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Vickers recalls learning of Schottel's victory and thinking, "That's my kind of guy." All three attorneys agreed that they'd be willing to work the case pro bono.
Vickers couldn't decide on a way into the McKee controversy until he attended Amon's first court date two days before Halloween. Rather than establish his own case, he realized, he would join this one.
"It just kind of clicked," recalls Vickers. "Intervene. That's the way into it. Assemble a team. Find the law. Get Bevis. Get Jim. And let's roll."
At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac near Cass Avenue and North 14th Street, Cheryl Nelson's two-story home sits in the heart of north St. Louis but may as well be in a county suburb. The dozen houses on the block were built as recently as 1997. Eight are occupied by two-parent households. "This area is not like what they portray in the newspaper," Nelson says.
The front lawns are mowed, and the two-car garages are open in the middle of the day. It's a block where the neighbors tease each other, swap lawn equipment and grill burgers together on hot days. And it lies right inside the first area Paul McKee wants to transform.
Standing outside her house on a cold January afternoon, Nelson points to where she used a stick to scratch her children's names and her own into the freshly laid concrete a dozen years ago, just before they moved in. "This was going to be our safe haven," she says. "This was our investment."
Nelson's personal investment here forms the basis of Eric Vickers' first line of attack against the McKee plan. In order to get his TIF from the city, he says, McKee had to prove that without one, nobody would invest in the area. People such as Cheryl Nelson obviously have.
McKee also had to prove that the area was "blighted." According to University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon, "blight" signifies physical, economic and social decay, and is a notoriously flexible term in the state statute.
"Nobody has a decent empirical measure of what constitutes blight," observes Gordon, who recently published a book on St. Louis' twentieth-century decline. "But Missouri law is among the worst in terms of basic accountability. It's even understood to mean a parcel that's not making as much in taxes as it could."
Missouri law requires that blight be demonstrated with an independent study. A local consulting firm called Development Strategies did indeed generate a study of the north side late last year. But the developer paid for it, which, insists Vickers, compromises its integrity.
Ever since the city blighted Nelson's house under the McKee-friendly ordinances in November, the value of her property has dipped, she claims. She insists that she has no plans to move. But the drop in value might still harm her, according to Schock, should some emergency spring up and she's forced to sell.
"And don't forget, this isn't happening in Ladue," adds Schock, who is white and believes there's a racial element to the designation. "What blight usually means is black people."
Gordon says that Schock has a point. In three major developments during the last century — the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the riverfront, Mill Creek and the original Busch Stadium — the city blighted and cleared predominantly black areas. As a result, Gordon says, African Americans moved into north St. Louis. Now, blight has found them again.
"It would be a stretch to accuse McKee of outright racism," Gordon says. "But there are glimmers of that old view that when poor people live in an area, it's underutilized."
Schock says there's a genuine "psychological insult" that affects someone like his client, Cheryl Nelson. "When somebody tells you your house is blighted," he says, "it's like telling somebody, 'You got a nice kid, but he's kind of ugly.'"
Nelson doesn't see her block as ugly or underutilized. "We're viable," she says several times, "and we're fully paying taxes on our homes."
Though for ten years, she did not. A blight designation also allows for ten-year tax abatement, says Judy Woolverton of Choate Construction, the company that built the houses on the block. Nelson and her neighbors enjoyed that tax break, Woolverton says.
Nelson's house was already blighted when she bought it.
Seated in a fifth-floor conference room overlooking downtown Clayton, Paul McKee's attorney, Paul Puricelli, looks weary with frustration. He's been told that Cheryl Nelson fears she'll have to leave her home.
"We're not asking her to," he says. "And we're not forcing her to. No one is going to be displaced from their homes."
Later in a phone interview, Nelson says she doesn't buy it. "They wrote Old North out of the plan," she says. "Why don't they write us out of the plan? Let's see it in writing."
It is in writing, Puricelli insists, referring to a clause in the ordinance that reads: "The use of eminent domain will not be allowed pursuant to the redevelopment plan." What follows is a 200-word disclaimer listing conditions under which eminent domain could, in fact, be used. Puricelli says none of these exceptions applies to owner-occupied residences. Vickers doesn't believe him.
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