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

"Their signs in the [garden's] geo-dome say the two keys to an alive planet are recycling and biodiversity," says Father Gerald Kleba. "But they can't think we could recycle a house, or that black, poor or elderly people are an aspect of biodiversity that would enhance the garden because it would enhance the world at their doorstep."

The environmental argument doesn't wash with Kleinbard, who says very few of the buildings in McRee Town are worth saving. But preservationists disagree. Gary Glenn, a St. Louis architect and member of the regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, estimates that 50 to 75 percent of the buildings in the demolition zone are suitable for rehabilitation.

"This is an incredibly lost opportunity," agrees Carolyn Hewes Toft, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a historic architecture organization opposed to the demolition. "Building materials [for new houses] have to be mined and manufactured. Renovation puts more people to work and it costs less."

The Garden District Commission is paying to move Jackie Ingram and her seven children to an apartment in a better neighborhood
Jennifer Silverberg
The Garden District Commission is paying to move Jackie Ingram and her seven children to an apartment in a better neighborhood

In 2000, the Garden District Commission's annual report promised ten acres of green space and a community center; a year later the plan had changed.
Click here for an enlarged picture.
In 2000, the Garden District Commission's annual report promised ten acres of green space and a community center; a year later the plan had changed.
Click here for an enlarged picture.

Eddie Roth says community members considered rehabbing properties and filling in vacant lots with new homes, a strategy that has worked in the Gate District neighborhoods east of Grand Avenue, as well as in Old North St. Louis, which is planning a development with 100 new homes. But in McRee Town, Roth says, people were looking for dramatic action.

"To attract resources -- the people with this kind of dough -- there had to be a new-housing element," he reasons. "That had to be at the core of remaking McRee Town."

Adds George Robnett, the Garden District Commission's executive director: "We have to increase homeownership -- people with a vested interest in the neighborhood. New housing is the best way to do that."

The commission decided the safest bet for attracting a developer was to tear down all 200 buildings east of Thurman Avenue, regardless of their condition, to clear a 25-acre swath for new houses. Another 100 buildings west of Thurman are to be demolished to make room for more new homes, as well as office and research space.

In order to clear the land, the commission first had to buy all of the homes, many of which went into arrears for back taxes more than a decade ago and have sat vacant and crumbling under city ownership. In March 2002, after five months of study, the city's Board of Aldermen granted eminent domain authority to the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation so it could condemn land and buildings whose owners refused to sell.

Before World War II, eminent domain was used by governments to seize land needed for highways and other projects in the "public interest." Its use was subsequently expanded so that cities could grant condemnation power to private redevelopment corporations whose jobs are to revive blighted neighborhoods.

Roos, whose company rents apartments for between $250 and $600 a month, estimates that at least 100 of the units in the demolition zone are home to low-income renters. According to the commission's 2000 annual report, the plan was to relocate people from the demolition zone to new and renovated housing in McRee Town. The original plan also included a 10,000-square-foot community center and ten acres of playgrounds, softball fields and landscaped green space.

But between 2000 and 2001, the plan changed considerably. The new draft, which Roth says was prepared by consultants without the input of community members, proposed up to 175 new houses east of Thurman (instead of 125), a much smaller community center and virtually no green space. "Suddenly it just became this middle-class tract housing," says Roth, who has since moved to Dayton, Ohio. "That's not how it was sold, and the reason I know that was because I was the one doing the selling.

"We were saying to poor people, 'You have to move so that middle-class people can move in, but it's also so that we can have a community center for all the kids and green space for all the kids. And that was thrown out without any kind of public discussion," Roth maintains.

Robnett says a community center could have become a "white elephant" if the commission had been unable to find sources to fund its daily operations. A new center a half-mile north at Adams Elementary School will serve the needs of McRee Town, he asserts.

Roth's biggest complaint, however, was that "not one unit [was] put aside east of Thurman for low-income housing. There was not even a [plan] for making housing opportunities happen for low-income or moderate-income families."

The commission is rehabbing fourteen buildings west of Thurman and hopes to make more renovated homes in McRee Town available to low-income buyers and renters, Robnett counters, though he says the market will dictate just how many. In addition, an undetermined number of new homes will be priced between $100,000 and $120,000 for "moderate-income families," he says.

So far, says Robnett, approximately 70 tenants have been relocated. Four have been moved to apartments in the western half of McRee Town, the rest to other neighborhoods. Most, like Doris Finley, are happy to get out. In August the Garden District Commission paid for Finley and her family to move to a three-bedroom townhouse in Forest Park Southeast, a neighborhood that is still rough, but getting better. "I just thank God every day," Finley says. "This is what I have wanted all these years. I have been blessed."

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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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