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

In fact, the neighborhood has seen a stronger police presence since January, when the department reorganized and turned over McRee Town to the Ninth District. But Captain Robert Oldani says drug dealers own the neighborhood. "I hate to say it, but you have to live in a world of reality," he says. "They got control of it. The people that live there -- I feel sorry for every one of them."

The commission began paying relocation benefits to tenants and homeowners in the summer of 2002. But Finley, who lived in the 3900 block of McRee Avenue until last August, says many people moved before they heard about the money. "When I moved in, I started hearing they were going to tear everything down," she says. "Landlords, they didn't care for their properties anymore."

In her apartment, the pipes broke and the sewer backed up. She was about to move when she received a letter from Midtown Catholic Community Services advising her to wait for relocation benefits. Shortly after that, the Garden District Commission contacted her.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Roos manages two dozen buildings in McRee Town that are slated for demolition
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Roos manages two dozen buildings in McRee Town that are slated for demolition

Speculators also took advantage of the situation, buying houses at low prices, evicting the tenants, then selling the buildings at higher prices to the Garden District Commission. "I know of one building that sold three times in six months," says John Pachak.

Robnett says the Garden District Commission couldn't begin tearing down the buildings it owned until the city approved the redevelopment plan in 2002: "We could have been demolishing a potential gut rehab if the redevelopment plan hadn't been approved."

But the buildings the commission bought between 1999 and 2002 were vacant, and many were fire-damaged and dilapidated with little potential for rehabilitation. In addition, in the nineteen months since the Board of Aldermen approved the redevelopment plan, the commission had not demolished a single building until this past week.

"If we could have, we would have," Robnett says. "But we have an archival recording requirement that has to have state approval." Because the neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the project is receiving HUD funding, each building must be photographed and its features and dimensions must be recorded for posterity. But it wasn't until four months ago that the commission contracted with a firm to do the archiving.

As the vacancy rate rises in McRee Town, the streets are becoming scarier. The number of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults rose from 49 to 79 between 2001 and 2002.

Norma Cox was sitting on her front porch sipping coffee at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon several weeks ago when she heard gunfire. There are so many holes in her metal garage door, she stopped counting. "I didn't used to be scared," she says. "I'm scared now. It's like someone has stirred up a hornet's nest."

Norma and Jack Cox are like refugees waiting to be airlifted out of a war zone. They don't want to leave their huge, comfortable home at 4045 Lafayette, but the neighborhood has become so volatile, they're afraid to stay.

"I love my house," Norma says in an Arkansas twang that 28 years in St. Louis hasn't erased. If they had their druthers, the Coxes would stay in McRee Town and welcome new houses all around them. But they live in an area slated for total demolition.

"We're not moving because we want to. We figured we'd die here," Norma says. "But now we know we have to, and I don't want to be put in a dump somewhere."

Norma, who's 63, has been keeping an eye on her blood pressure ever since the buyout became imminent. Jack, her husband of fifteen years, is the calmer of the pair. But even he gets anxious when talk turns to the acquisition of their home and a rental property they own next door.

Last week the couple received a letter from the Garden District Commission offering $33,000 for their home, a four-family building that they have tastefully converted to a twelve-bedroom refuge. "I can't even buy a garage for that," Jack snorts. They were offered $29,000 for the two-family rental property that provides the couple with $1,000 a month in extra income.

"I think they're trying to steal everything they can steal," 68-year-old Jack Cox says. "I feel like I've been raped. Somebody comes along and says, 'We're going to take $1,000 a month away and force you into this,' and I'm screaming and hollering and saying, 'No! No!'"

In order to match the monthly income, they would need to have $150,000 to $175,000 invested in an annuity at 5 percent interest, Jack says. He works part-time as a service officer at the Veterans Administration hospital and volunteers as a prison chaplain. Norma is the director of housekeeping at Schnucks Floral Design Center. "All of our plans -- what we want to do when Norma retires, it's gone. It's all gone," Jack says.

The Coxes have retained a lawyer. "They are going to have a fight," Jack vows. He tried to convince other landlords to do the same, but many of them believed the Garden District Commission was too powerful to take on.

Many homeowners in the neighborhood are thrilled with the deal they're getting. In a neighborhood where the tax base has plummeted nearly $1 million in the past ten years, property values are at rock bottom. Homeowners are receiving sizeable relocation packages in addition to the sales price of their homes, so even though their houses appraise low, they can afford to move to a decent home in another area.

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