Arrested Development

A look at north St. Louis from ground zero.

Teresa Reynolds listens to the whine of her neighbor's mower as she sits on her front steps with her daughters Evan and Eden. It's a July afternoon and she's come outside to offer them leftover cake from a recent neighborhood party. A few residents who remain planted in this part of St. Louis Place have held the gathering for the past five years. Reynolds says it's a reunion for those who have moved away. When they do return, Reynolds says, "They always say, 'Every time we come back, there's a little more gone, a little more gone.'"

The 49-year-old Reynolds grew up here and remembers when her parents' home on Howard Street, where she now lives, was awash with two- and four-family flats. Today, only a few remnants of the old streetscape remain. On the northwest corner of Howard and 22nd streets, a longtime resident's home anchors a cluster of three residential buildings. Otherwise, the Reynolds' place is all alone. "I think we're the only one occupying our house on this side of the street," she says, noting that one neighbor, a retiree who lived a couple of vacant lots to the east, moved last year.

St. Louis Place, northeast of Cass and Jefferson avenues, has been emptying out for decades. The latest population count, which the city compiled from U.S. Census data for the year 2000, was 2,763 — down 26 percent since 1990. But here and in a few other north St. Louis neighborhoods, something new is afoot: Instead of abandoning their homes, several of Reynolds' neighbors have sold their houses for relatively impressive sums — and all to the same buyer, St. Charles County-based developer Paul McKee Jr.

Teresa Reynolds watched a crew of men take bricks from this house on city-owned land just one block west of her home on Howard Street. Brick-stealing is common in north-side neighborhoods that have an abundance of vacant property.
Jennifer Silverberg
Teresa Reynolds watched a crew of men take bricks from this house on city-owned land just one block west of her home on Howard Street. Brick-stealing is common in north-side neighborhoods that have an abundance of vacant property.
Three north St. Louis neighborhoods.
Three north St. Louis neighborhoods.

Adrian "Russell" Barsh, for one, unloaded his one-bedroom dwelling at 1820 North 22nd Street, along with a side lot, for $71,000. "I guess it was all right, considering what I paid for it," Barsh says of the sale price. He too grew up on Howard Street and bought his home on 22nd Street from a retired schoolteacher for whom he used to run errands. "Ms. Johnson, she sold me the house for two grand," he says. "It was almost like a gift to me."

For about $74,000, the 49-year-old Barsh bought a two-bedroom house in the north St. Louis County municipality of Northwoods. He has a quick commute to the city, where he works as a machine operator at Dial Corp. When Barsh decided to sell, he didn't hire a realtor or hold an open house. Instead, he responded to the letter he'd received from Roberta DeFiore, an agent for McKee. DeFiore, recalls Barsh, was offering to buy property throughout the neighborhood. He ignored the first two letters. "I didn't want to get out, find another home in that neighborhood," he says. "I finally responded to that third one. My momma passed away last year. I wanted to get out of the neighborhood — too many old memories."

Several other residents took DeFiore up on her offer. Donna Whitener, at 2221 Madison Street, and Darlene Hutt and Delores Elston, who split a two-family house at 2223-2225 Mullanphy Street, all sold their homes this year to McKee-backed companies and moved out this summer.

Strolling the block on a Sunday last month, Reynolds says the wave of departures has hit her hard. "I was like, 'Man, did everybody sell?' In a way, I'm kind of mad about it. But I'm thinking people probably need the money."

Several people who sold to McKee say they could no longer afford to maintain their property or that they saw a rare opportunity to cash in. Using various companies and agents, McKee has spent the past four years buying up hundreds of parcels, most of them located in JeffVanderLou, St. Louis Place and Old North St. Louis. Though these neighborhoods are convenient to downtown and the lively loft district, they still harbor crumbling buildings and swaths of vacant land — what visitors typically describe as the "bombed-out" look.

McKee's purchases don't make up a single, contiguous tract, but most are adjacent to lots owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), an agency that owns thousands of vacant buildings and lots. In one instance, McKee's VHS Partners owns the northeast and southeast corners of Cass and Grand avenues, a busy intersection with a bus stop. The LRA owns the northwest corner. Farther north, different McKee-backed entities and the LRA own all but one sliver of a lot in the vacant northeast block of Jefferson and St. Louis avenues.

Members of Mayor Francis Slay's staff say the city has no official partnership with McKee. At the same time, the LRA is working more closely with developers of all kinds. After decades of collecting property that no one else wanted, the LRA is beginning to see competing bids for key tracts, says Barb Geisman, deputy mayor of development. "We're looking to encourage private developers to assemble land, and not just cherry-pick the LRA stuff," she says.

The city's large number of vacant and scattered sites is a major hurdle in urban renewal, says the mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford. "It has been a very big problem, and a detriment to progress."

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