NorthSide Lawyer Says Eminent Domain Needed for Up to 20 Properties
The lawyer for a recently approved redevelopment of 1,500 acres in the city of Saint Louis’ north side says that the development company, NorthSide Regeneration LLC, will likely need eminent domain to acquire about 20 properties in the redevelopment area. The project, put forward by developer Paul McKee, has been contentious in the past because of the perceived threat of eminent domain, and because it calls for nearly $400 million in tax increment financing (TIF) from the city.
Paul Puricelli, who works for the law firm Stoney, Leyton, & Gershman, is representing NorthSide as a defendant in a lawsuit that alleges, among other things, that the city’s TIF Commission and Board of Aldermen didn’t fully investigate the financial backing of the proposed NorthSide project before recommending and approving it.
Puricelli made an hour-long presentation at the Missouri Bar Association’s Committee on Eminent Domain on Nov. 20. Members of the committee include prominent eminent domain attorneys with private practices, and attorneys who work for state agencies that often use eminent domain, such as the Missouri Department of Transporation (MoDOT).
Dave Roland, a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, recorded the proceedings of the Nov. 20 committee meeting, from which all of the following quotes and statements are taken.
During the presentation, Puricelli stated that there are about 20 properties, which are not owner-occupied residences, that NorthSide needs but hasn’t been able to acquire, and that the company is hoping to utilize the power of eminent domain to obtain them.
“We have publicly stated that we anticipate that there will be 20 or fewer parcels subject to eminent domain for the redevelopment,” Puricelli said during the meeting. “Before you get too worried, Bob [an eminent domain attorney], there’s also going to be some infrastructure work by the city, also the possibility of eminent domain there.”
“For our purposes, we narrowed it down to 20 or fewer parcels,” he continued. “But eminent domain is viewed certainly by us as a critical component to getting those last 20 parcels acquired.”
McKee has stated in the past that he does not wish to use eminent domain, and a statement posted on NorthSide’s website states: “[Eminent domain] is lengthy, requires many hours of legal time, is a drain on government resources, and is not the method by which McEagle seeks to acquire any piece of ground within the redevelopment area.”
McKee, when reached by phone, refused to comment on Puricelli’s statements.
Currently, NorthSide does not have the power of eminent domain. However, the redevelopment agreement between the city and the company states that eminent domain can be used either for a public use, for things like roads, or “if the Developer has pursued and exhausted efforts to voluntarily acquire property the Board of Aldermen deems necessary to implement one or more portions of the Redevelopment Plan and deems critical to the Redevelopment Plan’s success.”
A number of attorneys for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) attended the Nov. 20 meeting, and acknowledged the agency’s almost certain role in the redevelopment’s road projects. “The 800 pound gorilla in this thing is MoDOT,” said one of the department’s attorneys.
Puricelli, who said he has been on both sides of the eminent domain issue, said that critics often focus on eminent domain during development, but that its use is necessary for such projects, and is not the devil it’s made out to be. Alderman Freeman Bosly, Sr., has also publicly voiced a similar sentiment.
When read several of the statements that Puricelli made to the committee, north side activist Romona Taylor Williams said she hadn’t heard any statements regarding the 20 or so properties to which Puricelli had referred during the meeting.
“I’ve not heard anything to that affect,” she said. “The only thing that the alderpersons have been saying to the community is that there is no eminent domain. And we know that’s not true.”
Aldermen April Ford-Griffin and Marlene Davis did not return immediate calls for comment. Both have made presentations at many community meetings with McKee about the project and have clearly stated that eminent domain would not be used.
“We need to do a better job of educating people, the Board of Aldermen, and the public about eminent domain, and what it is and what it isn’t,” Puricelli said. “For these types of projects to move forward, we still have the possibility — the hope of getting this right. But it is not a guarantee. And it will be a serious, serious problem if we don’t get it. For other redevelopment projects, it could be a stake in the heart.”
“These are parcels we couldn’t acquire under the radar,” Puricelli said later during the meeting when asked why McEagle hadn’t been able to purchase them. “Properties we need to make this thing ultimately work.”
When reached by phone for comment on his statements at the meeting, Puricelli said that 20 properties was the maximum number of properties that had ever been discussed as potentially being subject to eminent domain. “The hope is to acquire all of these properties voluntarily,” he said.
“I suspect that accommodations would have to be made,” Puricelli said when asked what NorthSide would do if the Board of Aldermen refused to grant the power of eminent domain for the remaining properties. “They would have to develop without that power.”
Bob Denlow, a prominent eminent domain and condemnation attorney in Saint Louis who represents property owners and serves as chairman of the Missouri Bar Association’s Committee on Eminent Domain, said the area was largely vacant.
“For those of you who have never driven through this area — it looks like a series of football fields — it is vacant, vacant, vacant land,” he said during the meeting. “Some of the controversy is that McKee has accelerated the decline by having bought properties and leaving them vacant. That has been an accusation. But for those people who are really familiar with the area, it’s just grass field.”
Williams, the activist who has been critical of the NorthSide Regeneration redevelopment process, strongly disagreed when asked to comment on Denlow’s characterization.
“You have a massive area that no one is giving any attention to at all,” she said. “For instance, the homes that are in the 19th ward. These are stable communities, but no one puts any attention on the 19th ward.”
“Or,” she continued, “what about this church, Shining Light, that has been in this community since 1938 and now their property is slated for open space?”
To see a Google map of the redevelopment area buildings and boundary lines, click here.