muhammad Jr. introduced Board Bill 77A, which would reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. Board Bill 77A was co-sponsored by Alderman Vaccaro. This Board Bill narrowly passed the Board and was vetoed by then Mayor Krewson in early 2021.
  • On May 27, 2021, Collins-Muhammad Jr. again introduced a nearly identical bill. Board Bill 38 would again reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. There are no co-sponsors just yet. However, if passed via the Board, it would require city voters to again vote on a measure they approved nearly 9 years prior that the Board has failed to implement or prepare for.

There is a growing tendency in U.S. politics for elected leaders to eschew democratic norms. By “democratic”, we mean in relation to democracy itself and respecting the will of the voters and the results of free and fair elections, not specifically the Democratic Party. This is particularly evident in national politics with some Republican leaders espousing “The Big Lie”, a conspiracy with no grounds that could not win a single court case of dozens tried, that former President Trump won the election. Some may assume that this tendency is limited to the Republican Party, but that is very much not the case, even if it may hold the most insidious and notorious example. Rather, respect for democratic norms can and has degraded some across party lines.

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The actions of Alderman John Collins-Muhammad Jr. represent just that at a local level. His consistent reintroduction of Board Bills that would nullify Proposition R would reverse the clear will of the voters in 2012. While there is nothing illegal strictly about doing so, it undermines the decision-making authority of a voter-passed Charter amendment that by no means was controversial. Instead, Proposition R passed with nearly two thirds of the vote. Collins-Muhammad Jr. claims that this was the case without support from North City, an entirely disingenuous claim that is easily disproven. While few North City Wards approved the amendment, there was strong support in each Ward generally still above 40% support. We encourage readers to view NextSTL’s graphics mentioned earlier. Even if none supported the amendment, the entire city shares a Charter, and he is seeking to change the rules of an entire city for an incredibly unpopular structure backed by fewer than 40% of St. Louisans.

Given that the Board of Aldermen has not prepared for the Ward reduction or drawn new boundaries, not to mention the many conflicts of interest that could arise when working to redraw their own seats, many St. Louisans have gathered to wrestle this power away from the Board. The group, Show Me Integrity, was able to fundraise over $100,000 and has begun work to gather the 30,000 signatures necessary to allow a nonpartisan commission to independently redraw the Ward boundaries. If they reach their signature goal, then their measure dubbed “Reform STL” will go before St. Louis constituents for a vote.

KDG Nixes Clayton Developments, Doubles Down on City

Real Estate Developer KDG, known for its luxury apartment buildings including Clayton on the Park and The Euclid, appears to be doubling down on their St. Louis City investment. Surprisingly, those plans seem to include some distancing from Clayton, one of St. Louis’ most desirable and expensive suburbs.

Although KDG’s portfolio still includes multiple St. Louis County assets, including Centene Plaza and the under-development Olive Crossing, their recent investment decisions are skewing quickly toward the City itself. KDG just sold its long-held Clayton residential tower, Clayton on the Park, after managing the property for over a decade. KDG had, years ago, converted the building to luxury apartments during the Great Recession. It had previously been home to senior living facilities and even a hotel.

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The disinvestment from Clayton appears to go a bit further, as selling one property alone does not signify a meaningful trend. Rather, KDG has long had its eyes set on the vacant land just next-door to its Clayton on the Park tower at 121 S. Meramec. Some might be familiar with this address, as it used to be home to one of the two mid-rise 7-Up towers that were a part of the beverage company’s former headquarters. The building at this address had been demolished, while the other midrise still stands and would be converted to residential apartments under this plan. Chris Stritzel at CityScene STL details this incredibly well.

KDG’s plans as rendered above would have completely rehabilitated the structure still standing today and would have included new infill on the vacant lot to its side. Both would be connected to their former property, Clayton on the Park, via the parking garage. The development would have cost upwards of $70 million and included amenities like a rooftop pool deck, fitness center, and individual work spaces for tenants to use. However, KDG just recently scrapped these plans, shortly before they announced the sale of their neighboring asset, Clayton on the Park.

While some may suggest or feel that Clayton is losing steam, this move appears to be an individual investment decision rather than a growing trend. It is indicative of a market that has more strongly embraced the City of St. Louis in addition to but not instead of Clayton. Although KDG is shifting its set of priorities, there are multiple other developments currently reshaping the Clayton skyline, adding new residents, hotel guests, and Class A office space.

Rendering above attributed to U.S. Capital Development of the under-construction Forsyth Pointe office buildings

Clayton’s continued strength aside, it is evident that development has been heating up in the City of St. Louis. In 2020, over $1 billion in building permits were awarded, and there are currently thousands of residential apartment units under construction and in development. The Central West End saw the rise and completion of the new 100 on the Park high-rise apartments. Similarly, Downtown saw a new residential tower, One Cardinal Way, open by Busch Stadium amid major announcements by developers for hundreds of other units within Downtown limits.

The momentum clearly has not gone unnoticed by KDG. In the hot Central West End neighborhood, KDG is currently well into the construction of a residential apartment building on Laclede Ave. 4545 Laclede will host 200 units between its 7 stories, adding considerable density to an already vibrant corridor. Demand in the CWE is striking, and KDG is looking to offer new options for residents looking to enter the neighborhood with its many nightlife, shopping, and restaurant options. The building will feature “micro-units”, studios, 1, and 2-bedroom units. The average size of the micro-units will be 386 square feet, with larger units available for those who need additional space.

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KSDK reports that other amenities like a fitness center, golfing green, pool, and yoga studio will be available for residents. Moreover, while some locals might be shocked at the size and inclusion of the smaller units, they are an excellent way to maintain some modicum of affordability for residents looking to live in certain areas. Common in bigger cities with higher rent prices, micro-units also have considerably higher occupancy rates than traditional units, while also promoting sustainability and more efficient land use according to the Urban Land Institute.

KDG is also doubling down on the neighboring Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, more commonly known as The Grove. The company partnered with another developer, Green Street, on two large mixed-use buildings at the corner of Sarah and Chouteau. The two buildings, Chroma and Hue, share amenities and wrap hundreds of units, a coffee shop, hair salon, and other restaurants – significantly densifying and activating the East end of The Grove. KDG is responsible for the onsite property management at the two properties. Hue just recently wrapped up construction, and we were able to meet Green Street VP of Marketing, Liz Austin, for a construction tour covered here.

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In the neighboring Cortex neighborhood, an emerging innovation hub bolstered by Washington University and SLU, KDG is at the forefront of the efforts to bring 24/7 vibrancy through a residential component. The Cortex master plan envisions offices, hotels, entertainment, and apartments to activate the community throughout the day. To date, there has been significant progress. With a new Aloft hotel that opened its doors during the pandemic, a new MetroLink station, and tons of investment into labs and offices like the soon-to-be world’s largest neuroscience facility, the area is booming.

KDG hopes to add the key missing link: apartments. The whole plan, dubbed “Cortex K” will host a variety of uses from apartments to office and retail, but apartments are the piece that could truly stitch the community into a neighborhood, while also helping connect it to the vibrancy of The Grove.

Aerial Overview Rendering – St. Louis April 7 TIF Agenda

There will be three structures built in two separate phases. The first is a 7-story mixed-use building with 160 apartments, 18,500 square feet of office space, and 2,150 square feet of retail space. As KDG is quick to point out, this building will contribute to a neighborhood of over 500 residential units combined with the Chroma and Hue developments when complete. The TIF agenda notes that the apartments will include amenities like a fitness center, club room, outdoor deck, and more. Recent KDG apartment buildings have generally also included flexible workspaces for residents, pools, coffee, etc. Phase 1 is expected to cost $37 million according to the TIF packet.

Phase 2 will include an office building and garage, which will be part of the same complex as imaged in the renderings from KDG above. The Cortex K office building will bring 125,000 square feet of Class A office space to the City of St. Louis, in addition to 7,000 more square feet of retail space. For construction to proceed, KDG is looking to prelease at least 50,000 square feet of the usable space. The budgeted cost for the office building is an estimated $40 million.

The garage is expected to hold approximately 610 spaces and is still in a preliminary design phase. Although the garage is fairly large for a district that features a MetroLink station, it is not street-facing and will likely be shared by residents and workers alike. The project is certainly a decent example of transit-oriented development (TOD) still with the combined density and access to nearby transit options. This portion of Phase 2 will be an additional $17.9 million.

KDG is also promising to make various public improvements to the surrounding infrastructure – something common for developers when requesting tax-incremented financing from municipalities. Although the plans are still “very preliminary”, KDG expects to spend up to $3.5 million on streetscape improvements, lighting, utilities, sidewalks, and bike lanes. The improvements will be carried out for KDG on behalf of the Cortex.

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In the April 7 TIF agenda, KDG is requesting $14 million in assistance from the City of St. Louis for this development – 14.25% of the total development costs. TIFs have been under increasingly intense scrutiny by St. Louis residents for a variety of reasons. Many suggest it is a form of corporate welfare that takes necessary funds away from the city, and others a necessity to attract and retain beneficial developments.

Historically, the City of St. Louis lacked a transparent, thoughtful, and consistent plan on how it would award TIFs to developers. State Auditor Galloway released an audit of the program and called for increased oversight and transparency to ensure a level playing field just under a year ago. Much of the controversy from residents stems from the fact that the TIFs are often awarded to developers in the most economically successful districts, predominantly in the Central Corridor. The Cortex K TIF request is likely to face similar scrutiny from residents.

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Cortex Master Plan

The project itself, however, will certainly contribute to a fast-growing region in St. Louis City. Additional apartments, office, and retail will go a long way toward connecting The Grove and Cortex. Vibrant, 24/7 neighborhoods with transit access are more sustainable, enjoyable, and attractive to residents and are crucial to developing a strong, urban corridor.

As an investment decision, choosing to double down on the City of St. Louis instead of the very strong Clayton market also represents a growing source of demand that residents might not yet have noticed. There are thousands of units under construction in the city, and new home construction is off the charts. While the city is still seeing depopulation on its North Side, stemming from decades of disinvestment, redlining, racial covenants, and a 1970s plan that essentially would cut off efforts to sustain the North side (though not officially enacted, it was essentially still practiced for years), its Central Corridor and many South Side neighborhoods are booming.

The tricky act for St. Louis, however, is to find a way to extend this success, without displacement, to other neighborhoods that see little investment. With any luck, including the emerging “North Central Corridor” and a Mayor dedicated to racial equity, the City of St. Louis may yet see that day come sooner rather than later.

OPINION | St. Louis’ Earnings Tax Must be Preserved

St. Louis City has for years relied upon its Earnings Tax revenue for a significant portion of its annual revenues, now comprising of over a third of the city’s expected revenue each year. In 2020, St. Louis raked in just over $191 million, a sum that has quickly grown over the past few years. With the city seeing incredible investment and high paying jobs in the medical, geospatial, and tech sectors at the Cortex, Downtown, and beyond, it has seen a 9.97% increase in revenue over the last two years alone.

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Although there is a real and warranted debate over how the city allocates its funds in relation to equity and incentives, there is no doubt that eliminating the revenue in one swift motion would be disastrous for the city, its growth, and its most vulnerable communities. Gregory Daily, the city’s Collector of Revenue, has been waging a long education campaign on the tax for some time, pointing out the direct impact on city services that residents rely on every day. From parks to streets and lighting, the Earnings Tax impacts every city resident. While many communities might not know their Neighborhood Stabilization Officers by name, these civil servants work incredibly hard to make our communities safer and more economically resilient.

Parks are imperative for public health, while emergency services are critical for maintaining the day-to-day safety of St. Louisans. While I share the views of many in our city that St. Louis, among most U.S. cities, spends too much on policing with too few positive results, police are but one aspect of critical emergency services. Moreover, the City is just now experimenting and investing in community-driven violence reduction through Cure Violence and emergency dispatch that redirects some calls away from police. These measures are not enough, but they are an important start as we strive to prevent horrific tragedies that have predominantly affected communities of color. Even now, we have difficulty adequately funding these new services. While I share the hopes of many that some police funds will be redirected to other innovative and community-driven programs, addressing inequalities becomes many times harder when lower revenues have to be split among the same number of services.

Tax Revenue since FY 2018 – St. Louis City

Perhaps the conversation would be different if opponents of Proposition E, the Earnings Tax, actually presented an alternate funding source for the City. If you’ve been paying attention – they haven’t. There is no plan to replace these funds, and the end result would be a City that has its budget nuked, cratering its budget with little time for the City to prepare. If you felt that St. Louis Streets crews were slower than you’d like already with plowing snowy streets or filling potholes, I expect that their performance would decline much more with significantly less money for employees or vehicle maintenance. For our already cash-strapped fleet of refuse vehicles much in need of service, citizens might expect less consistent trash pickup and more frequently overfilled dumpsters.

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While some might feel this is a deserved consequence for a bureaucracy that has not served everyone adequately, such a drastic and reactionary loss of revenue would do nothing to resolve the City’s shortcomings. Instead, St. Louis would struggle that much more to attract investment, new residents, and to invest critical dollars into its low-income neighborhoods. Tax dollars should go back into our communities, and it would be incredibly difficult to pass individual tax measures for individual programs that would be lost. Others might argue that the Earnings Tax prevents growth, population, and investment. At first glance, that argument is reasonable, but with hundreds of municipalities across the United States levying income taxes, including cities like Kansas City, Cincinnati, Columbus, New York City, Philadelphia, and more, this argument falls flat quickly. In fact, St. Louis’ Earnings Tax tends to not even fall in the higher percentages of income taxes levied in comparable cities.

I urge all St. Louis City residents to Vote YES on Proposition E, to preserve our Earnings Tax, and to preserve our critical city services.

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Featured Image Credit: Tysports

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