Edifice Complex

From the St Louis Post Dispatch: The Edifice Complex: Why big real estate projects won’t save St. Louis

Yet the region clings to what might best be termed an Edifice Complex: an unreasonable faith in grand building projects to spawn economic development and generate jobs and wealth. We subsidized a convention center and a hotel next door, the Renaissance, which never drew the crowds of visitors envisioned by their promoters. The failed St. Louis Centre shopping mall, heavily subsidized when it opened in 1985, now is again soaking up tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to be turned into a parking garage.

The Arch project is at an even earlier stage. A design competition this summer got some people excited, but no one knows where the money will come from for a museum expansion, ice rink and other proposed improvements. Cost estimates start at $300 million.

Each project would make a part of the city more attractive. Backers say none could be built without tax dollars. Each would generate some construction jobs, but it’s hard to say whether they would bring any permanent jobs.

St Louis has a long history of subsidizing private redevelopment projects – offering tax abatement and even the power of eminent domain.  I have been reading Clarence Lang’s account of Civic Progress, Inc and the NAACP’s efforts to challenge or block some of its policies and projects in Grassroots at the Gateway (University of Michigan Press, 2009).  Lang writes,

Although racially innocuous on its face, “massive redevelopment” concealed anxieties about black working-class slums overrunning the Central Corridor.  Mill Creek Valley, located at the periphery of the central business district, would simply have to go.  Indigenous white corporate, civic, and political leadership simultaneously contemplated an overhaul of St. Louis’s governance structure, eliminated bases of resistance to their progrowth agenda — as well as bringing more centralization to a historically decentralized municipal government.  … Ward bosses … were a chief source of opposition to urban renewal schemes.  The black vote, gaining in potency, was regarded as another.  Civic Progress, and the racial-class interests in embodied, resolved to deal with them both.

Many black St Louisans generally favored urban redevelopment, with few disputing the need for more playgrounds, hospital care, and other social infrastructure that an expanding, and segregated, black working-class citizenry needed.  Yet black discourses of civic improvement largely rejected demolition schemes, which severed communal ties and institutions, displaced marginally employed African Americans, and cast them to the mercies of a segregated housing market.  In rejecting previous slum clearance and renewal bond proposals, they had demonstrated their preference for neighborhood revitalization, and their emphases on fair employment and open housing in reconstruction projects.”  (106-107)

Civic Progress, Inc still exists today, and is still comprised of “chief executives from the region’s largest businesses and employers”.  According to Civic Progress,

Civic Progress convenes, influences and funds initiatives and activities that address urgent needs and long-term goals in selected areas of focus. The organization has a bias toward providing “catalytic” or startup funding for programs rather than operational dollars. Generally, a three‑year funding timeframe is preferred, during which time the initiative is completed, becomes self-sustaining, or the effort is dissolved due to a lack of community support or leadership.

Sounds a lot like an Edifice Complex.

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