Pruitt-Igoe, a Symbol of Government Failure, Gets a Second Chance

The site of a long-gone but still-criticized public housing complex in St. Louis is being redeveloped. Will history repeat itself?
by | November 2016
St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was torn down 40 years ago. (United States Geological Survey)

St. Louis is finally ready to do something with the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. What goes in there may say a lot about what cities have learned from the development mistakes of the past century.

Pruitt-Igoe was a huge public housing complex made up of 33 separate 11-story buildings that were built not long after World War II. Almost immediately, the complex had serious problems. What was meant to be mixed-race housing quickly was dominated by poor blacks, who had reason to complain about poor maintenance and serious crime. “Pruitt-Igoe became a byword for ... dysfunctional urban abyss,” the British newspaper The Guardian recounted last year. “If you propose a high-rise public housing project in America, your opponents will almost certainly use Pruitt-Igoe as a rhetorical weapon against you -- and defeat you with it.”

The city began demolishing the complex in 1972 -- one building was imploded on live television -- with the last tower coming down 40 years ago. The site, just two miles north of the Gateway Arch, has been vacant for so long that acres of it have grown back into forest. During that time, there’s been no shortage of ideas about what to do with the space. “A golf course, a vineyard, a new city park -- we haven’t lacked for ideas,” says Alex Ihnen, owner and editor of nextSTL.com, a website covering the city. “But actually getting something built is another story.”

Now a developer named Paul McKee has exercised his option to buy the land. Having a single developer responsible for the parcel should finally lead to action. What’s more, the site will be close to a new $1.75 billion campus housing the Western headquarters for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). City officials convinced the agency to stay in the city, rather than moving across the river into Illinois, in part with the promise of making the campus the centerpiece of a dense urban development north of downtown.

Having a major anchor tenant has been a huge factor in the revival of many urban neighborhoods in recent years, including some in St. Louis. But it’s not a guarantee of success. As Ihnen points out, Wells Fargo Advisors has its corporate campus about two miles west of downtown St. Louis. The financial services firm employs almost twice as many people as the NGA will have at its new site. Yet there’s very little retail or commercial development around its headquarters.

Pruitt-Igoe poses special challenges as a redevelopment site, even putting aside its long and tainted history. It’s vacant land that’s surrounded by even more vacant land. What McKee and St. Louis have to remember is that Pruitt-Igoe failed, in part, because it was an island within the city, says Michael Allen, director of the independent Preservation Research Office. The block after block of housing towers just didn’t fit in an area that was otherwise filled with low-slung houses. “Pruitt-Igoe taught us to look at financial and geographic contexts,” Allen says.

McKee has said he’ll use the site as part of a larger redevelopment effort in the area, with offices, retail and a medical campus. So far, his plans aren’t terribly specific. And there are questions about how much development the city can support, given that St. Louis is half the size it was back when Pruitt-Igoe came down.

Nevertheless, the fact that something -- anything -- will be going in at one of the most troubled parcels in the city is generally being hailed as good news. “These developments aren’t often catalytic in the way they’re sold, so the NGA-adjacent development and the redevelopment of the Pruitt-Igoe site are almost certainly overpromised,” Ihnen says. “However, that does not make the coming changes any less important for the city. What we’re about to see is how a large, vacant, pre-automobile urban landscape is redeveloped [today].”