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

Jim Roos lowers the tailgate on his black Chevy pickup and orders his dog, Indie, into the back. He pushes rags and tools from the passenger seat to the floorboard and rolls the window down to a sticky August morning. It's eight o'clock, but Roos, the president of a property-management company that leases apartments in McRee Town, has been at his office since four.

The streets of McRee Town are quiet as Roos turns onto the 3900 block of Blaine Avenue. The smell of trash hangs as thick as the humidity. The buildings, most of them boarded and burned, are broken-down monuments to a neighborhood that lost hope long ago. Yet behind the shadows of neglect are arched doorways, stately turrets, brick front porches -- simple architectural reminders of a place that once was beautiful and elegant.

McRee Town is still waking up. In a few hours, drug dealers will be waving their arms and yelling at passing motorists, especially those who are white, hoping to make a sale. Cops say most buyers tool down Interstate 44 from the suburbs, take the Vandeventer exit and score some crack in McRee Town, then pop back on the freeway.

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






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
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.
Jack and Norma Cox say the Garden District Commission offered $33,000 for their twelve-bedroom house
Jennifer Silverberg
Jack and Norma Cox say the Garden District Commission offered $33,000 for their twelve-bedroom house
George Robnett, executive director of the Garden District Commission, believes the plan for McRee Town gives poor people a shot at a better life
Jennifer Silverberg
George Robnett, executive director of the Garden District Commission, believes the plan for McRee Town gives poor people a shot at a better life

At 3941 Blaine, Roos lets himself into a brown brick building that has been converted into three large townhouses. The vacant apartment reeks. Evidently someone broke out a new thermal-insulated window and used the toilet. He didn't flush.

"This is one of our best buildings," Roos says. He walks through the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath townhouse, pointing out the new carpet, new ceilings, new insulation, new windows and newer kitchen countertop and sink. It's not fancy but it's livable, and it rents for $540 a month. (A three-bedroom with similar features in the Shaw neighborhood, right over on the south side of Interstate 44, rents for at least $700.)

"This is what they are going to tear down," Roos protests. He's about to launch into another indignant monologue but stops himself, perhaps because the stench is overwhelming.

At 3949 Blaine, John Minner is about to go to work spreading the Gospel as a volunteer for the St. Louis Powerhouse Church. The church rents the building from Roos' company, Neighborhood Enterprises, for use as a men's shelter. "This is a house of God," Minner says, pointing to a pretty, two-story home of white brick with blue trim. "This is the only form of light in this neighborhood. You know, this neighborhood is known as the Dark Side."

Next door Jackie Ingram is toting her one-year-old while her three-year-old pulls on her arm. Her five other kids are watching TV in her bedroom (which is actually the dining room). "People in this neighborhood are crazy," Ingram says. "It's so black here at night you can't see nothing. They shoot out the streetlights, and as soon as they come and fix them, they shoot them out again."

Ingram has been packing boxes, getting ready to move out of McRee Town and praying the next place will be better. Her relocation expenses, along with those of all of her neighbors, are being paid by the Garden District Commission, a nonprofit corporation whose goal is to tear down six square blocks of McRee Town and build new homes with prices ranging from $120,000 to $180,000. The plan, which was spearheaded by the Missouri Botanical Garden, located a quarter-mile south down Tower Grove Avenue, aims to transform McRee Town from an urban hellhole to an inner-city oasis for middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals.

No one, especially those living in McRee Town, disputes that the neighborhood needs emergency surgery. In fact, most renters and homeowners are clamoring to get out. But Roos, along with a group called Citizens for a Fair McRee Town, questions why the garden, with its "recycle, recycle, recycle" mantra, is sponsoring a plan to tear down 300 historic buildings, many of which provide affordable housing to poor St. Louisans.

Roos and others claim the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation and the Garden District Commission are abusing their eminent-domain authority by paying property owners too little, then turning the cleared, leveled and graded land over to McBride & Son Homes, which stands to make a handsome profit.

"Eminent domain is for the public interest," Roos protests. "It's in the public interest to solve crime and make an environment where it's eventually possible to rehab these houses and build new houses."

Instead, he says, the Garden District Commission has "demonized the neighborhood and anyone involved with it so that no one has to feel bad about the loss of these buildings or the unfair treatment of anyone or anything."

"We know some of these buildings are horrible and they should have been knocked down five years ago," adds Father Gerald Kleba, pastor of St. Cronan's Catholic Church, located a half-mile north of McRee Town on Boyle Avenue. "But some of these buildings are treasures. They just insist on the slash-and-burn technique."


Jonathan Kleinbard sits at a conference table in an office with huge windows that overlook the Missouri Botanical Garden. He's wearing a black suit and black lace-up shoes, which he props on the table as he speaks. On paper, Kleinbard is simply a member of the Garden District Commission. In reality, he is its founder and chief fund-raiser.

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.

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!"

"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."

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."

In McRee Town, Finley paid $400 a month for her apartment. Her new home costs $625 a month. But for the next 42 months, the commission will cover the difference. Finley isn't worried about how she will pay the higher rent after the subsidy runs out. But John Pachak, who works with Father Kleba at Midtown Catholic Community Services, is concerned. He says many poor families will be forced to move to another neighborhood like McRee after three and a half years. Robnett argues that the program is giving people a chance at a better life. He adds that four people were able to take advantage of low interest rates and buy homes with the help of the Garden District Commission.

But to Kleba, the issue is bigger than the tenants who are now being relocated. In a city where two huge public housing projects recently have been torn down and where 5,000 people are on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, the destruction of more than 100 housing units for low-income people will mean fewer housing options for poor people throughout the city, he contends.

"No one is going to replace this housing for the poor," says Kleba. "People gotta live somewhere, and that somewhere will be overcrowded housing somewhere else, with family or friends. Then that neighborhood deteriorates and they have to spend millions of dollars years later to redevelop it.

"They'll be inventing another McRee Town."


When Jonathan Kleinbard begins talking about Jim Roos, his words become harsher and his voice becomes louder. "Jim Roos and I have a difference of opinion about what is adequate housing for underserved people," Kleinbard says frankly.

The two met in 1999, when Roos began his campaign to persuade the Garden District Commission to save some of the homes in the demolition zone -- namely those belonging to Neighborhood Enterprises or its nonprofit partner, Sanctuary in the Ordinary. Twenty-four of the 40 McRee Town properties owned or managed by the two businesses have been or will be acquired by the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation. In May 1999 Sanctuary in the Ordinary invited Robnett and Kleinbard to tour several units managed by Neighborhood Enterprises. The plan backfired.

"The floors didn't have coverings," Kleinbard remembers. "There were two refrigerators and two stoves in one kitchen because the freezer worked on one and the refrigerator worked on the other and the oven worked on one and the range worked on the other, and they were all on extension cords. There were mattresses on the floor!"

Roos is still kicking himself for not visiting the homes before Kleinbard did. One tenant had just lost electrical service, which is why power cords were extended to a neighbor's apartment, he explains. The appliances belonged to the tenant. As for the bedding on the floor, Roos says the tenants didn't have beds, which is not unusual for poor people.

"We have skewed notions in this society where so many kids have their own bedrooms and private baths," adds Father Kleba. "They think it's child abuse to sleep on a cot. They don't know what a step up that is from living in a car."

Kleinbard had heard horror stories about Roos before he ever stepped inside his apartments. Several residents had sued Neighborhood Enterprises for lead poisoning. Roos' real estate license was suspended in 1997 for sloppy bookkeeping and the company was put on probation until 2000. He has been known to hang up on tenants when he's angry, and one irate renter shot up the front of his family home on Lafayette with an automatic rifle.

"I think [Roos] started out with a good mission, but somewhere along the line he started blaming the victims," one housing advocate says.

To others, Roos is a do-gooder who got in over his head. "Neighborhood Enterprises and Sanctuary in the Ordinary have been major slumlords in the past and have caused more problems than they'll ever solve," says Billie Chamblin, who lives in a two-family brick home in the 4100 block of Blaine and owns a tidy rental property next door. "But from what I've been seeing, [Roos] is trying to get with the program."

Compared to Kleinbard's button-down business mien, Roos looks relaxed in his Tommy Hilfiger shorts, short-sleeved plaid shirt and leather sandals. But "relaxed" is not a word anyone would use to describe him. "I have to remind myself to dial it down," he admits. During another conversation he apologizes and says, "I'm not trying to lecture you." But he is.

Roos graduated from Concordia Seminary in 1970 and has been buying and renting properties in the poorest parts of St. Louis ever since. "I planned to change the world through my activism," he wrote in an autobiographical letter for his 40-year high school class reunion. He quickly produces the letter from a meticulously catalogued file cabinet that may well contain every piece of correspondence he has ever written or received. He still has notes from conversations he had in 1975, five years after he founded Neighborhood Enterprises.

In 1987 Roos ran for Eighth Ward alderman and lost. In 1993 he sued the city for racial discrimination and again lost. "In Christ, I have been made over so that work with housing poor people and improving poor neighborhoods pleases me," he wrote in the letter for his reunion. But he admits that bad business decisions and a mountain of debt overwhelmed him in the 1990s, and he didn't have money to fix his buildings. After much of his debt was forgiven and he formed Sanctuary in the Ordinary, he says, he has been able to turn the business around.

A $233,000 loan in late 1998 from Heartland Bank made all the difference. "Banks seldom loan on older rental property, even in better neighborhoods," Roos says, adding that he tried for years to get conventional loans, as well as grants, with limited success. With the money, Sanctuary in the Ordinary has bought homes and made repairs to existing properties, such as replacing lead-painted wooden windows with thermal-insulated vinyl ones. "It's a work in progress," Roos asserts.

He tries to teach tenants basic skills, he says, such as taking trash out regularly, keeping yards clean and living quietly. He admits that at times he has given problem tenants too many chances. "We do not, however, tolerate illegal or unpleasant behavior indefinitely," he insists.

In order to keep housing affordable, Roos tries to follow the principles of the Enterprise Foundation, a nationally recognized organization that rebuilds low-income communities. He uses recycled materials, and he is more concerned if bathroom plumbing works than if bathroom floor tiles match.

In 1999 Lutheran Family and Children's Services of Missouri honored Roos with the Arnold and Mildred Bringewatt Social Justice Award. "I respect him and think he's doing a good job," says Janet Becker, a lobbyist for Adequate Housing for Missourians, a nonprofit advocacy organization that opposes the demolition of housing in McRee Town. Although city housing inspectors decline to discuss the condition of Roos' buildings (or those of any other landlord), they say addresses he manages in McRee Town have been inspected and are up to code.

When Roos heard the garden was interested in improving McRee Town, he hoped Sanctuary in the Ordinary would be able to partner with them to buy and improve more buildings for low-income people. He soon learned that this was not the plan.

"They claim [tearing down houses] is what the community wanted," he says. "But the garden picked the people to be on the Garden District Commission and the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation board."

Dell Breeland, who became president of the Garden District Commission in 2001 and also serves as president of the McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation, says Roos had no chance of getting on the panel. "Why would you put a person on the board that didn't even approve of what the board is doing?" she asks. "If you're going to work on a board, everyone has to be of the same accord."

Pachak, of Midtown Catholic Community Services, says McRee residents didn't even receive copies of the 2000 annual report, which outlined plans to tear down half of the neighborhood. And Kleba questions why the Garden District Commission held its meetings at the Monsanto Research Center at 8:30 on Saturday mornings.

"If they wanted people to participate, they should have had meetings on a Friday night in the neighborhood and given out free hot dogs and hamburgers," he says.

Breeland, who lives in the 4200 block of Lafayette in an area that will not be demolished, scoffs at that idea. "We didn't want to create a carnival atmosphere. We wanted a business atmosphere," she says. "We didn't eat hot dogs. We had a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and we felt if we could get up at 8:30 in the morning, then if a person is interested, they'll get up too."


At 3950 Blaine Avenue, red boards have been pried off the front door of a fire-damaged four-family building. One year ago neighbors found the body of seventeen-year-old Lee Smith lying in the doorway. By the time police arrived, someone had put a white muscle shirt over his face, but blood was everywhere. According to the police report, Smith, also known as T-Man, accidentally shot himself while he was inside the abandoned house, then stumbled to the bottom of the landing, where he died sometime in the early morning hours.

In the weeks following T-Man's death, friends paid homage to him by creating a shrine of beer bottles and cans. "There were no balloons or dolls or flowers -- just bottles of beer," Roos says. Early one morning, he cleaned it all up, because "it was a memorial to a way of life that is destructive."

Inside the house police found a loaded .38 Special revolver, 23 shell casings, four bullets and three boxes of cartridges. "It is obvious the building is being used for illegal activity," the report notes dryly.

"The vacant buildings are a good place for drug dealers to hang out," says Johnny Bell, a volunteer at the St. Louis Powerhouse Church's men's shelter on Blaine Avenue. "They hide drugs in there. When the police chase them, they run up in them and hide. Drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless people. They sleep in there."

The Garden District Commission began buying vacant buildings in McRee Town in 1999. Even though it has publicly stated for the past three years that it plans to tear down every building between 39th and Thurman, the commission has only demolished one building, and that's because it was about to collapse onto a spot where children stood to catch the school bus.

"Some of the worst buildings in the neighborhood, the Garden District Commission has owned the last five years," Kleba says. "Their intention is to make all of their worst prophecies come true -- that this is a terrible neighborhood. They say there's drugs and delinquency and crime. Well, if they know about it so well, let's get better police protection."

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.

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.

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."

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.

"We didn't want to see suburban development, and we didn't want to see gentrification," says Diane Roche, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. "This neighborhood had a very strong sense of community and a longing to rebuild the neighborhood in a way that would respect diversity."

Meanwhile, Jim Roos second-guesses himself often, especially in those early morning hours before the sun is up and he's driving the five blocks from his home to his office. Should he have been more friendly? Should he have been less bull-headed? Should he have made sure Kleinbard got a good first impression of his apartments? Could he have convinced the Garden District Commission to save housing in McRee Town for poor people?

"I have real regrets," he says. "We failed to make this work. There's a sadness about that."

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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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