It began as a conspiracy theory. It has since drifted closer and closer to painful reality.
Suburban St. Louis developer Paul McKee Jr. began his clandestine purchases of hundreds of parcels in downtrodden neighborhoods of north St. Louis in 2006. Today, he holds at least 500 parcels in all of his various real estate holdings companies. So what's the big deal?
Mr. McKee's McEagle Properties is the developer of large suburban tract housing in St. Louis's exurbs. He has also introduced a sprawling industrial park (called NorthPark) to an ailing inner ring suburb. The rumors are that he wishes to reduce some severely neglected St. Louis neighborhoods to rubble in order to construct a similar development on urban soil.
The McKee story has all the makings of a conspiracy theory, most of that due to McKee's absolute silence as to what he intends to do with his real estate that he has amassed. But an investigation quickly reveal that McKee is doing irreparable harm to St. Louis's already threatened built environment.
Local leaders either didn't know of or wouldn't speak on McKee's activities prior to one local preservationist and blogger's discovery of what he called the "Blairmont" scheme. Michael Allen, of Ecology of Absence (http://ecoabsence.blogspot.com), discovered that several homes in north St. Louis were being purchased and demolished either by neglect or by illegal brick rustling. Allen, a north St. Louis resident himself, attracted the attention of the local media, though only briefly. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an expose article last year, only to be attacked by St. Louis Mayor Slay who insists that he "trusts" Mr. McKee--though he too has no idea what McKee and Blairmont will do with their vast holdings.
Then it was announced by Lt. Governor Pete Kinder that a tax credit bill would be introduced in the Missouri Congress entitled the "Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit". The tax credit would apply only to developers who could assemble 50 acres of (noncontiguous) urban land in a defined "distressed" area. The compactness of St. Louis renders a 50 acre minimum a simply unconscionable scale for urban redevelopment--an entire neighborhood in reality. The tax credit bill, which incentivizes only land acquisition and not development, passed the Missouri Congress after a few minor revisions. The only possible beneficiary for such massive scaled projects could be no other than Paul McKee Jr. himself, who contributed heavily to Pete Kinder and other politicians backing the bill.
But investment in disinvested areas is a good thing, right? Not when it involves systematic (and illegal) dismantling of historic resources that are a neighborhood's last surviving assets. McKee and his Blairmont companies (named for the intersection of Blair and Montgomery Streets) have allowed numerous violations on their properties. They have been shown to evict tenants upon purchase of buildings, depriving some blocks of their last (and, in many cases, longtime) residents. They have allowed some buildings to deteriorate to the ground; others are not so lucky.
Another local preservationist and architect, Robert Powers, runs a blog called Built St. Louis (http://builtstlouis.blogspot.com) that tracks a different Blairmont property each and every day. Already into the 55th day, Powers' evidence is highly condemning and shows the Blairmont scheme to be the greatest threat to historic preservation since the days when St. Louis erased whole neighborhoods from the map with federal funding via "urban renewal". The website must be seen to be believed. Often, mere months after one of the Blairmont LLCs gets ahold of a structure, a BobCat will ram the structure from the rear. Destabilized, the building is then subjected to brick rustlers, who complete the demolition.
The St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou, Hyde Park, and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods lose historic structures by the day at this point. Their recovery is contingent upon retaining such inimitable architecture. Old North St. Louis, for one, is something of a preservation showcase. Severely abandoned and dilapidated, the neighborhood suffered the worst of suburbanization and deindustrialization. The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, however, has fueled a remarkable turnaround. Now, circa 1870 German vernacular rowhouses are being renovated. On one block, a commercial row is being converted back to a through street after an ill-conceived 1970s-era scheme that turned the street into a pedestrian mall.
Blairmont has bought into this tight-knit neighborhood with disastrous results. Mysterious accelerated decay, removed boards, damaged rear corners, windows left open to the elements or removed altogether are the identifying features of a Blairmont property. Surely, McKee's demolition by neglect (and by BobCat) are threatening the future of a neighborhood with an admirable grassroots effort to revive itself.
The other neighborhood involved are much worse off. St. Louis Place is home to a large swath of land that has already witnessed wholesale clearance. Likewise, JeffVanderLou contains many vacant buildings and those who remain in the occupied units are often extremely impoverished.
Nevertheless, it is vital that these neighborhood's built environments be rescued from the clutches of a secretive and destructive developer. McKee's wealth and development experience should be working to benefit the neighborhoods involved, bringing in much needed investment, new residents, and jobs. Instead, historic buildings are being lost and, along with them, the heritage of once dense and vibrant urban neighborhoods. Whether a limestone faced three-story row house or a modest turn-of-the-century red brick shotgun, north St. Louis has a more than worthy architectural heritage. It should be spared such an ignoble demise, especially considering that the decline of the Rustbelt had already taken its toll on these neighborhoods for nearly a half-century already.
Please spread this story to any sympathetic preservationists. St. Louis needs all the help it can get right now!
Please also read into Allen's Ecology of Absence and Powers' Built St. Louis. Those two sites contain a plethora of information (including photographs) of the effects of Blairmont's presence within these embattled neighborhoods.
If you would like to contact McEagle Properties, real estate company of Paul McKee Jr., please call (636) 561-9300.