Tombstone Blues

Wealthy investors spend millions to resurrect the neighborhood near Bellefontaine Cemetery. They discover that money can't do everything.

After all the haggling, two disbursement accounts were set up for the neighborhood. One has $500,000 for forgivable home-improvement loans for owner-occupied homes, and the other has $250,000 for better street lighting and landscape improvements. Now that cash will start flowing for residents, it's anticipated that the sale of the LRA lots will soon follow.

Some involved in this 1st Ward wrestling match contend that the donors would have set up the accounts for home-improvement loans and streetscape work even if Smith had not held the LRA lots hostage. Others disagree.

While the sale of the vacant LRA lots to the donor group hung in limbo, a year and a half slipped by with no ground being broken for new houses. The money was there, the will was there; the politics got in the way. If it had been more readily apparent that the donors needed to put their plan in writing and put up the home-improvement money on the front end, the sale of the vacant LRA lots would have been a surer bet. The earlier sale of the lots would have led to visible signs of progress in a neighborhood in dire need of such signs.

Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.
Jennifer Silverberg
The nightmare property owned by first-time landlord Sonja Wooten is undergoing a gut rehab so it can be resold as condominiums.

Although the project appears headed for a happy ending, Whitfield says there's a lesson to be learned here: Not every developer would put up with all of this confusion and delay.

"The LRA has a huge inventory of property across the city. I don't know the reason for it, but somebody has determined that the alderperson has the final say-so on how this LRA property is being utilized," says Whitfield. "I don't care whether it's Irene's ward or whose ward it is, I think that's a huge problem in terms of using that land for development.

"I think a lot of people who are developers, whether it's this donor group or whoever it is, they're not coming from within the city of St. Louis," Whitfield says. "I think they will have problems trying to understand working with an alderperson to get the job done. That's going to be a frustration."

Whitfield doesn't even blame Smith for the problem -- he says it's the system.

"In terms of working with Irene Smith, I cannot honestly say she was unusually difficult," Whitfield says. "She wanted some control over how the LRA lots were being used. I was in three or four meetings with her and Quincy Troupe, neighborhood meetings, and nobody ran us out of the building. I've known Irene and Quincy, too, for a long time.

"The major problem is the city's policy with regard to utilization of LRA property," Whitfield says. "We came in moving very fast and wanting to do a lot, but we ran into a big stumbling block early on. As we switched to show the residents what we were trying to do, the project started moving.

"But we still don't have the LRA properties."

Whitfield also knows that to succeed, the project will have to do more than buy land and provide bricks and mortar.

"After one meeting, a guy came up to me and said, 'What you're trying to do is good, well intended, but one of the first things you need to try to do is to provide some kind of security or protection or comfort for the neighborhood, in terms of crime,'" Whitfield says. "I think that's a bigger, more realistic approach."

Evelyn Greer, a homeowner on Vera Street who also runs a daycare center, says the developers helped the neighborhood by taking on some problem properties.

"Crime needs to be addressed, but I would say they're working on it. We had some buildings they bought and cleared out," says Greer, including the apartments on Rosalie. "Because of that, it's not near as bad as it was as far as crime and drug activity. That's part of the puzzle they have to solve. But it's happening, from what I can see."

Patricia Goree has lived in the neighborhood for 31 years and is optimistic about what she sees. Workers just finished putting siding, guttering, new windows and a new front door on her house. The work was financed by a forgivable loan bankrolled by the donor group.

"It turned out real well," Goree says. "Eventually all the vacant lots that we have, they'll put new homes on them. That will bring the neighborhood up to par."

For McFadden, the Realtor, Irene Smith was a "reality check" for the donor group. "I would have done what she did. I told them that," she says. "They had to play her ball game."

Smith says the ordeal may have burned a lot of time, but she makes no apologies.

"They didn't have anything in writing. This process forced them to sit and plan out their development," Smith says. "Initially it was 'Ain't nobody going to tell us what to do with our money.' And that's true -- it's your money -- but you are asking us for something. You're asking me for support for you purchasing these other lots. Then you're making commitments to my constituents and than at the same time folks are contacting them about buying their house. I have to have my antennae up."

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