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

Landlords, on the other hand, do not receive relocation expenses. Roos, who has sunk considerable sums into improving his apartments, says the Garden District Commission has offered $613,000 for 22 properties owned or managed by Neighborhood Enterprises. Based on comparable sales in nearby neighborhoods and the rents each unit generated, Roos believes the properties are worth three times as much.

After the commission offered $227,000 for eight buildings owned by Sanctuary in the Ordinary, Roos asked a city court judge to appoint a three-person condemnation committee to hear his case. The panel awarded the nonprofit an extra $120,000, but Roos believes the properties were still undervalued. He points to 3941 Blaine, a 5,000-square-foot building that contained three moderately rehabbed townhouses with a total of eighteen rooms. Condemnation commissioners said the building was worth $50,000. "I couldn't buy a three-family building anywhere in St. Louis for $50,000," he says.

"We had an ongoing enterprise," Roos adds. "And the value of that is not on the table when they determine what it's worth. It's all bricks and mortar."

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

But in Missouri, eminent-domain law is on the side of the Garden District Commission, says Paul Henry, a Clayton condemnation attorney who represented Neighborhood Enterprises. Roos has decided to ask for a jury trial to challenge the amounts he's being offered by the commission and has hired another attorney. He expects to spend between $15,000 and $20,000 in legal fees for each judgment he fights.

"The evidentiary law in Missouri on eminent domain is very harsh," Henry says. "People want to tell their story: 'I should be compensated because I had to uproot my business.' Most people sympathize, but the law is not as kind. All you're entitled to talk about is property value."

The biggest obstacle facing Roos is the bad reputation of landlords around the city, Henry says. "They will try to paint him as a slumlord, which he is not," says the attorney.

By the time the leaves fall, much of McRee Town will be rubble. Swept away will be crumbling buildings and lead paint, drug dealers and guns and memories of a place that offered little hope.

When the green leaves return, up to eight new model homes will sprout where nothing has grown for years. A wrought-iron fence will surround Botanical Heights; decorative entrance markers and landscaping will welcome prospective homebuyers.

"It will be so good to see something pretty here, to see kids playing," says Norma Cox, who wishes she could be here to see it.

Using private and public funds, the Garden District Commission expects to spend $6.2 million to buy properties in McRee Town, $4.3 million to relocate residents and $4.5 million to demolish all of the homes and clean up any environmental problems. As each section of the neighborhood is developed, the commission will split the costs of street and alley resurfacing, curbs, sidewalks, utility upgrades, signage and landscaping with McBride & Son Homes.

The Chesterfield-based company entered a development agreement with the commission last June, giving the company the exclusive right to buy ready-to-build parcels for $15,000 each. If the entire development of 175 houses is built, the project could generate $26 million for the builder, based on an average home sale price of $150,000.

McBride is only obligated to buy twenty parcels per year, but if the company fails to build at least fifteen homes a year, the commission can cancel the contract, buy back the properties and charge the firm a one-time penalty of $50,000. If that should happen, the commission would find a new developer, commission president Dell Breeland says.

Richard Sullivan, McBride & Son's chief executive officer, declined to comment for this story. In a voicemail message he said, "We will be working with [the Garden District Commission] in the future as they complete acquisition and demolition. But for now I'd prefer McBride & Son not be part of any news story. I've asked the Garden District Commission not to publicize its plans. I'd rather see the project get advanced farther before any publicity events occur."

Robnett says the builder is in the process of designing model homes that will be "urban in character." They will, he says, be tall brick structures (less expensive, vinyl-sided models will be available) designed to blend into the architectural landscape of a neighborhood that once was historic.

The Garden District Commission believes a new history is being made here: the revival of a neighborhood. For those whose houses are not being torn down, such as 74-year-old Billie Chamblin, the development holds the promise of a normal life. No more carrying paint in her van to cover up graffiti; no more tossing sneakers off the sidewalk where a drug dealer has left them as a signal; no more gangs of armed young men walking by as she comforts a child who has skinned his knee.

The new development, when fully built, will bring up to 240 middle-class, taxpaying families to the city and the potential for nearly 300 new jobs in a business park west of Tower Grove Avenue. Even with a ten-year tax abatement on new buildings, the area will generate $10 million more in tax revenue than it currently does, Robnett says.

But critics point to Old North St. Louis as a model for a more organic way of saving a neighborhood. There, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group has used grant money to reach out to low-income neighbors (78 percent of residents are renters) with programs on financial planning, health and wellness and emotional support. The neighborhood also is working with landlords and low-income homeowners to improve their properties. Only four buildings have been torn down to make way for a development of 100 new houses, and 15 percent of those will be priced between $80,000 and $90,000. No one has been relocated and houses that have stood vacant for years are being rehabbed by young homeowners looking for a good deal.

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