Arrested Development

A look at north St. Louis from ground zero.

Without the state's Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program, Dickherber wouldn't profit at all. As long as he preserves the buildings' original layouts and materials, he can get credit for 25 percent of the cost of interior work and then sell those credits to a bank or broker for about 90 cents on the dollar. "It's cash in hand at that point," Dickherber explains.

The program is the main incentive to do quality work, says Melinda Stewart, a tax credit consultant in St. Louis. The state has yet to limit the tax credits, and in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006, it paid $105 million for 230 projects throughout Missouri. A new tax credit proposed last legislative session would have made available $100 million for any single developer who could put together 100 acres of land in a distressed area. McKee, who pushed for the tax credit, was widely seen as the sole beneficiary.

Governor Matt Blunt vetoed McKee's tax credit, along with the rest of an omnibus economic development bill, but the idea of reimbursement for accumulating urban real estate didn't die. Mayor Slay is a major proponent of a revised bill that is on its way to passage in a special legislative session this week.

Andy Lowrey, owner of Trojan Iron Works, says Roberta DeFiore offered him about $10,000 for his property.
Andy Lowrey, owner of Trojan Iron Works, says Roberta DeFiore offered him about $10,000 for his property.

McKee's tax credit was controversial in quarters like Old North, where people have been living with the dust of rehabilitation for more years than McKee has been buying real estate in the area. "These people love their section of the city and can't wait for it to be 'back,'" Dickherber says. "Many know it already is. It's just a little hard to see [that] with the number of buildings still boarded up, but not for sale."

One of the buildings that McKee's Blairmont Associates owns in Old North is across the alley from Dickherber's property. As the St. Charles County developer's neighbor and competitor, Dickherber has conflicting opinions. "He can have a huge impact," he says. "A plan that addresses things that I can't fathom managing, like bringing large corporations and other employers and training to the area ... would merit extra government funds, in my opinion."

On the other hand, he doesn't see why McKee, as a residential developer, should be the only one to benefit from a new taxpayer subsidy. "If he's going to do something extra-special with the money, that's great," Dickherber says. "But if he's just doing what I am [doing], why can't there be 200 to 500 of us?"

The promise of Old North disappears quickly amidst the long stretches of grassy vacant lots and abandoned buildings west of St. Louis Place Park. On the 2500 block of Warren Street, one occupied house near the corner of Parnell Street shows signs of life — a dog is chained in a yard littered with kids' plastic toys. Houses a few feet away are open to the elements. They list to one side, entire walls missing. One has collapsed like a messy pancake stack of roofing tile and floorboards.

The only sound on the block comes from Trojan Iron Works, where two employees prepare small pieces of steel for use in new buildings. Andy Lowrey opened the shop 23 years ago after running a bigger ironworks in the same neighborhood. Lowrey and his two sons have watched the block become more vacant, but they don't miss their old neighbors. "The cops would break in and bust 'em every once in a while," Eric Lowrey says.

There isn't much to the dark-brown, industrial-looking building that houses Trojan Iron Works, but it has served Andy Lowrey well. It came with the crane that he needed to lift pieces of steel, and it's convenient to his main supplier. After more than twenty years, Lowrey, who lives in St. Charles County, decided it was time to look for new digs. So he responded to the offer to buy that he received in the mail in September 2006. "Public records indicate that you are the owner of the above-referenced property," begins the five-sentence letter from real estate agent Roberta DeFiore, who has handled dozens of transactions for McKee companies. "I am currently representing a client who is interested in acquiring property in the City."

Lowrey called the number. "She was going to give us $10,000 or something like that," he recalls. Ten grand was unacceptable to Lowrey, who has a business to relocate. He says DeFiore understood, but "She never did call me back. I am sure she talked to her people — whoever they are — and they weren't interested."

When Eric Lowrey reads news articles about McKee buying land in the neighborhood, he thinks "eminent domain." In his mind, that means, "You get next to nothing, and you got to move."

Jacqueline Riddick, a 31-year-old daycare worker, and her three children moved into their home on Coleman Street after a fire forced them out of their apartment on Garrison Street. Riddick's house is one of 40 dwellings that Habitat for Humanity built on vacant lots in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood between 2004 and 2006.

"As far as Habitat coming to the neighborhood, I think it's the best thing that's happened," Riddick says. "It gives us security for our children." When she lived on Garrison, Riddick would not allow her children, ages fourteen, eleven and nine, to leave the apartment. If they wanted to go outside, she'd take them to Forest Park. Now Riddick's kids have their own yard, and other Habitat families on the street look out for them. Outside the row of new homes, though, lingers an element that Riddick prefers to avoid: drugs and prostitution. One block south of Riddick's home there's a stuffed animal memorial, a reminder of a murder last March.

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