Editorial: Adding an asterisk to new developments around the NGA West site | editorial staff

From the editors

One of the largest and most famous construction projects in St. Louis in years is getting a new twist: the western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. A key idea behind the city’s promotion of the north St. Louis location was that this massive $1.7 billion in spending and the relocation of thousands of federal employees would breathe new economic life into an oppressed and neglected neighborhood. The opportunities for new restaurants, malls, office complexes and apartment buildings seemed transformative.

But now the federal government wants to impose restrictions on what new developments can happen within 2,500 feet of the site. The security concerns cited by the NGA are real, and there is no question that foreign governments have an interest in tapping into any top-secret activities that will take place behind the walls of the new NGA facility. From the very beginning of talks about the site, it was known that safety would be the federal government’s top priority – as it should be.

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However, such plans should have been embedded in the construction plan of the facility from the start. No construction takes place at any classified federal facility, whether within US borders or diplomatic facilities abroad, without incorporating technology to prevent external wiretapping, surveillance or leakage of internal electronic signals. The NGA campus itself is already designed to provide a buffer zone between the building and its perimeter. Apparently that’s not good enough.

The federal government wants the Board of Aldermen to approve a special use district that effectively limits development within 2,500 feet of the NGA complex without prior federal approval. Post-Dispatch’s Jacob Barker reported in 2018 that such a district was under consideration, but the lack of approval from the Aldermans since then does not appear to have hampered progress on construction of the NGA site. Restrictions would include new buildings taller than 85 feet or a 600-foot limit above sea level. In some cases, certain types of welding might even be prohibited due to possible signal interference.

The time for such restrictions to be imposed should have been way back when this deal was being negotiated during the Obama administration so that St. Louis residents could approach it with open eyes. Although some small areas have already been built on or been spruced up in anticipation, the vast majority of the blocks surrounding the site are littered with derelict homes and vacant lots, many of which belong to land speculator Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration.

A mountain of bureaucracy already exists, preventing even responsible developers from getting involved. And now there’s a new layer of federal bureaucracy. If the federal government now wants to have the right to examine any development proposals for surrounding quarters, the council of aldermen must set strict and tight deadlines that ensure that new projects do not die just because the federal government is sitting on them.

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