The Greening of McRee Town

There was nothing wrong with the Missouri Botanical Garden's downtrodden neighbor to the north that a bulldozer couldn't fix

Kleinbard moved to St. Louis to become deputy director of the garden in 1997 after working for 30 years at the University of Chicago, where he was a key player in the redevelopment of Hyde Park, a nearby neighborhood that had seen better days. It seemed like a natural fit when the garden's director, Peter Raven, asked Kleinbard to organize an effort to spruce up the surrounding area. Like the University of Chicago, the garden was enveloped by beautiful old houses, some of which had always been cared for by their owners, and many of which had fallen into such disrepair that they were dangerous. Kleinbard found a beautiful home for himself a few blocks from the garden on Flora Place, a showcase street of historic homes where the average sales price is $265,000.

Flora Place, Magnolia Avenue and Tower Grove Place have always been pillars of stability for the Shaw and Southwest Garden neighborhoods. Although some of Shaw's streets are notoriously rough -- a police officer was shot last year in the 3800 block of Shenandoah -- it has managed to attract a fair share of rehabbers who are pushing property values upward. Until 1973, McRee Town and an area to the east called Tiffany were vibrant parts of the Shaw neighborhood. That changed when Interstate 44 was completed and the two neighborhoods were severed from the stability of Shaw's garden and the elegant homes that surround it.

"When I moved here, we had a drugstore, we had a laundromat. We had a Baskin-Robbins at 39th near McRee," recalls Norma Cox, who bought her home on Lafayette Avenue in 1976. She remembers the day the city blocked the underpass at Thurman Avenue so that traffic could not pass between Shaw and McRee Town. "That's when I knew we were cut off," she says.







Fixing McRee Town: Area 1, east of Thurman Avenue, will get up to 175 new homes, while Area 2 is earmarked for a mix of rehab and demolition; Area 3 has been set aside for a small community center, Area 4 for business offices and research facilities.
Click here for an enlarged picture.
Fixing McRee Town: Area 1, east of Thurman Avenue, will get up to 175 new homes, while Area 2 is earmarked for a mix of rehab and demolition; Area 3 has been set aside for a small community center, Area 4 for business offices and research facilities.
Click here for an enlarged picture.
Jonathan Kleinbard, Dell Breeland and the Rev. Elmer Wilson (background), all members of the Garden District Commission, stand in the shadow of buildings that will soon be demolished
Jennifer Silverberg
Jonathan Kleinbard, Dell Breeland and the Rev. Elmer Wilson (background), all members of the Garden District Commission, stand in the shadow of buildings that will soon be demolished

Compared to the architectural dream houses across the freeway, McRee's multifamily homes are plain-Jane. They were built in the mid-1890s for workers at Liggett & Myers, once the world's largest tobacco company. Most are large, tall and sturdy; many possess architectural signatures, such as patterned brickwork or stained glass, that make them unique. In 1987 the neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a strategy to attract investment.

It didn't work. Residents continued selling their homes and moving away; some became absentee landlords or sold to people who only came to McRee Town to collect the rent. Buildings were abandoned. A few were set on fire. Squatters moved in and more homeowners moved out.

This patch of urban decay between Interstate 44, Vandeventer, 39th Street and Folsom Avenue became known as the place to buy crack. Eventually McRee Town became a last resort for the poorest of St. Louis' poor, many of whom had been displaced by other neighborhood redevelopment efforts over the years.

"The city's strategy was: Let it rot into the ground. Let it empty out, then knock everything down," says Eddie Roth, who was president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association the year Jonathan Kleinbard came to the botanical garden.

When Kleinbard first drove through McRee Town, a thought immediately struck him: "Anything done [in Shaw] without addressing McRee Town will not be sustainable." Not only does McRee present a frightening front door to those visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden, its drug and crime problems have a habit of crossing under the freeway via Tower Grove Avenue, right onto the garden's turf. On the other hand, McRee's location makes it prime real estate for a bio-tech corridor between the garden and the medical centers of Washington and St. Louis universities.

In 1997 Kleinbard began meeting with neighborhood leaders who had been trying for years to improve the area around the garden. At his urging, members of four neighborhood associations banded together to form the Garden District Commission, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the areas east, west and north of the botanical garden. Its board of directors includes residents, business people and planners from all of the neighborhoods.

"We had focus groups, community-organization meetings. The plans were discussed in public meetings. And out of that came a consensus," Kleinbard says. "The general consensus was we needed to move ahead by placing McRee as the highest priority."

In the past five years, Kleinbard has managed to raise nearly $11 million for the commission to execute its plan for McRee Town. The first $1.8 million came from the Danforth Foundation, another $3 million came from a city block grant. The garden has promised up to $3 million, as well. Kleinbard arranged for U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond to take a twenty-minute bus tour of the ravaged neighborhood that netted $2.85 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Out of the planning emerged a blueprint to metamorphose McRee Town into a place of baseball fields and landscaped gardens with new and rehabbed homes for poor and middle-class families. "I felt we had a chance to do something spectacular," Roth recalls. Yet after two years as president of the Garden District Commission, Roth would quit in frustration.


The air was still cold on a Saturday morning last March when nearly 100 protesters gathered at World's Fair Donuts on Vandeventer, across from the botanical garden's Monsanto Research Center. Marchers warmed themselves with coffee as they waved signs that declared, "The Garden is Making the Housing Crisis Worse!" Jim Roos brought his pickup, which was tattooed with these words: "Peter Raven and Missouri Botanical Garden -- No Clear Cutting Decent Homes in McRee Town!"

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1 comments
ddfry3
ddfry3

Almost seven years later, upscale dining and a French bakery have located at the corner of McRee and Tower Grove Ave. Redevelopment and new construction is continuing slowly but steadily. I looked at a two story two flat with upscale furnishings that had an asking price of almost $300,000. One possible game-changer is a Montessori school that is drawing suburban families of means into the neighborhood attendance boundaries.

 
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