Watson Road Plan complies with state’s TIF law, attorney tells panel

Residential use at mall site shortsighted, Simpson says

Jim Simpson

Jim Simpson

By Mike Anthony

Crestwood’s Watson Road Commercial District Plan complies with the comprehensive plan requirement of Missouri’s tax-increment financing statute, an attorney told the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last week.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted last week to approve an amendment to the Watson Road Commercial District Plan that allows residential uses at the 48-acre site of the former Crestwood Plaza at Watson and Sappington roads.

UrbanStreet Group of Chicago, which owns the mall property, is seeking nearly $28 million in tax incentives, including tax-increment financing, or TIF, for a roughly $99.5 million mixed-use project.

In July, the Planning and Zoning Commission tabled a resolution approving the amendment to the plan, also called the Watson Road Corridor Plan, after residents told the panel they had difficulty in obtaining a copy of the measure. Residents also questioned City Planner Adam Jones’ assertion that the amendment “will put the Watson Commercial District Plan in compliance with efforts to complete and adopt a future TIF plan for the city of Crestwood …,” saying the state TIF statute requires that a redevelopment plan must conform to the comprehensive plan for the development of the municipality as a whole.

Several of the speakers last month noted that Crestwood does not have — and never has had — a citywide comprehensive plan.

The Board of Aldermen voted July 28 to hire Houseal Lavigne Associates of Chicago to create Crestwood’s first-ever citywide comprehensive plan, a process that will take roughly a year and cost $89,500.

Mark Grimm of Gilmore & Bell, the city’s special counsel and special bond counsel for the proposed redevelopment of the mall site, provided a confidential legal analysis last week to commission members stating the Watson Road Corridor Plan complies with the comprehensive plan requirement of the state’s TIF statute.

” …We provided our legal analysis to the Board of Aldermen, and I think you’ve received a copy of that. Due to threatened litigation over this issue, we have provided that confidentially to the city and we ask you maintain the confidentiality of the legal analysis …,” he said.

Residents first questioned city officials in June whether they intended to use an amended Watson Road Corridor Plan to comply with the state TIF statute. Resident Martha Duchild asked City Attorney Lisa Stump on June 23 if she had arrived at a legal conclusion about whether the Watson Road Corridor Plan conformed with the state TIF statute for use as a comprehensive plan based on her research. Stump declined to answer, citing attorney-client privilege.

Grimm told the commission that the term “comprehensive plan,” while commonly used, is not defined in state statutes.

“Specifically with respect to TIF, the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District said that where there is no formal comprehensive plan by a city, that the court would look to the entire body of evidence before the court to determine what constitutes a comprehensive plan,” he said. “In other words, it’s possible for a city to approve a TIF redevelopment plan, even if the city has not approved a formal comprehensive plan document for the city … If there is no formal comprehensive plan for the city, the court will determine on a case-by-case basis what is, in effect, the comprehensive plan for the development of a municipality as a whole.

“Based on our review of the Watson Road Commercial District Plan, the prior amendments and the actions taken with respect to the plan in the prior amendments, we believe a court would hold that this plan as amended is the comprehensive plan that applies to the Crestwood Plaza area …”

The Board of Aldermen requested the legal opinion, Grimm said.

“As you know, the TIF Act requires that the Board of Aldermen before approving a redevelopment plan find that the redevelopment plan is consistent with the comprehensive plan for the municipality as a whole. And so we were asked to advise the Board of Aldermen whether it could make such a finding in the absence of a formal document consisting of a comprehensive plan embodying the entire municipality. So we have provided that legal analysis to the mayor and Board of Aldermen, which was provided as a courtesy to the Planning and Zoning Commission,” he said.

UrbanStreet’s proposed mixed-use project includes four components — a retail area, a multiplex theater and restaurants, 225 apartments, and open space and community gardens.

While Lindbergh Schools officials fully support the redevelopment of the mall site, they oppose the use of tax incentives for residential development, saying UrbanStreet’s plan to construct 225 apartments would exacerbate the aggressive enrollment growth that already is challenging the district. Students from those apartments would attend Crestwood Elementary School, which is already at capacity.

Lindbergh officials have requested that any tax incentives for the apartments be removed from the proposal. The Board of Education voted unanimously May 5 to adopt a resolution opposing any use of TIF for residential development.

Lindbergh Schools Superintendent Jim Simpson said he believes permitting residential uses at the mall site is short-sighted, given the finite amount of commercial property in the city.

“Crestwood as a city needs commercial in order to operate as a city. They need commercial to throw off those funds that a city government needs to maintain their streets, their parks, to provide the services they need to be a top-quality community. And when they take their most valuable crown jewel and forever wall that off from retail, you want to think you are hurting governments of Crestwood for decades to come — many decades, maybe 60, 70 years …”

The superintendent reiterated that Lindbergh has the option of challenging the city in court if Crestwood officials use the Watson Road Corridor Plan to satisfy the requirement of the TIF statute.

“… It’s one of those situations where we really don’t want to be pushed into that corner, but the city’s leaving itself wide open by steamrolling this thing and cutting corners. Plus they’re not doing a good thing for the community because you’re not really using a comprehensive plan, which is screaming at everybody that is something you need. The city is at a juncture (where) they need a real plan, not a 30-year-old plan,” he said, referring to the Watson Road Corridor Plan, which was initially adopted in 1984.

As for the possibility of legal action, he said, “It’s always on the table when you’re pushed into a corner when people are cutting corners and putting things in play, and they’re not protecting their school district.”