Tombstone Blues

Wealthy investors spend millions to resurrect the neighborhood near Bellefontaine Cemetery. They discover that money can't do everything.

Most of the tenants didn't pay rent, and as unpaid bills mounted, some apartments had the electricity cut. The power-less responded by stringing extension cords outside their windows to the apartment building's hallway sockets, getting their juice literally on the house.

Landlord Vincent Wooten yanked the plugs.

Big mistake.

"He accidentally pulled out a little window fan," says Sonja Wooten, Vincent's wife and a building co-owner.

"This guy who didn't belong there -- he was a squatter -- came running down with a butcher knife the size Jason had in Halloween. He started after us, me, my husband and my sister. We barricaded ourselves behind a steel door and waited for the police."

The Wootens and Sonja's sister, Vicky Chilton, bought the two-story, twenty-unit building at 4961 Rosalie Street in mid-2000. Constructed in 1929, the building is located just a half-block from Bellefontaine Cemetery on the city's North Side. Bellefontaine and adjoining Calvary Cemetery anchor a historic neighborhood with some solid properties and others that have seen better days.

Owning property there should have paid off, but two years later, Sonja Wooten compares the experience to a horror movie. Not only were tenants skipping rent, the building was being systematically looted. Thieves stole copper pipes, ceiling fans and countertops. When Wooten called the police to report drug activity or other criminal behavior, someone would retaliate by vandalizing the property.

During the summer of 2001, the landlords took a two-week vacation. When they returned, they discovered that the cement keystones above doors and ornate limestone cornices that had decorated the exterior of the building had been broken off and carried away. Wooten says the gaping holes in the walls and above doorways made it look as if the building had been hit with mortar shells.

The heavy cement and stone ornaments are valuable in the rehab market, but removing them is hard work. That the thieves could brazenly take them from a building full of people was the final straw.

"That's when we gave it up," says Sonja Wooten. "Do you blame us?"

The building they acquired for $150,000 sold a year later for $40,000. The buyer was Union West Florissant Housing Solutions Inc., a nonprofit housing corporation funded by wealthy donors from Clayton and Ladue. The nonprofit is targeting an eight-block area across from Bellefontaine Cemetery for up to $12 million of housing rehab and new-home construction.

Union West Florissant Housing Solutions' efforts began almost three years ago, but like the Wootens, the nonprofit has encountered major obstacles. The Wootens were hampered by deadbeat tenants and crime; Union West Florissant Housing Solutions faces a stifling mix of ward politics, City Hall impotence, racial defensiveness and donor naïveté. The wealthy donor group backing the nonprofit has found out that just showing up with lots of money and good intentions doesn't get the job done.

For these would-be benefactors, the problems center around acquiring about 80 vacant lots and buildings from the city's Land Reutilization Authority. The donors' problems had more to do with agitated residents at neighborhood meetings, consultations with suspicious ward politicians and a City Hall that seemed indifferent to their predicament.

The Wootens had street-level problems, compounded by their inexperience and naïveté.

"We were new in rental," says Sonja Wooten. The Wootens live in Jefferson County, but Sonja was raised in South St. Louis. When they hunted for property, they didn't exclude any part of the city, she says: "We were trying not to be blinded by any prejudices at all."

When they found the building on Rosalie, inspected the structure and checked the rental logs, everything seemed in order. "We looked at the numbers, and the numbers looked good," Wooten says.

So what went wrong?

Wooten says they underestimated the level of street-level crime in the area and overlooked another factor that may have played a role: The seller was black and they were white, and for the tenants, she says, race may have been an issue.

"Here we are, the white people coming into the neighborhood. Something happened," Wooten says. "It was really amazing. I don't know what the former owner did. I truly think it was a racial issue. You can't just go from one way and all of a sudden end up another way."

When Wooten is told that the "developer" she sold her building to is actually the donor group spending more than $1 million to turn rehabbed apartments into condominiums, she bursts out laughing.

"You've got to be kidding me," says Wooten between guffaws.

Told that the financial backers of Union West Florissant Housing Solutions are from Ladue and Clayton, she laughs: "That's as foreign as you can get.

"I thought I had a little bit of savvy, coming from the South Side, but I had no idea what we were up against."

What Wooten finds hard to believe is true.

Union West Florissant Housing Solutions is being bankrolled by wealthy county residents -- many of whom are graduates of St. Louis Country Day School, members of the St. Louis Country Club and parishioners of St. Michael and St. George Episcopal Church on Wydown Boulevard. They share little in common with the residents of the targeted area other than the same state capital, the same time zone and the same weather. The donors decline to divulge their names and thus far have avoided using public funds.

What they haven't avoided are frustration, misunderstanding and an atmosphere of racial suspicion that has led residents to doubt their intentions. Government inertia also has been a factor; a change of aldermen in the spring of 2001 stalled the initiative.

When this effort first started, Parrie May represented the city's 1st Ward. Last year, Irene Smith defeated May and returned to the seat she had held before being appointed a municipal judge. A graduate of St. Louis University and the University of Missouri School of Law, Smith gained national notoriety last year when she appeared to take a bathroom break on the floor of the aldermanic chambers instead of giving up a filibuster against a redistricting bill.

Smith returned as alderman about a year after Union West Florissant Housing Solutions began its development effort. She says she was cautious about the developer because its plans hadn't been put into writing. Smith denies blocking the Union West Florissant's efforts but freely admits she withheld aldermanic approval for the sale of 87 properties in the area owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority, which takes over vacant lots and abandoned buildings for delinquent taxes.

The nonprofit wants the properties to build new homes or add side yards for current homeowners. The real estate represents a tiny fraction of LRA's inventory of nearly 10,000 properties. Although LRA's charter says it has the authority to sell lots to developers, it's LRA policy to wait until the alderman who represents the ward gives his or her blessing.

Irene Smith wasn't quick to give her blessing. Although she was happy that somebody was investing in her ward, she wanted to make sure everyone involved was on the same page. "I got sworn in on April 17; I was over at the LRA on the 18th. I didn't ask them to deny the request to purchase the additional land, but I asked them to defer until I had an opportunity to meet with the developers and the residents to get up to speed with what the issues were."

That was eighteen months and many meetings ago -- and the LRA lots and buildings still haven't been sold.

What's the holdup?

Smith says current neighborhood residents were promised home-improvement grants by Union West Florissant Housing Solutions and had participated in training sessions to qualify. "Then there was this lull, there was nothing being done. They were getting citations from the city about their property," Smith says. "In addition to that, certain Realtors started contacting them about purchasing their homes. So then some of the residents began to feel that maybe it was a forced buyout."

So Smith kept the LRA lots from being sold and held out for more guarantees about the home-improvement forgivable-loan program.

In the midst of this logjam, the donor group hired Harold Whitfield, a Kirkwood-based attorney who has worked for the Bi-State Development Agency and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Whitfield knew Smith and state Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe [D-St. Louis].

By that point, the donor group was beginning to get frustrated.

"There was certainly frustration in terms of working with an alderperson in the city and not necessarily Irene Smith in particular, just the whole process," Whitfield says. "I think we had an assumption that we were coming in to spend this money; you've got all this vacant land available and we thought our proposal was reasonable and that we shouldn't run into any kind of stumbling blocks such as we ran into."

Whitfield was also a longtime friend of Jim Hentschell, the West County architect who was working as project manager for the donor group. Hentschell was baffled by Smith's decision to block the sale of the LRA lots.

"We sat down with her; we went over everything we were doing," Hentschell says. "The basic response from Irene was 'I don't like what you've done. You haven't dealt with me. I want you to deal with me. I want you to be part of the neighborhood, I don't want somebody coming in and talking tough and doing nothing.'

"And we said, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' We made big proposals to her: Harold would do this, Harold would do that, Harold and I would meet with Charles Quincy Troupe and dance the dance," Hentschell says. "Finally, on the lots we were supposed to get from LRA, Irene Smith said, 'No. I'm not going to give them to you. You haven't satisfied me yet.'

"I said, 'Wait -- this is the LRA, the people who are trying to get rid of thousands of lots? You're telling me you're blocking them?' We were getting thwarted," Hentschell says.

Because the sale of the LRA lots appeared to have stopped at the ward level, the donor group appealed to Mayor Francis Slay for help. Smith's strong opposition to the redistricting plan made her persona non grata in Room 200. Several representatives from the donor group met with deputy mayor Barb Geisman, who supervises the St. Louis Development Corporation, which includes the LRA.

The meeting did not go well. Representatives for the nonprofit say Geisman made them wait 35 minutes before the meeting started, then all but told them she couldn't help. The meeting "almost stopped the whole project," Hentschell says. The message the group received from Geisman was this: If an alderman wants to block the sale of LRA lots in his or her ward, that's just the way it is.

Geisman did not return phone calls for this story.

With a roadblock at the ward level and no help coming from City Hall, the donors were stymied in their effort to buy vacant land from the city. Hentschell and Whitfield considered their options. Without city, state or federal funds and without aldermanic approval, Hentschell and Whitfield decided to find out what they could do with private money and a plan.

When word spread slowly that big money was destined for the small slice of the 1st Ward bounded by West Florissant Avenue, Kingshighway, I-70 and Shreve Avenue, there were obvious suspicions about who was signing the checks.

"I believe that the donors emanate out of Bellefontaine Cemetery, and I don't have a problem with that," Smith says. "That was just my suspicion. I don't care. They have money. They have endowments."

Thinking that Bellefontaine's trustees would want to stabilize the area around the 310-acre cemetery makes sense. Founded in 1849, the cemetery contains many famous tombstones and monuments, not the least of which is the one for William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Making sure the neighborhood around the cemetery is safe and respectable-looking for visitors seems a reasonable goal.

The other major suspect, naturally, was the Danforth Foundation, which has used its debit card to support St. Louis 2004, various school-desegregation efforts and the nearby school at the Mathews-Dickey Boys Club.

But neither the trustees for Bellefontaine Cemetery nor the Danforth Foundation is the source of the money. And as for who signs the checks, it's Steven Jones of Armstrong & Teasdale, a big money downtown law firm. Jones signs the checks and is listed on the Union West Florissant Housing Solutions' corporate papers. Jones has met with Smith and other representatives from the target area. Jones did not return phone calls for this article.

In addition to Jones, the public face of this project consists of Hentschell, Whitfield and Faye McFadden, a Realtor who was brought in to facilitate the purchase of the four-family flats that face West Florissant. That represented the front of the targeted area. Most of the other lots have 25-foot fronts and contain smaller homes than the brick bungalows along Kingshighway.

The four-family flats are being converted into two units per flat and being sold as condos for $87,500, about half the cost of the rehab. The donors do not plan to be landlords in any manner. They want to buy, rehab or build and then sell the units, either as houses or condominiums.

Once it was clear that the LRA lots would not be available soon for side yards and the construction of new houses, the emphasis was switched to buying the flats across the street from the cemetery. Several were boarded up but had not fallen into LRA hands. Previous attempts to find the owners or negotiate a sale had failed. McFadden solved those problems and proved a catalyst in getting the project moving.

"The biggest part of what I faced was trying to track down who the owners were," says McFadden. "Then there were misconceptions when people got the word that I was trying to purchase properties, that I was trying to force folks out of their home. I've never approached a homeowner who actually lived in their home. A lot of people came and approached me that they wanted to sell their homes, but they weren't realistic about the prices they wanted to sell their homes. A lot of homes were in disrepair and they thought they were going to get stuff like $80,000, $90,000 or $100,000 for a three-room house. It's just not feasible."

Because of the rumors that had circulated as the development started, stalled and limped forward, McFadden worked the neighborhood.

"The experiences I've had since I've been here have been extremely positive because I went and knocked at people's doors and I introduced myself. I let them know what was going on," says McFadden. "They got a chance to know me. They got a chance to recognize my car. They found out I wasn't a threat, that I wasn't the big bad Faye wolf that was coming over here to scare folk out of their property."

McFadden sensed that residents had healthy suspicions about strangers bearing gifts, particularly when there seemed to be too much talk about home-improvement loans and not enough action.

"You got people who are already distrustful. All they saw was a bunch of white folks coming over here all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, talking about what they wanted to do in the neighborhood," McFadden says. "It was 'Who in the heck do you think you are, come over and tell us what we need in our neighborhood when you made some promises you didn't fulfill? Fulfill your promises.' Once that happened, everybody calmed down."

Following through on some promised home repairs for existing homeowners and explaining the forgivable-loan program for current homeowners was the key, McFadden says. She also had to remind the donor group to be patient.

"I kept trying to school them on that," McFadden says. "Periodically I'd have to pull their coattails to let them know 'OK, we see it this way, but the reality is it may be this other way because you think you've got this pipe dream that things are going to happen overnight.' Sometimes anything that happens overnight is destined to fail.

"You have to turn around and face the reality. You want to turn around here and do a development in an area that you don't know anything about? They don't know anything about you. Therefore somebody has to build up some trust, someplace. And trust takes time."

If anything typifies the cultural gap between the frontmen for the donors and the ward barons, it's the flare-ups that occurred between Hentschell and Troupe.

Hentschell is a big man -- he's about six-foot-five and weighs about 250 pounds. An accomplished architect of long standing, among other structures he designed the building that houses the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, a newspaper owned by Pulitzer Inc.

Troupe is an electrician by trade and is a longtime union official for the Amalgamated Transit Union, Division 788. He's the 1st Ward committeeman and has been a state representative for 34 years.

Both Hentschell and Troupe are blunt and don't back off readily.

On at least two separate occasions during meetings, Troupe went off on Hentschell for using the term "you people" when referring to neighborhood residents. Hentschell recalls that he said "your people," but whatever was said, fireworks ensued.

At one meeting at the union hall on South Broadway, Hentschell says, "Quincy chewed me out, and I told him to go to hell." At the next meeting, one in the neighborhood, there was a reprise, he says:

"Quincy went after me again. He was nervous about me in general. Apparently, and I don't even recall saying it, this lady was asking how to get these grants set up, and I said, 'You've got to get your block captains together and then we'll have our team meet with your people and get this thing worked out.' And Quincy just said, 'Don't ever use "you people," you sonafabitch.' And I'm going, 'Oh, fuck you.' I picked up my briefcase and started to walk out, and Harold told me to go sit down. He said, 'Quincy's trying to show off a little bit.' Sure enough, as soon as he made his statement, he left."

Smith recalls the incidents but blames it on Hentschell's overall demeanor.

"Hentschell had really pissed off a lot of people," Smith recalls. "He'd come into a meeting and use the phrase 'you people.' You just don't do that. He did it, like, three times. The first time he did it, we were in a private meeting with elected officials from the ward. And Troupe checked him. He said, 'Man, you don't do that -- that's offensive.' He came and did it, like, three times in a meeting, and the people were, like, 'Who is he talking to?' Where in his mind he didn't mean anything by it, to my community that's insulting. That's insulting."

Whitfield, who is African-American, was present each time and simply says it was a mistake on Hentschell's part.

"If you're white, you never go to an African-American group and say 'you people.' You never do that. You can be as well intended as you want to be, that's just a lightning rod of a phrase that I've known all my life. I've known Hentschell since high school -- we played basketball together on playgrounds and stuff. He's my friend. I told him he made a mistake, that's a term you don't use, and he accepted that

Whitfield didn't think it was any big deal, just something that Troupe reacted to, after which the meeting moved on.

"It's a term that was used. It's like a lightning rod, and Hentschell was not conversant with that lightning rod," Whitfield says. "I didn't get the impression Troupe was taking any kind of racial position in this matter; he just reacted to it."

Smith says the problem with Hentschell extended beyond the "you people" comment.

"There was a problem with the architect they brought on," Smith says, referring to Hentschell. "A lot of people had problems with him, including the administration. It's just his manner. He doesn't know how to deal with people. He basically turned people off. He turned the staff at LRA off. The mayor's office might not admit it, but they were, too. He wouldn't return calls. The attitude was 'We're giving you this.'"

Hentschell doesn't see it that way. He thinks Smith and Troupe were defensive from the get-go and whatever he would have said would not have changed that.

"It was all about a bunch of wealthy white guys from Ladue coming into his neighborhood," Hentschell says of Troupe. "We said, 'Bullshit.' We're not forcing anybody to do anything. We're trying to give money away, no strings attached. That whole concept is foreign to them."

In the 1st Ward, there's enough credit and blame to go around. The donor group wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and spent more than a year spinning its wheels before starting to buy and renovate properties. Its plans should have been spelled out more clearly. The group should have found Faye McFadden, or someone like her, sooner.

Irene Smith may appear overly touchy, but she cannot afford the luxury of taking offers at face value. Given her history with the mayor, her constituents do not enjoy favored-ward status. She has to fight for what she gets.

After all the haggling, two disbursement accounts were set up for the neighborhood. One has $500,000 for forgivable home-improvement loans for owner-occupied homes, and the other has $250,000 for better street lighting and landscape improvements. Now that cash will start flowing for residents, it's anticipated that the sale of the LRA lots will soon follow.

Some involved in this 1st Ward wrestling match contend that the donors would have set up the accounts for home-improvement loans and streetscape work even if Smith had not held the LRA lots hostage. Others disagree.

While the sale of the vacant LRA lots to the donor group hung in limbo, a year and a half slipped by with no ground being broken for new houses. The money was there, the will was there; the politics got in the way. If it had been more readily apparent that the donors needed to put their plan in writing and put up the home-improvement money on the front end, the sale of the vacant LRA lots would have been a surer bet. The earlier sale of the lots would have led to visible signs of progress in a neighborhood in dire need of such signs.

Although the project appears headed for a happy ending, Whitfield says there's a lesson to be learned here: Not every developer would put up with all of this confusion and delay.

"The LRA has a huge inventory of property across the city. I don't know the reason for it, but somebody has determined that the alderperson has the final say-so on how this LRA property is being utilized," says Whitfield. "I don't care whether it's Irene's ward or whose ward it is, I think that's a huge problem in terms of using that land for development.

"I think a lot of people who are developers, whether it's this donor group or whoever it is, they're not coming from within the city of St. Louis," Whitfield says. "I think they will have problems trying to understand working with an alderperson to get the job done. That's going to be a frustration."

Whitfield doesn't even blame Smith for the problem -- he says it's the system.

"In terms of working with Irene Smith, I cannot honestly say she was unusually difficult," Whitfield says. "She wanted some control over how the LRA lots were being used. I was in three or four meetings with her and Quincy Troupe, neighborhood meetings, and nobody ran us out of the building. I've known Irene and Quincy, too, for a long time.

"The major problem is the city's policy with regard to utilization of LRA property," Whitfield says. "We came in moving very fast and wanting to do a lot, but we ran into a big stumbling block early on. As we switched to show the residents what we were trying to do, the project started moving.

"But we still don't have the LRA properties."

Whitfield also knows that to succeed, the project will have to do more than buy land and provide bricks and mortar.

"After one meeting, a guy came up to me and said, 'What you're trying to do is good, well intended, but one of the first things you need to try to do is to provide some kind of security or protection or comfort for the neighborhood, in terms of crime,'" Whitfield says. "I think that's a bigger, more realistic approach."

Evelyn Greer, a homeowner on Vera Street who also runs a daycare center, says the developers helped the neighborhood by taking on some problem properties.

"Crime needs to be addressed, but I would say they're working on it. We had some buildings they bought and cleared out," says Greer, including the apartments on Rosalie. "Because of that, it's not near as bad as it was as far as crime and drug activity. That's part of the puzzle they have to solve. But it's happening, from what I can see."

Patricia Goree has lived in the neighborhood for 31 years and is optimistic about what she sees. Workers just finished putting siding, guttering, new windows and a new front door on her house. The work was financed by a forgivable loan bankrolled by the donor group.

"It turned out real well," Goree says. "Eventually all the vacant lots that we have, they'll put new homes on them. That will bring the neighborhood up to par."

For McFadden, the Realtor, Irene Smith was a "reality check" for the donor group. "I would have done what she did. I told them that," she says. "They had to play her ball game."

Smith says the ordeal may have burned a lot of time, but she makes no apologies.

"They didn't have anything in writing. This process forced them to sit and plan out their development," Smith says. "Initially it was 'Ain't nobody going to tell us what to do with our money.' And that's true -- it's your money -- but you are asking us for something. You're asking me for support for you purchasing these other lots. Then you're making commitments to my constituents and than at the same time folks are contacting them about buying their house. I have to have my antennae up."

Holding out until she was clear about the forgivable-loan home-improvement program was what she needed to do, Smith says:

"I try to leverage resources because I'm not in the good graces of the administration. But God has blessed our ward. People are coming to me like I don't know what. And I know why: We're close to the highway; it's a good area. On Sundays, speculators are riding all through my area. I know that. I have to be vigilant and work with people."

Smith and Troupe did what they thought was their duty -- protect the interest of their constituents, maximize the benefits of any offer and make sure 1st Ward residents knew that was happening. Though their suspicions about speculative buyouts and condescending developers didn't turn out to be justified, to them, taking the precautions made sense.

Explaining the motivation of the donor group is not easy. Some suspect its members are driven by the need for tax write-offs or that they are patronizingly playing a game of inner-city Monopoly, buying Baltic Avenue and putting up houses only to make themselves feel good. Hentschell thinks it's something else.

"I think it's the challenge," he says. "Some of them are quiet activists. I think it was the challenge of showing the world that you don't need all these subsidies from HUD and CDA and all this stuff, that you can do a good job privately, without subsidy, and make it work. They were never aware of the kind of blank stare you get when you try to do something in the city. It's just so difficult. You have to be patient. You're dealing with St. Louis."

But despite delays and distractions, the benefactors from the county have stayed the course. The project continues. The war stories the donors tell about how their noblesse oblige efforts were greeted in the city will probably raise eyebrows at the St. Louis Country Club, but they appear to be taking the bumps in the road and the detours as part of the ride.

Sonja Wooten, the buyer of the jinxed property on Rosalie, does not share their persistence.

Her experience with the apartment building from hell has discouraged her from even driving from Jefferson County into the city.

"Anytime we go down [Interstate] 55 into downtown and I smell that smell, I get choked up," she says. "I can hardly breathe, thinking about the memory. You smell the city, y'know? You know you're getting close to the area. The brewery, Monsanto and the river, all mixed in there, and Pillsbury: You smell all those smells, and you know you're getting close to Rosalie."

That memory of Rosalie Avenue may persist, but the reality is changing.


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