The Kings of Kingshighway

The Roberts brothers fight to bring back life to north St. Louis

The architects are here to brief the brothers on several projects in north St. Louis. "We're playing Monopoly these days," Mike says. They just purchased the vacant Enright School, located northwest of Union and Delmar, from the St. Louis Board of Education for $1 million. They plan to spend $15 million converting the structure, designed by the St. Louis firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden, to upscale apartments and to build at least twenty new houses around it. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

"A lot of baby boomers grew up in this neighborhood," Mike says, noting that new homes are being built to the west and that older houses to the south are large and tidy. "Maybe they will be interested in moving back."

Mike and Virvus Jones, now a vice president in the Robertses' real estate firm, kick around the idea of building a nine-hole, par-three golf course at nearby Visitation Park. Mike is wearing black slacks and a bright blue-and-white striped shirt highlighted by cuff links. His diamond pinkie rink sparkles under the soft lights above.

Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. 
Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' 
headquarters, the old Sears building on North 
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' headquarters, the old Sears building on North Kingshighway.
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's 
youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was 
sworn into office at age 25.
Courtesy of Mike and Steve Roberts
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was sworn into office at age 25.

Steve answers his cell phone as the architects pore over drawings for Roberts Commons. What they envision are 110 residential units and 40,000 square feet of retail space to sprout on the southeast corner of Euclid and Delmar. A condo project -- priced from $175,000 to $225,000 -- is also in the making on the south side of Washington, just east of Kingshighway.

"Alderman [Terry] Kennedy has written the letter to start a blighting study," Mike tells the men gathered in the room. If the city decides the area around Euclid and Delmar is blighted, the development will be eligible for tax abatement. The Robertses have met with Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, and Rollin Stanley, the city's Urban Agency Design director, to discuss their plans for the area. Eventually they would like the city to approve a tax-increment financing arrangement to pay for infrastructure improvements and possibly a transportation district, which could finance sidewalk and park upgrades.

"All of the infrastructure is here -- the sewer, the streets, the water, the parks," Steve says. "But it's been completely ignored by the city government."

The biggest challenge, however, will be convincing people to cross the "mental demarcation line at Washington," explains Virvus Jones. "The problem is getting people to migrate closer to Delmar. These are mental issues, so you have to do something spectacular."

Building a residential and retail complex with parking at the corner of Euclid and Delmar will "complete the block," reasons Jerry Altman, a company vice president. "It will cause people to feel more comfortable."

The Roberts brothers already own a substantial portion of the property along Kingshighway between Delmar and Martin Luther King, including buildings that house Schnucks, Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video. Ultimately, the Robertses would like to reopen the Mercedes Club, which they own at 4915 Delmar, and create an even greater impetus for people to move north to the Fountain Park neighborhood, located two blocks from the Central West End.

At the center of the historic neighborhood are a beautiful, multitiered fountain and an eleven-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. Most of the huge homes surrounding the park are well-kept, but the surrounding area, like much of north St. Louis, is a hodgepodge of multi- and single-family homes that are either in need of repair or boarded up.

"The Central West End is two minutes from here. But it's twenty years away, from a psychological point of view," Steve says.

Missouri State Senator Patrick Dougherty is standing on a box, pounding his fist on the bar at King Louie's restaurant on Chouteau. "We've got a chance this year to take back the senate!" he shouts. "That's why you're here. That's why you are supporting the Democratic Party!"

Victory cries ring out and Steve Roberts smiles. Even though he and Mike no longer serve in public office, they are still players because of their financial contributions to local, state and national campaigns. This February happy hour, devoted to raising funds for state Democratic senate candidates, is being partially financed by the Robertses.

In 1999 Mike formed the Black PAC, a political action committee devoted to the "silver rights movement," which he says will create economic opportunities for African Americans. "We found there was a dearth of leadership, particularly in the African-American community, because many who had been there for many years were retiring or passing away, and we needed to encourage bright, committed, honest, credible people to run for office, not just folks who are part of a political organization," Steve explains.

The Robertses and the Black PAC have raised thousands for Mayor Slay, Governor Bob Holden, Senator John Kerry and Al Sharpton, plus scores of candidates for state, local and federal office. Mike was onstage with Kerry as he wowed voters at Forest Park Community College before Missouri's February 3 Democratic primary. He also hosted a fundraiser at his home for Sharpton because he believes the fringe candidate keeps civil-rights and economic-equality issues on the radar.

Not all of the candidates the Roberts brothers support are as popular as Sharpton in the black community. Mayor Slay has been lambasted for his efforts to reform St. Louis public schools by helping to elect a slate of four candidates to take over the school board's majority.

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