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When Barbara Manzara decided two years ago to buy an abandoned building in north St. Louis, the property was completely off the grid. "No utilities whatsoever," she says, "not even gas service into the house anymore, [and] no sewer service." Her lateral sewer line, which had collapsed, crossed a neighboring vacant lot. In order to secure financing on the house, the problem needed to be fixed and permission to do so had to be granted by the property owner.
Manzara, a data analyst for A.G. Edwards, learned that the parcel belonged to a company called Blairmont Associates LC. Records identified Blairmont Associates' address as 515 Olive Street, home to Eagle Realty. She called the company's agent and co-owner, Harvey Noble, but didn't hear back. She persisted, and after more than a month of daily calls, Noble finally responded. He said he managed the property but didn't own it. He refused to identify who did.
Manzara told Noble the problem: Her bank wouldn't approve a loan without an explanation on how she planned to open the sewer line. If the property owner denied access, the bank reasoned, Manzara would be left without sewer service. Noble's response, according to Manzara: "Well, that's not our problem."
Noble did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this article.
Manzara reconsidered the purchase. She recalls wondering, "Do I really want to buy this house with these assholes next store?" She began researching the company, and what she discovered alarmed her. "The sheer quantity of what they owned absolutely stunned and horrified me," Manzara says, "considering what their attitude toward their neighbors was."
Blairmont is one of the largest property owners in the Fifth Ward. Over the past four years, the mysterious company and its affiliates many of which share an address with Eagle Realty have been buying vacant land and empty buildings in the area and sitting on them. Few know the identity of Blairmont's owners, and those who do aren't talking.
Residents in the neighborhood, occupied at its eastern edge by the popular Crown Candy Kitchen, say it's easy to identify Blairmont's holdings: Just look for overgrown, litter-strewn lots and unsecured buildings. Their land is scattered throughout the ward, with a high concentration of property north of the abandoned site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.
"I'm not happy that these properties are out there unattended," says Fifth Ward Alderman April Ford-Griffin. "People call me to complain about them. And I've put in plenty of service requests for grass-cutting and board-ups, and the Neighborhood Stabilization Officer has put in plenty of requests." Ford-Griffin adds that she often gets complaints about problem properties. In Blairmont's case, she says, "What's unusual is the amount of property involved."
Michael Allen has tracked the company's comings and goings on his Web site, www .www.eco-absence.org. He says that the Blairmont group of companies (which operate under names such as VHS Partners, N&G Ventures and Noble Development Company) has accumulated nearly 400 properties more than 1,000 acres in the Fifth and Nineteenth wards.
"They show no signs of slowing down," says Allen.
Among Blairmont Associates' properties are the historic James Clemens Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue, which is a stately-but-crumbling mansion, and the Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings at 1201-17 North Cass Avenue, which were gutted by fire last October.
Residents first identified Blairmont as a neighborhood force about three years ago, says Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. The nonprofit group, which was established in 1981 to help revitalize the area, grew uneasy because Blairmont didn't seem concerned with upkeep.
"That seemed curious to us," Thomas recalls. "It was one tip-off that it was an entity that was acquiring property in the neighborhood but not doing a darn thing to maintain [it]."
Blairmont's early acquisitions, explains Thomas, were mainly vacant lots. He became more alarmed when the company started buying empty buildings. "They were just sitting on them and letting them decay," he says. When Thomas checked the assessor's records to find a contact number for Blairmont, he came across an address for Eagle Realty.
Although the neighborhood has been largely neglected, having weathered significant population declines in the 1960s and '70s, recent years have seen a gradual rejuvenation thanks to the efforts of homeowners like Allen and his partner, Claire Novak-Boyd, both of whom were attracted to the sturdy Victorian housing stock and low prices.
Five blocks north, where Barbara Manzara lives, Blairmont owns dozens of properties, and she believes their presence is stunting growth. "The Blairmont properties are like a cancer that has metastasized throughout our entire neighborhood," she says.
Like Manzara, Thomas tried contacting Harvey Noble. "I tried letters, I tried going down to their offices in person and getting a card. I tried making phone calls, and they would never respond to any of that." (Eagle Realty has since relocated to 721 Locust Street.)
Thomas says that over the years, residents have speculated about Blairmont's ownership. One name that keeps surfacing is Paul McKee Jr., president of McEagle Properties. The O'Fallon-based company is best known for WingHaven, a 1,200-acre housing development project in St. Charles County. McKee is also co-owner of the Paric Corporation, a construction company, and is the board chairman of BJC HealthCare.
In January 2006 Thomas called McEagle's headquarters and asked McKee whether he was involved with the north-side property purchases. "He denied that he had anything to do with Blairmont, and he was curious why on earth I would even be suggesting that," recalls Thomas. "He asked me to go ahead and tell anybody out there [who] suggests anything like that, that he is not behind Blairmont, or he has no ownership connection."
A 2005 federally mandated Federal Reserve System filing suggests otherwise. McKee was the director of Enterprise Financial Services Corporation, a Clayton-based bank holding company, until November 2005. The filing, Form FR Y-6, requires that as director, McKee list all companies in which he had more than a 25 percent ownership stake.
Among the dozens of businesses listed are the names of thirteen entities that own derelict and decaying property on the near north side. The filing identifies McKee at least at the end of 2005 as a 30 percent stakeholder in, among others, Blairmont, Vashon Developers, VHS Partners, Noble Development Company and N&G Ventures.
In addition, campaign donations made to the Nineteenth Ward Democratic Committee by three of the companies buying the property N&G Ventures, Noble Development Company and VHS Partners list as their address 1001 Boardwalk Springs Place in O'Fallon, the same address as McEagle. McKee also declined to return numerous phone calls requesting comment for this story.
Blairmont's silence, say residents, is deafening. Explains Michael Allen, "If there's no communication, it just fuels all sorts of rumors and fears from a lot of people who have heard nasty stories about communities that have been wiped out entirely by developments for other people."
Adds Sean Thomas of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group: "Every time there's a person there with some surveying equipment, someone thinks, 'OK, something big is about to happen.'"
Residents wonder whether a WingHaven-like development is in the pipeline, and if so, whether their property is in jeopardy. "If somebody's planning on bulldozing the community to create a gated community," says Thomas, "it would have to be huge and involve a tremendous amount of displacement and demolition of buildings.
"We're not out to pick any fights with anybody," he adds. "Just opening the lines of communication would be a wonderful first step." He says the neighborhood needs investment and infill.
Barbara Manzara, who ultimately found a loophole that allowed her to dig her sewer line without Blairmont's approval, agrees. "I just wish they would talk to us. Because when I look out my building, I see Blairmont buildings looking back at me with empty eyes. I am surrounded by Blairmont."
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