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He's the Man!

Developer Ray Braswell looks for love and tax breaks on the most disputed block in Kansas City.

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Ray Braswell points to a pair of stunning early-twentieth-century brick apartment buildings just west of the Country Club Plaza and says, almost to himself, "Those are beautiful buildings there."

That observation from Kansas City's most popular developer, spoken with a collector's appreciation, is indisputable. Square patches of elaborate terra-cotta adorn all seven stories of these buildings, named for the writers Mark Twain and Robert Browning. All around, breathtaking residences with artistic namesakes line the 48th Street entryway to the Plaza -- the towering Washington Irving, the quaint Eugene Fields, the glamorous Rousseau Cézanne apartments. Together, they create perhaps the most scenic pedestrian neighborhood in Kansas City, resting between the high traffic on 47th Street to the north and Ward Parkway to the south, and separating the Plaza's onslaught of commerce ("California Pizza Kitchen Coming Soon") from the genteel homes stretching west to the state line.

Braswell looks toward the Plaza and marvels at the area's ambience. And yet when he turns around, Braswell suddenly faces an entire block of apartment buildings he doesn't find so beautiful. Buildings he wants torn down.

In the not-so-distant past, such an idea would have drawn protest the moment it left Braswell's lips. Just one year ago, on the opposite end of the Plaza, across from Mill Creek Park, Plaza owner Highwoods Properties announced a plan to replace the 78-year-old Park Lane apartment building with a skyscraper for a law firm, using more than $12 million in taxpayer money to do it. Within weeks, preservationists and neighborhood activists banded together, spewing venom at Highwoods and any politician who dared support the project. Within months, Highwoods had withdrawn the plan ("Truce or Consequences," March 7, 2002).

But this time, only quiet surrounds Braswell's proposal for the Plaza's "West Edge." And for all the glitz that Braswell promises -- "There is nothing in the United States like it," he says of its centerpiece boutique hotel -- the silence might be his most impressive development.

In fact, some of the same neighborhood leaders who held up signs protesting Highwoods Properties last year are holding Braswell's hand this year.

"I think he's made a valiant effort to keep everyone in the loop and move forward with consensus," says Sally Schwenk, a board member of the Historic Kansas City Foundation.

Then there's the endorsement of the city's most ardent preservationist, Jane Flynn. "Ray's name doesn't raise any red flags with me," she says.

This despite the fact that Braswell will knock down eight functioning Plaza apartment buildings, four of them decorated with ornate terra-cotta just like the buildings Braswell admires across the street.

And few people seem to be complaining that Braswell says his plan can't work without $25 million in public subsidies for its ten-story office building.

How has Braswell subdued Plaza dwellers conditioned to be cantankerous? What's his hypnotic secret?

"Don't hire high-powered lawyers to talk with neighbors," he says. "Don't hire someone to do that for you, because they're not received well. [Neighbors] are real people. They want real people to talk to them."

Shucking the high-towered, behind-the-scenes approach typical of Kansas City developers, Braswell pulled neighborhood leaders and preservationists into his planning process from the beginning. That decision, which Braswell says was dismissed by fellow developers as "crazy," cost him four months in delays.

But that's thinking in today's time. Ultimately, that decision may not only save Braswell months of delays and headaches caused by angry opponents, but also save the project.

Inside J.J.'s, the upscale 48th Street restaurant directly across from his project site, Braswell looks out a window and runs through his vision. Straight ahead, three plain red-brick buildings stand where he wants a stretch of boutique shops and eateries, small businesses unique to the chain-oriented Plaza -- "but not mom-and-pop stuff, some real professional managed groups," he says. Braswell wants a bistro where customers can stop off for a cup of coffee or a sit-down lunch or carry-out. He wants pedestrians to turn this intimate strip between Roanoke Parkway and Belleview Avenue into something found more often in Europe than in Middle America. Rising from behind the storefronts, he wants an office building that cascades downward as it moves to the west and blends into the fashionable hotel he's dreamed of building.

And the hotel does sound dreamy. Braswell won't divulge any details about what he's calling its "theatrical" element, the part he says will make it unlike any hotel in the world. Singing bellhops? Talking Bibles? Robot concierges that produce towels and pillow mints on demand? It's anybody's guess. But Braswell promises that it will be spectacular.

"The Today Show on TV will want to interview, not me, but the theatrical portion of this hotel," he says. "And that's why Kansas City is really lucky that we're doing this here, because it will get some national attention, this little hotel right there."

He wants a stylish, stand-alone restaurant to complement the hotel without being swallowed by it. The model, he says, is Asia de Cuba, culinary sidekick to the swanky Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. "People go to that restaurant without thinking they're in a hotel. How many times do you go to a hotel in this city and eat?"

Beneath it all, he wants a parking garage that serves office workers, hotel visitors, restaurant customers, retail merchants and area residents. Because it will be underground, it won't compromise the vintage architectural design that will set new standards for Plaza-area developments. Three existing buildings will remain along Ward Parkway, giving the brand-new block the face of its residential history.

It's a huge project for just a couple of acres of land. But it's that mix of components -- the hotel feeding the retail feeding the restaurant feeding the office tower -- that has Braswell calling this "the best urban redevelopment plan" in Kansas City history, a project that will give the story of this controversial block a happy ending.

"What they know," Braswell says of his plan's numerous supporters, culled from a year's worth of peacemaking, "is that if you don't do anything, eventually you lose everything."

And that's true, in a way. But it's also not true.

Among preservationists and neighborhood leaders, there's an ugly term for what's happened on what is now Braswell's block: engineered blight.

It occurs when someone buys a piece of property and then sits on it for years, making little if any investment. Trash accumulates. Driveways crumble. Buildings decay. Eventually, the owner can declare this spot blighted and tear it down. The city then reads this as investment in a blighted property, so it's that much easier to change the zoning from, say, residential to commercial, to put a gas station or hardware store or office building where people once lived in houses or apartments.

In August 1995, a multimillionaire named Cecil Van Tuyl bought six apartment buildings on a small plot of land just west of the Plaza. With the exception of one building along Ward Parkway, the purchases put the entire block in Van Tuyl's control.

Van Tuyl, president of one of the country's largest car-dealership chains, wanted to destroy the buildings -- including the one he didn't own -- and put up high-rise apartments, an office building and some other commercial real estate. Neighbors fumed. Preservationists, disgusted at Van Tuyl's plan to level the entire block, readied for battle. But Van Tuyl moved forward, convinced the city would see the merits of his project.

At first, staffers in the city's Planning and Development Department sided with the people who were protesting Van Tuyl's plan. Their bosses on the City Planning Commission even rejected the idea. But Van Tuyl's deal was given new life when then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver revived it and sent it to the City Council for special consideration.

To help Van Tuyl, Cleaver and his colleagues on the City Council rewrote the Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, which had previously prohibited the type of buildings Van Tuyl was proposing.

"The city, initially, because they were so keen to get the development, tried in a rather heavy-handed way to force it down the throats of the preservationists and the neighborhoods," recalls Bill Bruning, who lives near 48th Street and Jarboe and is chairman of Kansas City's Landmarks Commission.

Leading the neighborhood in its fight was Paul Minto, making his first foray into City Hall politics. Minto simply wouldn't accept the city's decision to deface the Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, produced in 1989 after a long, cooperative effort among Plaza residents, businesses and the city's Development Department. So he recruited sympathetic neighborhood leaders from the northland all the way to Bannister Road, who proceeded to unleash their discontent on Van Tuyl.

It's just taken for granted that a developer can change any community plan, Minto says. "It happens to neighborhoods all over the city. And residential land is lost and commercial encroachment happens all the time. So we had thirty neighborhoods that said, 'You're right, that's stupid.'"

The war over the Van Tuyl block turned convoluted and nasty, particularly in August 1998, when the Kansas City School District sued both the city and Van Tuyl to stop the project's tax incentives, which would have diverted money from schools. Then the Tax Increment Financing Commission, a board that advises the City Council on the use of those tax incentives, rejected Van Tuyl's request for $19.5 million. (Van Tuyl got just two votes, one of them from Kay Barnes, then the commission's chairwoman.) Eventually, the City Council put the project on a ballot and left its fate up to voters. Van Tuyl refused to risk being beaten in such a public forum, however, and pulled his plan from consideration in September 1998.

Van Tuyl's Roanoke Manor apartment buildings remained standing. Three years ago, David Block of Block & Company Realtors expressed interest in the property, but nothing materialized. People continued living in the apartments. Repairs to the property came slowly. Brick steps leading to a courtyard in the middle of the apartment buildings crumbled and fell. A driveway leading to off-street parking cracked. Electrical wiring and asbestos-wrapped pipe started showing in basements, and broken windows marred two of the three buildings facing Ward Parkway.

By contrast, a third building made them look even worse. Something between an upscale condominium and a corporation, the "co-op" is home to a small group of well-to-do professionals who own shares of stock in their building, a grand 1920s structure at the corner of Ward Parkway and Roanoke Boulevard. More common elsewhere (particularly in New York City), co-ops essentially make each tenant a partial landlord. Together they decide when and how to improve their property, and they benefit directly from any increase in property value.

In 2001, after the threat of the Van Tuyl project disappeared, the co-op's residents took out a $250,000 loan for repairs to their building's roof, windows, wrought-iron doorways, landscaping, security system, basement and utilities. They turned it into one of the classiest places to live on the Plaza and ensured through their investment that the building would survive any future development schemes.

Meanwhile, Van Tuyl allowed the adjacent buildings to depreciate. Or, to use the ugly term, his ownership brought engineered blight.

"This is a classic example," Minto says. "Van Tuyl bought the properties over a series of years, and now they just sit there." Minto contrasts this approach to what's happening with the co-op. "Built the same time, same type of construction, same awkward floor plans, same old mechanical, electrical and plumbing system, same old rotten windows. But [the co-op's owners], because of the location and spectacular view on the creek, have rewired it, put in new windows, maintained it. It's spectacularly hot property in Kansas City."

Right next door, he says, is a run-down Van Tuyl building. "It's not rotten because it's in a bad location, or it's an old building. It's no worse than the co-op," Minto says. "It's just that Van Tuyl, the property owner, has no intention of spending any money on it because he intends to tear it down and build there. Well, unfortunately, we, the rest of the city, have to live with that crap for decades."

But they won't have to for much longer.

Ray Braswell sits in his office, a modest corner space in Westport less than a block from the cobblestone section of Pennsylvania Avenue. His window still shows off the brilliant political sign posted all over town last November by his father-in-law, Charles Wheeler: a silhouetted profile of the former mayor and current state senator, his trademark bow tie highlighted in green.

Braswell shares the building with several other companies whose small staffs require simple floor plans and minimal square footage. To walk into his office is to encounter a large, antique wood conference table, two plain desks and a doorway leading to a smaller office, which contains a massive desk, a flat-screen monitor and a circular table.

Braswell wears small, square, fashionable glasses. His style is mogul chic, like a movie producer in a GQ photo spread. He wears an open-collared dress shirt tucked into pleated slacks, his outfit singing tremendous thread counts.

"I don't think I'm smarter than most," he says, seated at his circular table and surrounded by computer renderings of the West Edge project. "I took on a project that had a lot of baggage, and I had to go down a different road."

At the time of the Van Tuyl scuffle, Ray Braswell's surroundings were considerably more corporate. Then the president of Walton Construction, Kansas City's second-largest general contractor next to J.E. Dunn, Braswell led a company raking in annual revenues of more than $350 million. Before that, he held executive positions with Butler Management and Midwest Mechanical Contractors. He specialized in international jobs, leading construction projects in China, Japan, Israel, Mexico and Western Europe.

Braswell worked on various concepts -- the Town Center Plaza in Leawood, a convention center in Memphis, the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, casinos in Las Vegas -- but his niche was hotels. He's put up 32 Marriotts around the country as well as 20 hotels for the Promus chain and three Euro Disney hotels outside Paris.

But even as Braswell built cookie-cutter hotels, he and his wife of eight years, Marion Wheeler, developed a passion for smaller, stylish hotels. "When we would travel together, we would search out boutique hotels to stay in," he says. "And then we decided this is what we want to do. We've been in a ton of them; we've gathered from all of them. Then we were sitting around having a bottle of wine one night and came up with this idea. We didn't know if it was worth anything, but then we started finding out through others that this is a brilliant idea. An epiphany."

In 2001, Braswell committed himself to that epiphany full time. He moved into his Westport office and starting scouting sites for a high-class hotel that would work in the Kansas City market.

"It's not like we're creating something that's hoity-toity," he says, estimating rates at $135 a night. "But it's hip. There's nothing hip in a hotel in Kansas City. Maybe the Hotel Phillips is closest. But there's no hotel where you can go to and say, 'Now this place is cool; this is where I want all my friends to stay when they come to visit me.' The Raphael could be a great hotel, but it's kind of tired. The rest of them are just boring corporate hotels with no personality at all."

Originally, Braswell wanted the stately Park Lane apartment building, which overlooks Mill Creek Park. But Highwoods Properties passed on his offer, opting to destroy the Park Lane for an office building instead.

That's when Braswell moved to dangerous ground.

A year ago, he approached Cecil Van Tuyl about his block of West Plaza property. Braswell offered to develop the spot for Van Tuyl, who would retain a stake in whatever that development produced. More important, Braswell offered to do it right. "He had two attorneys and a developer doing [the first project], and they did not do it right, and he took all the hits for it," Braswell says of Van Tuyl. "The poor guy, he'll tell you right now, all he wanted to do was a quality project on that site. And he got his name turned into mud." Braswell says it was Van Tuyl's lawyers who really deserved the fury. "It was a time in Kansas City when you could get projects approved that way. Politics and so forth."

The description of multimillionaire car dealer Van Tuyl as a "poor guy" may be laughable, but Braswell knows the man's project was all wrong. "It was very suburban mentality to just wipe everything out," he says. "Plus it was more of a big office building, some high-rise towers for residential versus a truly urban mixed-use project."

With the Park Lane controversy raging on the opposite side of the Plaza, Braswell sought out neighbors and preservationists with a vested interest in what he wanted to do. He contacted Minto, who at the time was president of the West Plaza Neighborhood Association and had volunteered to help Park Lane protesters in their fight against Highwoods. He called on two residents of the co-op building, attorney Ed Setzler and radiologist Barry Gubin. He told the Historic Kansas City Foundation what he wanted to do. Then he had two meetings with West Plaza resident and preservationist Bill Bruning, a fierce opponent of the initial Van Tuyl plan.

At the first meeting, Braswell explained that it would be necessary to tear down two buildings along Ward Parkway and place the office building on the west half of the property, just across Belleview Avenue from the West Plaza neighborhood.

At the second meeting, Braswell heard what Bruning thought of his plans. Braswell recalls leaving with a headache and doubting his project's likelihood.

Bruning remembers the same. "I was very critical at that point," he says. Bruning hated the way Braswell had arranged the different aspects of his plan. Instead of putting the office building on the Plaza side of the block, closest to other high-rise buildings, he put it on the neighborhood side, towering over homes in the West Plaza neighborhood.

To Bruning, it was the way Braswell used the tiny piece of land that posed problems. "It didn't reflect my view of what ought to happen there," he says. "First of all, I'm a historic preservationist. I'm chairman of the Landmarks Commission. I'm formerly president of Historic Kansas City Foundation. I'm formerly vice chairman of the board of advisors for the National Trust. I've been involved in lots of other boards. My view of preservation is often that it's not just the buildings but the land-use plan that you want to preserve."

Braswell's next move was a visit to a West Plaza Neighborhood Association meeting, an event that had him walking straight into Bruning's list of objections. So the developer showed up at the meeting with a crude model of the project's layout, just as he had presented it to Bruning. Before the group could turn against him, Braswell removed pieces of that model. "I need all these blocks to make a feasible project," he told the group. "Where those blocks go, however, is still up in the air."

Over the next several months, Braswell worked with everyone to come up with a livable plan. He told preservationists he'd save two dilapidated but reparable buildings along Ward Parkway and move the office building -- but that meant the destruction of three buildings along Roanoke Parkway, across from the Mark Twain and the Robert Browning. To his surprise, preservationists said they could live with that.

Bruning eventually became one of Braswell's biggest allies. "Every other significant development in town has essentially been placed in front of the neighborhoods a fait accompli," he says. "'This is what I'm going to do, hope you like it, give me your input, but it's a done deal.' In this case, Ray really has involved all the parties from the very beginning."

Even Minto, who remains Braswell's toughest sell, extends the developer some gratitude for approaching him honestly. "To his credit, Ray has taken time to listen to some of the concerns," Minto says. "Both he and the neighbors will acknowledge that it's a better project."

Helping Braswell's case was his obsession with the project's architecture. Braswell believes that Plaza developers have a responsibility to protect the neighborhood's aura, to build not just on the Plaza but with the Plaza.

He mentions, by way of a bad example, drawings for the Plaza Colonnade, a city-subsidized office tower that will soon house the new Plaza branch library and the Blackwell Sanders law firm.

"That is just ... " Braswell trails off, frustrated. He begins again. "The Colonnade has no context to the Plaza whatsoever. It's a giant rectangle, and that's all it is."

The key is to design something that complements the Spanish Mediterranean architecture of the area's towers, fountains, doorways and second-floor storefronts without merely copying this architecture, because then, he says, "it looks cheesy."

That's hard to do, Braswell says. "But that's the architectural challenge in itself."

Braswell's heartfelt architectural tangent might sound overwrought if it weren't for Urban Core, a group he founded with his wife seven years ago. At the time, Braswell and Wheeler were looking for a Kansas City organization that celebrated renewal projects in the middle of the city. Finding none, they started their own. "Our mission was really simple," Braswell says. "We kind of coined it like a grown-up field trip. Every month we go to a different location, and it's either a place that's being redeveloped, has plans for redevelopment or is a new restaurant or something happening here."

In the past few years, Urban Core's membership has ballooned to more than 300 people, with another 200 visitors attending the group's cocktail parties, held at places like the Liberty Memorial, the Western Auto building downtown and Lidia's restaurant in the Crossroads.

At one such event last October, inside the Saint Francis Xavier Church at 52nd Street and Troost Avenue, Carol Grimaldi met Braswell for the first time. "I had been hearing about Ray for a while and reading about him, and I thought, I got to make this contact," says Grimaldi, executive director of the Brush Creek Community Partners, a group that promotes development along Brush Creek.

Though she hadn't weighed in on the Van Tuyl controversy, Grimaldi had experience with another of the city's most infamous development disputes. Cars still drive around town with fading bumper stickers that read "UMKC Kills Our Homes," remnants of the late-'90s fight against the school's effort to expand into surrounding neighborhoods. Like Van Tuyl's project, the University of Missouri-Kansas City's plans united many neighborhood groups in opposition. Like Van Tuyl, the university eventually took back its plan.

"[UMKC] had done a very, very bad job of working with the community," she says. "Previous chancellors didn't care what the surrounding neighborhoods had to say. So the community stood up and said, 'When you use terms like eminent domain, that frightens all of us.' Neighborhood leaders throughout the city felt it was time to teach UMKC a lesson.

Braswell has been different, Grimaldi says. "The way he went about it is absolutely laudable, especially in contrast to the history of development in this community, particularly that little piece of land."

But here's where things get problematic all over again for that little piece of land. On March 12, Braswell will go to the TIF Commission and ask for $25 million in subsidies to pay for infrastructure, including his underground parking garage. This gets tricky, not necessarily because of Braswell and his plan but rather because the entire TIF process is in a state of alert.

For years, the City Council and TIF Commission have argued about the need for an official TIF policy. City Auditor Mark Funkhouser has repeatedly told council members that TIF is overused and underscrutinized by the city. In a September 2002 report, he lamented that, "To the public, as well as to the knowledgeable insiders, it can appear that the critical element required for plan approval is ... how well connected the developer's attorneys are." Besides, he pointed out, "The chances of political manipulation are greatly reduced when decision-makers have formal criteria for making their decisions."

On the other hand, TIF Director Laura Whitener argues that the City Council has final say on all projects. If strict guidelines inhibit the TIF Commission, the council could miss the opportunity to consider a project with overall benefits that outweigh any one criterion.

The discussion seems to have reached an impasse. But a new city audit on TIF expenditures, set to be released a few months from now, will stir up the issue all over again.

For the moment, Kansas City lacks any guidelines for what type of project should receive tax breaks. Now, a plan's approval from the TIF Commission is based on two conditions: If the developer proves he needs a handout to make the project happen, and if the city will make enough in future property taxes to compensate for the handout. Then the City Council decides whether the project fits its goals for the city.

But by that time, the developer has already negotiated with the city's Finance Department. So by the time a project reaches the council, both the TIF Commission and the Finance Department are telling council members that everything's shipshape. Weeks of meetings, plan revisions and handshakes suddenly land on the council's lap with everyone nodding their heads and recommending approval.

That's how you end up with politicians grandstanding about the need to give developers tax breaks for downtown projects while TIF builds million-dollar condos on Brush Creek.

And that actually happens.

Last May, for instance, the City Council approved Kirkwood Circle, a $150 million residential redevelopment plan at 49th Street and Wornall Road, just south of a bridge that delivers drivers into the open arms of the Plaza. The city's contribution isn't much -- just $8.7 million. But taxpayers are expected to believe that without that $8.7 million handout, the project would die -- that the developer, DST Systems, couldn't afford to move ahead with its plan to build $500,000 condos and $700,000 townhouses.

Like Braswell's West Edge, the Kirkwood Circle plan won an endorsement from a neighborhood group, in part because it will bring sidewalk repairs. But unlike Braswell's plan, Kirkwood is nothing more than a bunch of fancy homes for rich people on an already gorgeous stretch of South Plaza property.

That irks a guy like Paul Minto.

"It's an embarrassment to Kansas City that we're capturing tax money from the Country Club Plaza to pay for private infrastructure improvement behind some gated community," Minto says of the Kirkwood plan.

Minto extends that reproof to the West Edge plan, too. He understands the argument that something needs to happen on the block, but he also knows why that's true.

Among West Plaza residents, it's widely believed that Van Tuyl shelled out so much money that it left him with no other option than to crush the apartments and replace them with an office tower. Van Tuyl's real estate administrator, Bonnie Gibson, essentially agrees that Van Tuyl overpaid. "The buildings aren't economically viable at this point," she says. "They're just too small. Even with renovation, you can't get the rent." After his plan failed, Van Tuyl had no incentive to invest in apartments already losing him money, so he let the property deteriorate. Now, with the help of Braswell's much-praised approach, and with neighbors sickened by the neglected block, Van Tuyl will get what he wanted all along. And something about that gets under Minto's skin.

"One, you engineer blight on the edge of the Country Club Plaza, which I think most people in Kansas City would say is not the worst part of the city," Minto says. "And then two, you get a huge tax break to rectify the blight that you, in fact, created. Had those properties remained on the market and remained competitive, there would be no problem. Look right next door at the co-op."

Not that a TIF policy would end engineered blight. In all likelihood, wealthy people and influential companies would still get to trash their properties and cash in the garbage for subsidies. But what about honesty?

Last year, officials at Highwoods Properties said they had to abandon their city-approved plan to convert the Park Lane into a boutique hotel because the idea was no longer profitable. So Highwoods asked the city to hand out $12 million to raze the Park Lane and build an office tower.

At the same time, Braswell, a man who had built hotels around the world, was telling Highwoods Properties that his boutique hotel could work. He says the same today: "It's a slam dunk as the right hotel, and it's probably mediocre as the wrong hotel."

So who was right? Highwoods or Braswell? If Highwoods was right, does that make Braswell wrong? And if Braswell was wrong about the Park Lane as a boutique hotel, could he be wrong about the West Edge, too?

And while the questions are flowing, what's happening to the Park Lane now? Well, it's empty, ridden of its troublesome tenants. This summer, a year will have passed since anyone lived there. Next summer, two years. After that, three. See where this is going? Pretty soon, no one will care about the protests that once took place. The city will see a blighted property -- engineered by Highwoods Properties -- and something will need to be done. Maybe a boutique hotel. Maybe an office building.

There's an inevitability there. Development wants, development gets. And the best you can hope for is that a guy like Braswell will listen to your concerns and be forthright and imaginative and cooperative and so downright likable that you even kind of like his plan, too.

"This time we haven't made a big stink, in part because the writing seems to be on the wall that something is going to happen," Minto says. "So you could beat your head against the wall, or you could try and at least make the bitter pill a little less bitter."

But that's a lot to throw on Braswell's individual project. After all, almost everyone concerned is happy with him at the helm. But Braswell himself is not entirely happy. From his window table at J.J.'s, sitting over a glass of merlot, he looks out onto the Van Tuyl property and admits that there is some doubt behind his seemingly cocksure attitude.

"The only thing that is troublesome for me, and it's probably just being paranoid, is that I hope, I really do hope, that at the end of this process, nobody runs up and tries to throw me a curveball," he says. "And I'm saying that because I've been so open and straight with these people, keeping them in the loop and giving them every opportunity to say, 'Ray, we don't like this.' If they wanted to do it, they should have done it up until now.

"This stands to be the best urban redevelopment project the city has ever been involved in, this one right here," he says, a genuine sense of purpose in his voice, his eyes locked on the most stunningly blighted buildings this city's ever grown.

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