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Still, the burning question remains: What does McKee intend to do with all that land?
In any case, McKee has shared his ideas with Slay. In a meeting two years ago, Rainford says Paul McKee spoke of creating "a neighborhood diverse in many ways income, race, types of housing." He says McKee also wanted shopping, offices, bike paths, schools and churches. "That's what he envisioned in the beginning."
Rainford says it's premature to expect anything more detailed. "Paul's got in his mind a vision of what he would do if it all lines up. He hasn't purchased all the land. He doesn't know if the jigsaw puzzle he's putting together will fit with the LRA jigsaw puzzle. He does have an idea of what he's going to do." Rainford stresses that Slay will ensure a thorough public airing of McKee's plans that is, if and when the developer decides to unveil them.
Kevin Dickherber discovered Old North St. Louis when he made a wrong turn. He was driving from his home in Spanish Lake to a job site on the west side and tried to take a shortcut from Interstate 70 along St. Louis Avenue. "I was fascinated with the amount of unoccupied, but seemingly structurally sound, old buildings," he says. "I saw different sets of scaffolding and Dumpsters. That's a sign that something's going on."
He returned for Old North's annual house tour and was drawn in by the history of a village populated by waves of immigrants. He found out later that his father-in-law's family had lived there but moved to make way for I-70. "Myself, being of largely German and Irish descent, and my wife of mainly French and Native American descent, we all had ties to the Village of North St. Louis."
The 33-year-old contractor is one of the first "micro-developers" to land in this neighborhood, where major revival efforts are under way. The neighborhood has its own community development corporation, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, which led the effort to redevelop the 14th Street pedestrian mall, a forlorn shopping strip just south of the landmark soda fountain and confectionery, Crown Candy Kitchen. Dubbed "Crown Village," the project is expected to ignite a new spark of interest in the neighborhood, which has already been discovered by avid rehabbers.
When Dickherber landed in Old North last year, he'd been the general contractor on several south-side rehab projects. But he wanted to control and profit from his own venture. The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group put him in touch with the Bratkowski family, who had been holding onto several buildings on Hebert Street for a generation with the hope that someone would put them to good use.
Dickherber persuaded his mother and stepfather, who live in northwest Iowa, to tour Old North and join his venture. He also had to convince the president of the United Bank of Iowa in the town of Ida Grove. Dickherber used the restoration group's modest office at 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue to present his business plan. Afterward, he took the bank president to Crown Candy Kitchen, which in Old North is the natural and only choice for a power lunch.
The bank backed Dickherber's purchase of five buildings in the 1200 block of Hebert Street. The buildings, which have to be gutted, cost a total of $60,000. The Bratkowskis still live on the block and are serious about seeing those buildings come to life. A clause in the sale contract allows the family to take the buildings back if Dickherber doesn't finish the work.
Dickherber's first finished product, 1208 Hebert Street, is about to go on the market. He has created 2,250 square feet of modern convenience, wrapped within the soft red brick of a tenement built in 1859. The master bedroom comes with his-and-hers closets and overlooks a quiet street lined with historic, well-preserved buildings. Residents of Old North St. Louis, says Dickherber, are enthusiastic about the project. "All the people in town are going to sell the house before I ever get a realtor." Dickherber expects to attract the kind of young professionals who would consider moving into downtown's Washington Avenue lofts.
"Maybe they want a yard," he says. "You get a little more room here for your money, too." Dickherber is so fired up about Old North that he and his wife plan to move with their three children onto the same block of Hebert Street. If all goes well, Dickherber will sell the buildings for prices close to what he would fetch on the south side, or $105 to $110 per square foot. For 1208 Hebert Street, that translates to more than $235,000.
Dickherber concedes that buyers will need a little of the old pioneer spirit to make it work. Old North St. Louis has views of the Arch, but the nearest major supermarket is a Schnucks nearly two miles away on North Grand Avenue, near Fairground Park. Nearby dining opportunities are largely limited to Crown Candy and White Castle. "I don't know that normal people are going to jump right into it," Dickherber says.
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