John HickeyBy John Hickey

John Hickey is the Missouri Chapter Director for the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization that works for a clean energy transition, public health, economic justice, and land preservation.

This op-ed originally appeared in the St. Louis American.

The Department of Defense is in the process of deciding where it should locate the next home of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) West headquarters, currently located just south of downtown St. Louis. For a number of reasons, the NGA should be located in North St. Louis, near the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.

The North St. Louis site is better for the NGA’s stated goal of being more open in its operations and more connected with the public. It is closer to the airport and existing NGA West facilities. It also is the only location on the list of four (North St. Louis, Fenton, Mehlville and near Scott Air Force Base near Shiloh, Illinois) that meets the guidelines of presidential Executive Order 12072, which requires the federal government give priority to urban areas when it moves federal facilities.

As the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization, we see two other, critical reasons why North St. Louis is the best location for the NGA: environmental protection and environmental justice.

There is a major difference in terms of environmental impact between redeveloping an urban area like North St. Louis – which would include cleaning up existing hazardous contamination – and building a new facility from the ground up on a 180-acre plot of green space and farmland, as would be required at Scott Air Force Base.

The plan for the North St. Louis site includes a clean, reliable energy network through upgraded “smart” infrastructure, distributed power generation and on-site renewables as well as the cleanup of existing hazardous contamination and the installation of large swaths of new green space. The Scott AFB location includes the displacement of a two-acre forested wetland.

Furthermore, building in North St. Louis would not add significantly to the commute times of current NGA employees, who already commute to the city, whereas locating NGA West at Scott AFB would require many employees – it is estimated that 70 percent of NGA West’s current workforce lives in Missouri – to add 60 or more minutes to their commute each day, adding significant amounts of auto exhaust and pollution into our region’s air.

Developing a project of this size in North St. Louis would also provide a perfect opportunity for our region to develop mass transit connecting North St. Louis to the rest of the region – a much cleaner option than expanding drive times across the river.

Placing NGA West at Scott Air Force Base would increase urban sprawl, whereas placing it in North St. Louis epitomizes the pro-environmental principle of smart growth, which we define as “intelligent, well-planned development that channels growth into existing areas, provides public transportation options, and preserves farm land and open space.”

Both science and common sense tell us that putting cars on the road for longer periods of time leads to more air pollution, which leads to higher rates of asthma, which are already elevated in the City of St. Louis. So locating NGA West across the river will not only take jobs and tax revenues out of the city, it could lead to an increase in health problems for our children.

The North St. Louis location also includes the development of new, infill housing, new trees, greenways, bike paths and other amenities that will help invigorate the surrounding community and connect the site to other areas in the city. This type of smart development exemplifies environmental justice: cleaner, greener neighborhoods, new jobs, and investments in the economy. The Scott AFB site, on the other hand, is isolated and connected to few, if any, other community amenities. Most NGA employees will drive in and drive out, and lower-income communities and communities of color will not benefit.

If we are going to commit ourselves to meeting the goals of environmental justice, smart growth and equitable development, then there is only one obvious choice as the next home of NGA West: North St. Louis.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.