"I think the very strength of the project is also its potential weakness," says John Hoal, former director of urban design for the City of St. Louis. In other words, he explains, the project's success rests on such a large-scale change that it will essentially create a new market next to downtown. "I would really want to see a strong community-development perspective, where there's great sensitivity to the existing community and history of the community."
Most experts' criticisms have focused on the plan’s grand scale, insisting that he shouldn't have let the tax-credit act push him into such a huge, unwieldy project. They trust the newer philosophy of small-scale, organic, gradual growth. Rob Powers of builtstlouis.net, who documented many of the changes in near North St. Louis as part of his ongoing “Daily Dose of Blairmont” entries, says, “The whole point of developing a city is that it has to grow organically. You do these massive traumatic interventions, and a lot of times they end up catastrophically.”
Steve Patterson, founder of urbanreviewstl.com and an urban-planning graduate student at Saint Louis University, however, believes a large-scale plan is in order, so as to avoid the kind of clash of urban and suburban buildings that exists throughout North St. Louis today. "It takes a large-scale vision to rebuild the urban context," he says. "Good urbanism just doesn't happen by coincidence."
In some cities, though, urban planning doesn't necessarily equate to growth. "One of the things that's very hard for a developer to get his head around is, the city may not grow," points out Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline, which covers the history of the St. Louis area and its previous large-scale developments in depth. "What you may be doing is planning for continued shrinkage." He cites the example of Youngstown, Ohio, where city officials project the population will be two-thirds of its existing size in 20 years and are planning accordingly.
Reflecting on McKee's proposal, Gordon says, "Biting it off in this huge chunk seems in some respects like a recipe for failure.... It’s important to be clear and transparent and decisive about your plans, but that’s precisely what's not happening here. The plans are sprawling; they're largely unknown. It’s one thing to put it on paper in your application that you're going to create 16,000 office jobs, averaging $50,000 a person. But who are these people? Where do they work? It's completely opaque."
Even if you create the jobs there, Gordon points out, nothing guarantees the workers will want to live in the area. Lt. Jeff Souders, who patrols the city's Fifth District, offers his personal opinion: "For this city to come back, we have to improve the city schools. As a parent, if I'm going to move into an area, the first thing I'm going to look at is the school system." While McKee's plan proposes building a new school and rehabbing four existing schools, education's just one concern among many—and none have easy answers.
"The dilemma is if everyone overpromises," Hoal warns. "These are long, rigorous, very difficult projects to achieve. A vision has been put forward. There's a big, long-distance run—a marathon, basically—to get from here to implementation. And we all should acknowledge that this isn't going to occur without an enormous amount of rigorous cooperation and partnershipping."