Arrested Development

A look at north St. Louis from ground zero.

St. Louis Place

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.

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."

Still, the burning question remains: What does McKee intend to do with all that land?

McKee did not respond to questions Riverfront Times submitted to his Clayton attorney, Steve Stone.

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.

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.

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.

Habitat's project is one of several efforts to turn JeffVanderLou around. In 1999 the neighborhood received a $5 million grant from the Danforth Foundation to create a master plan that covered planning and development, as well as provide social services. Around the same time, various donors were raising $8 million for The Vashon Education Compact to support students bound for Vashon High School. Vashon's new building on 27 acres at Cass and Glasgow avenues opened in 2002.

The JeffVanderLou plan was like a marketing vehicle, says Sal Martinez, executive director of Community Renewal and Development, an organization formed to follow through on that master plan. From an office on Bacon Street, Martinez works closely with Fifth Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin. He sets up events such as a back-to-school fair and talks to people who could invest in the neighborhood.

Martinez, who is also a member of the St. Louis Housing Authority Commission, lists a number of projects that have brought new housing and conveniences to the Fifth Ward, which includes a portion of JeffVanderLou: the $11 million, 186-apartment housing complex for the elderly called Sullivan Place; 85 new homes north of Cass Avenue by Choate Construction; nine new affordable houses on Hebert Street by Pyramid Construction; 220 former HUD-owned apartments, renovated and rented to low-income people; a Walgreens coming to Grand Avenue at Martin Luther King Boulevard.

"The thought that nothing's happening, and we're just waiting for a white knight to come in on a horse is ridiculous," Martinez says.

Martinez has never met McKee. He says he doesn't understand why the developer doesn't try to reach out to the city's aldermen. Other developers, he says, will set up meetings before they even buy land. "It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to buy land without the support of the community." Most development-related proposals require legislation, whether they involve tax abatement or converting an old warehouse to residences. Says Barb Geisman: "If the alderman does not want to sponsor the legislation, you're beating your head against the wall."

As a resident who drives out of the city to Brentwood to take her kids back-to-school shopping, Riddick's needs are simple: "More stores, less liquor stores." And she doesn't mind if those stores are the same national chains found in the suburbs. "They're getting ready to put a Walgreens in at MLK and Grand — and I think that's great," she says.

Teresa Reynolds tries to maintain 2224 Howard Street as her parents would, though she's not quite sure how to tend to her father's roses. "He'd be here all the time, cutting this and cutting that," she recalls. "When you're a kid, you ain't really paying attention," she says. The roses are a lot of work, but, she says, "I refuse to destroy them because he spent so much time on them. That was his pride."

Josepheus and Ann Marie Reynolds bought their house in 1962 after living in the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex. Their daughter, Teresa, was four years old at the time. She remembers running up and down the stairs, into the house and back out to the street, amazed by its spaciousness. The Reynoldses eventually had six children, three boys and three girls, who occupied the two bedrooms upstairs. The dining room on the first floor became the master bedroom. Reynolds says her brothers turned the basement into a teenager's lair, with a black light and posters.

Josepheus Reynolds was a police officer and dedicated member of St. Bridget's Church on Jefferson Avenue. St. Bridget's pastor helped her parents and several others in the neighborhood buy their houses, Teresa Reynolds says. Reynolds moved in with her parents about eight years ago, when her younger daughter was a toddler. First her father, who suffers dementia, moved out to live with another sibling. Her mother followed when she could no longer negotiate the front steps. Ann Marie asked Teresa to stay in the house, but she does not share her daughter's nostalgia. "She said she got out of it what she wanted — which was some place to get out of the rain."

Though Howard Street looks nothing like it did in her childhood, Reynolds says, "I love this neighborhood." Reynolds' own house is 113 years old, but she doesn't have the money to maintain it herself. She's been unemployed for three years and is nearing the end of the five-year lifetime limit on federal welfare checks. She has been taking classes at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, but that hasn't helped fix her car. Not having a car is really what has kept her from taking jobs that all seemed to be in the county, she says.

Reynolds' situation would be dire if it weren't for living in her parents' house. She wonders how long her mother can put off selling, especially when someone is mailing out offers to buy. That's why she wasn't very happy to receive the same postcard all her neighbors had been talking about. "I wanted to call the lady and tell her, 'Who told you to send this?'" Reynolds says. "But it's not my property."

Without her parents' home, Reynolds is not sure what she would do. "It makes me think about it a lot more, now that my neighbors are going."

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