North Side Rancor: A quartet of legal eagles aim to shoot down Paul McKee's grandiose vision to regenerate St. Louis

On October 22, 2009, inside the Kennedy Room of St. Louis City Hall, an eclectic mix of citizens watched a man in a suit and tie approach the podium. Shaking his head, he addressed the urban development committee members.

"It just amazes me," scolded attorney Eric Vickers in the cadence of a preacher, "how gullible this city is when any developer comes forward and promises jobs."

At issue that autumn morning was a pair of ordinances that would enable Paul J. McKee Jr. to push forward with his $8.1 billion, 1,100-acre plan for a revitalized north St. Louis. It was a vision, McKee promised, that would create 22,000 permanent jobs and 43,000 construction jobs in the first fifteen years.

Near plaintiff Cheryl Nelson's house, a vacant lot languishes at the southeast corner of North Market and North 20th streets.
Near plaintiff Cheryl Nelson's house, a vacant lot languishes at the southeast corner of North Market and North 20th streets.
Attorneys Eric E. Vickers (left), W. Bevis Schock and James Schottel, Jr. (seated) claim north-side land magnate Paul McKee will displace residents for a project he can't possibly pull off.
Attorneys Eric E. Vickers (left), W. Bevis Schock and James Schottel, Jr. (seated) claim north-side land magnate Paul McKee will displace residents for a project he can't possibly pull off.

The north-side land magnate sat to the left of the podium, listening. He'd already been to the microphone and thanked the aldermen, as if he knew in advance what they'd decide.

"We use the phrase in our shop," said McKee, "that nothing great happens unless you 'embrace the tension.' I've got to tell you, we've been embracing the tension, and we've got a better product for us, the city and the community by doing that."

Now it was Vickers' turn. His voice swelling, the 56-year-old black activist called into question the aldermen's collective "competence," declared that their constituents had "no confidence whatsoever" in them and announced an upcoming opposition meeting.

Then he turned to look squarely at McKee.

"Mr. McKee, you said your corporate philosophy is to 'embrace the tension'?" I hope you are sincere in saying that, because it is just about to get tense."

The board soon passed both of McKee's ordinances. Mayor Francis Slay signed them in mid-November.

By December 9, Vickers had joined three other attorneys and four plaintiffs in a lawsuit designed to drag McKee's mammoth project to a grinding halt. Their legal claim, strictly speaking, is that city officials did not follow proper procedure in giving him the green light.

But their implicit message is that, despite official promises to the contrary, the city has effectively granted McKee, the O'Fallon, Missouri-based developer, permission to force residents out of their homes — all for a project, they say, he can't possibly pull off.

"It's almost asinine economics to think that a plan formulated before the great recession of 2008 still has viability now," Vickers says. The plaintiffs, he adds, are simply "residents who don't want to be overrun" by such a plan.

These aren't just any residents, though. Two of the four plaintiffs — Isaiah Hair Jr. and Cheryl Nelson — have repeatedly sought political office, and Nelson says she may run again in the Fifth Ward, where 85 percent of McKee's dream would be realized.

The names of the four attorneys might also sound familiar. Each has a high-profile case under his belt. D.B. Amon once represented the mayor of Berkeley in a libel case. Jim Schottel sued Donald Trump's reality show, The Apprentice. Bevis Schock, a hardcore conservative on the board of Rex Sinquefield's Show-Me Institute, filed a suit against Missouri's campaign contribution limits that a decade ago went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And then there's Vickers, perhaps best known for teaming up with the Rev. Al Sharpton and hundreds of protestors in July 1999 to shut down I-70 and demonstrate against the lack of minorities working for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

As Vickers took on more and more causes and saw his caseload bulge throughout the '90s, clients began to complain he wasn't returning their calls. In some instances, he failed to show up to his own disciplinary board hearings or answer subpoenas. In November 1999 the Missouri Supreme Court suspended his legal license, citing neglect and inadequate communication with clients.

The suspension, though, didn't stop him from agitating for the black community. By organizing protests, or simply threatening to, he wrested promises from St. Louis' Metro, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc. to award more construction contracts to minority-owned companies.

Since getting reinstated as an attorney in the spring of 2008, Vickers has largely kept out of the spotlight. But now he's publicly trying to bring down the most ambitious plan for the north side in city history. The hearing on February 16 represents his first appearance arguing before a judge in roughly a decade.

"It's like riding a bicycle," he says. "You never forget."

Hanging in limbo are two square miles of the city, nearly 2,000 occupied homes, some 9,000 residents — a quarter of them out of work — and a potential investment of billions of dollars to reshape north St. Louis.

"It's going to be showtime," Vickers says with a grin.

Paul McKee started snatching up hundreds of north St. Louis properties about seven years ago, operating through dummy companies to avoid detection. As weeds grew tall, and vacant buildings began to rot, neighbors fumed but didn't know whom to blame.

McKee declined comment for this story and asked that all questions be addressed to his attorney.

The media gradually caught on and made his furtive acquisitions public in 2007. The developer continued to dodge calls from residents, reporters, even city officials. By September 2009, however, McKee needed a big favor from the city — tax increment financing, or a TIF.

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