Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 204

  • 2322 Montgomery Avenue (Larmer LLC, March 2008, $55,000)

May 2008

It's a peculiar little HUD house, no longer resembling its mass-produced brethren. It wouldn't be the end of the world if Blairmont demolished it to clear the way for new blocks of urban development, but wouldn't it be charming and clever if they managed to build around it?

More on 2322 Montgomery at Ecology of Absence.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 203

  • 2541 W. Sullivan (Union Martin LLC, May 2008, $66,500)

May 2008

It's obvious that Mr. McKee has not yet found time to visit this block in person. If he had, he'd surely be working to renovate its charming cottages and get them occupied again, assuring that no more of them would be lost to arson or brick theft. The magnetic pull of this block is irresistible, and any savvy developer would surely capitalize on that charm. Right??

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 202

  • 2532 W. Dodier Street (Union Martin LLC, September 2008, $85,000)

August 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer

I'm sure Paul McKee Jr. wants to get this little frame house occupied again as soon as possible. After all, an arson spree devastated much of his property elsewhere on this block, and no upstanding developer or wise builder would want to see historic brick buildings lost to fire. That's throwing resources down the drain. You don't have to be a rich developer to see that, right?

March 2007

May 2008

"Thou shall not steal!! Exodus 20:10 In Jesus Name, You shall not Steal!!! Exodus 20:15 In Jesus Name! Jesus Loves You & Forgives You!!! Repent of your sins and die SAVED."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 201

  • 2209 Sullivan Avenue (Union Martin LLC, September 2008, $8,000)

March 2007

This poor little house! Its front face has been mutilated, almost all the windows bricked in. Blairmont here has a rare opportunity to truly restore a piece of lost historic fabric. Even if no records exist of the house's original configuration, a multitude of precedents surround it.

Alternately, a new, contemporary design could be put in place. So much of the original facade has been lost that it wouldn't be out of place to perform a purely contemporary intervention.

Either way, Blairmont has a host of wonderful things they can do with this house, now that they own it. By rights, the only problem should be choosing from among the several options.

August 2003 - photograph by Kevin Keiffer

Friday, November 21, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 200

    Left to right:
  • 2530 Warren Street (Union Martin LLC, September 2008) (white house at center)
  • 2534 Warren Street (N & G Ventures LLC, May 2006, $50,000)
  • 2544 Warren Street (VHS Partners LLC, November 2005, $30,000)

March 2007

Blairmont has a choice here. They could renovate these little HUD houses. This would be ecologically smart, saving the money, material, and energy already vested in the structures.

On the flip side, these are cheaply built dwellings, and now that they're empty, few would lament their passing -- especially if they were replaced by a large-scale urban development.

(Of course, it might have been simpler to simply not empty the houses out in the first place, right?)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 199

  • 2519 Dodier Street (Union Martin LLC, April 2008, $200,000)

October 2008

This multi-unit, walk-up apartment building is an ideal form for low-cost housing. Small, simple, basic, it provides compact living space in a neighborly setting. The building also defines the street wall very nicely, another urban gesture worth preserving and replicating.

In an unusual gesture for the neighborhood, it uses terra cotta masonry for its cornice and other ornament, rather than the complex brickwork so common to St. Louis's older neighborhoods.

February 2008

Emptied of all tenants, it is now ripe for a gut rehab. With nobody living there, it would be much easier than before to do serious, fast work to get the place back up to standards.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 198

  • 2338 St. Louis Avenue (Union Martin LLC, June 2008, $80,000)

October 2008

Just across the street from yesterday's house, this 2-flat building offers similar opportunities. It offers smaller and therefore more affordable units, allowing more economic diversity to exist in the area. Yet even this more affordable alternative retains handsome dignity, as shown by the fine brick porch with its carved capitals.

Standing amid a solid block of apartments buildings, single family homes, and multi-unit houses, this building represents a fine opportunity for Paul McKee to lend a true helping hand to the St. Louis Place neighborhood. I look forward to the inevitable rehab and renovation, which should restore the luster of this handsome house to its original shine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 197

  • 2325 St. Louis Avenue (Noble Development LLC, August 2006, $60,000)

October 2008

Paul McKee should be especially excited to be holding this particular home. Many of his houses are in obscure or undistinguished neighborhoods (well, undistinguished relative to the high standards of inner St. Louis, at least.) This one, however, is not only a fine piece of architecture and real estate in its own right; it is also surrounded by several fabulous blocks of St. Louis Avenue's finest architecture. It faces miniature Romanesque mansions, and is neighbored by several houses unique in all of St. Louis. Only a short walk away is the beautiful greenery of St. Louis Place Park. A few short blocks beyond that lies the regionally famous Crown Candy Kitchen. Downtown is but a few minutes' drive away. The location can't be beat.

Once the house is renovated, it will surely bring in a small fortune. Mr. McKee should by rights turn a handy profit on this investment.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 196

  • 2721 Greer Avenue (VHS Partners LLC, November 2005, $20,000)

October 2008

2700 Greer Avenue is a charmingly tiny one-way street. Its charm has been diminished by years of neglect and deterioration. But that charm is surely why Paul McKee has begun buying properties there. Once he restores this house, the block will look a lot better; if he can get infill housing built there, the block could regain its original beauty and perhaps be even better than before.

Mr. McKee must surely regret the lost of 2733 Greer, a small cottage which stood next door to the one shown here. It doesn't take much looking to recognize the charming power of these little houses, or see the great opportunity their small size represents. Such a small building could make home ownership affordable even to low-income residents. What noble-intentioned entrepreneur wouldn't jump at the chance to help out?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 195

  • 2811 Parnell Avenue (Dodier Investors LLC, November 2006)

October 2008

Blairmont may be a little optimistic on this one; finding a productive, neighborhood-friendly use for such a building may be a challenge. It could, obviously, serve as a gas station and convenience store; however, it seems unlikely that Blairmont would want to put such an anti-pedestrian use in the neighborhood, even here on the fringes.

But the diminutive building is hardly up the challenge of holding and defining the massively overscaled intersection of Parnell and St. Louis Avenue. I wonder if perhaps they've actually considered tearing this one down. Combining this corner lot with all the empty, under-utilized land behind it would create a truly spectacular opportunity -- the chance to rebuild an urban corner from the ground up. A three- or four-story apartment building, or an entire series of them, would not be inappropriate. Hundreds of income-generating dwelling units could occupy this land!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 194

  • 2501 Sullivan Avenue (Dodier Investors LLC, November 2006)

October 2008

This industrial building represents a remarkable opportunity in a residential neighborhood -- the chance to create jobs right in the community. Imagine working and living all in the same neighborhood! A hardy factory building like this is prime material for a specialty manufacturing concern; it could also function as an incubator for new businesses. With loading docks for trucks, it's equipped to handle all sorts of heavy duty materials. Restore the windows and landscape the parking lot, and it could even be a thing of beauty in its own right.

Next door, Blairmont owns another fine opportunity at 2527 Sullivan. A one-story industrial building was recently razed (the saw-tooth-roofed building that remains is not a Blairmont property.) The resulting empty land could hold virtually anything -- houses, apartments, or a multi-story commercial, industrial, or mixed-use building. The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 193

  • 2800 James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue (Union Martin LLC, April 2008, $178,000 - multiple properties)
  • 2804 James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue (Union Martin LLC, April 2008)

From left to right: 2800, 2804, 2810. October 2008

Blairmont owns two houses on this block, and all the vacant land between them. The rest of the block belongs to the True Light Missionary Baptist Church, except for two houses belonging to the upstanding not-for-profit landlord JVL Renaissance. With neighbors like those, Blairmont has the power to truly recreate this block, to turn it into something intact, wonderful and beautiful. Rehab the two survivors, get a small convenience grocery back into the corner building, and build additional infill houses, and this block would be whole and healthy again.

That is, after all, how this neighborhood began -- full of occupied urban houses. There's no reason it couldn't return to those glory days again.

2804 - October 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 192

  • 2734 James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue (Union Martin LLC, April 2008, $179,800 - multiple properties)

October 2008

Just west of yesterday's house, this is another painted stone-front house, with delicate inscribed carvings around the windows. A coat of bright blue paint makes it an exuberant note on this block, if not exactly historically accurate.

An active church stands right next door. Blairmont could make their premises safer and more attractive by renovating this house and getting renters or an owner into it. In fact, with all the property they own here, they could improve the entire block. What if some of the church's own parishioners could live right next door to their church? There's already an owner-occupant to the east; what if there could be a whole block of them?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 191

  • 2716 James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue (N & G Ventures LLC, August 2005, $15,000)

October 2008

This house is one I missed the first time around. Stone front facades like this are common in this neighborhood, inviting canvases for bright colors. Imagine an entire block of such restored houses, painted in a rainbow of colors. Blairmont has the ability to make it happen!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 190

  • 1428 Biddle (Union Martin LLC, May 2008)

October 2008

This humble little church building stands on the same block as 1408 Biddle. They are the only buildings remaining north of the alley.

It would be wonderful to see a development reclaim this block of Biddle. Such a development would be a fine chance to restore the crumbling Carr School, and could include a nearby three-story brick industrial building as well. Such a move would push the near north side one step closer to its rightful connection to downtown.

The vacant land on the rest of the block is owned by Alter Realty, a Clayton-based company.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Blairmont update

Paul McKee Jr. recently made another round of property purchases through Larmer LLC and Union Martin LLC. The buildings in question will be documented here over the coming days.

Meanwhile, here's some status updates on a few older Blairmont properties:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Blairmont-owned 2621 Sullivan burns... again

One of the many houses owned by Blairmont, 2621 Sullivan Avenue, burned Friday night.

I was a block away when I noticed a cloud of smoke, too much to be a barbecue as I first thought. A number of neighbors were already watching in the street when I drove past the house. Just in case, I called 911 and reported the fire; the Fire Department showed up within minutes.

What started as some drifting smoke had become fairly intense a few minutes after the SLFD arrived; I saw flames leaping through the roof at one point.

This house was occupied in February. It was bought by Blairmont later in the year. This is now the second time it's burned; the first may or may not have been under their ownership, but the damage looked very recent to me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blairmont: The Final Dose

At long last, we've reached the end. Nearly every building owned by Paul McKee Jr.'s shell companies has been documented on this blog.

It 189 posts to do it, 189 days -- that's over half a year. But the actual number of buildings is far higher. Some of those posts covered multiple buildings; a few included entire city blocks. If I had to take a stab at it, I'd guess the total number of buildings is closer to 400, or higher. Four hundred buildings! And that doesn't begin to cover all the vacant land McKee has bought... some of which wasn't vacant when he bought it.

(It is possible that I have missed a few, and if so, I invite site readers to point them out. They will be added as soon as possible. Also of note, I did not include the demolished Brecht Butcher Supply Warehouse in Old North, nor the crumbling James Clemens mansion in St. Louis Place.)

The bulk of those buildings are St. Louis housing stock, sturdy red brick buildings built between 1880 and 1930. Some are plain; many have beautiful decoration and ornament. Some are outright spectacular.

Some of those houses were abandoned when McKee purchased them; a few were badly deteriorated. Many were occupied. Some owner-occupants sold out willingly, lured by money or fearful of eminent domain taking everything they had. Many renters had no choice, and were forcibly ejected from their homes.

Under Paul McKee's ownership, the vast majority of these houses have deteriorated. This deterioration occurs due to more than simple lack of maintenance; much of it is due to willful neglect:

  • Many have had their windows removed. There is no reason to do this other than to hasten the decline of the houses.
  • Many have been attacked and destroyed by brick rustlers. If Blairmont had left tenants in place, if they had monitored their properties, if they had not worked to empty out entire blocks, this could not have happened.
  • A rash of Blairmont's buildings were destroyed by fire, mostly likely arson. Again, a vacated neighborhood is far less likely to have such problems.
  • Most have not been boarded up, or had their grounds maintained, making it obvious that they are vacant. This allows them to become havens for criminal activities.

This blog and web site are about architecture; my focus is on the buildings of these neighborhoods. But the human dimension is still more important, even if it is often hidden, more easily swept under the carpet. And in dealing with the human beings whose neighborhood this is, Paul McKee Jr. has been just as willfully abusive and negligent as he has been with the city's architectural legacy:
  • He has attempted to operate in total secrecy.
  • He has refused to come forward and declare his plan for the area.
  • He has refused to solicit input from those living in the area.
  • Despite his claims to the contrary, he has bought many occupied buildings, evicting the tenants and thereby diminishing the population of the area.
  • He has issued contradictory and ultimately false statements regarding his plans.
  • He has stood by and done nothing with his properties, even as new development rises around many of them.

The most maddening aspect, however, is that it did not have to be this way. There appears to be no reason for McKee's destructive, terrorizing, blockbusting tactics other than willful stubbornness, combined with a blind conviction that wholesale destruction is the only way to rejuvenate a neighborhood.

The most cursory glance at St. Louis's 20th century history readily demonstrates how obsolete and backward these convictions are. Time and again, total clearance has produced only misery, failure, and worsening conditions for those upon whom it is inflicted. It does not solve any problems; it simply shuffles them somewhere else.

Total clearance destroys more than architecture; it destroys neighborhoods. It destroys people's homes. It destroys the localized environment that support small, independent businesses. It destroys social ties. It destroys a web of human connections, of intertwined lives and support networks. This sort of human connection may be hard to grasp for those who have never experienced it, for those who live in isolated suburbs and travel only by car, but it's a defining aspect of urban neighborhoods, and is vital to the survival and well-being of their residents.

The destructive approach has characterized everything McKee has done in north St. Louis. He has destroyed architecture, urban fabric, neighborhoods, homes. He seems dead set on wiping the slate clean, improving the neighborhood by destroying it.

How would you like it if someone with a lot more wealth and power than you came in, decided that your neighborhood wasn't good enough, and started working to destroy it? Not to improve it, but to destroy it!

And what becomes of the residents who are forced out of their homes? They are rarely if ever accounted for, especially if they are low-income. They are shuffled on to another place, another neighborhood, where, lacking their previous support network, they must struggle harder still to survive. If they are unable to gather sufficient resources, the new neighborhood may begin to decline. In exploding the neighborhoods of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou, Paul McKee is doing no favors for the poor.

What could Mr. McKee have done instead? What would make me and other urbanists happy? What would actually improve the lives of people living here?
  • Selective redevelopment. This would be especially welcome in Old North St. Louis, which is slowly but surely redeveloping itself. McKee has spent enough money to renovate every single one of his Old North properties, and doing so would have made him a hero to the neighborhood's residents. Instead, he's regarded as a slumlord and worse, and he hasn't made a dime on his investment.
  • Selective land aggregation and clearance. There are some areas in these neighborhoods that could, with just a few purchases and buyouts, be assembled into large blank canvases for new development. With so many opportunities, there is no need to destroy entire blocks and create damaging voids in healthy blocks.
  • Respect existing urban fabric. Plan to build around surviving historic houses. Offer financial assistance to the owners of those houses if they wish to upgrade and improve their properties. Enact a preservation plan. Acknowledge that this is the city, not the suburbs, and plan accordingly.
Notice the common theme of these ideas: selective. Operate, not amputate. McKee has approached these neighborhoods as though they were a suburban development project on vacant farm fields, a monolithic entity to be shaped however one pleases. But the city is not like that; it is a living organism that must be approached with care and respect. Failure to do so is devastating.

I must repeat: I want to see development happen in these neighborhoods. I am not trying to discourage it. These areas need new construction and new residents. Nor am I trying to deny their problems. They had many troubles before Blairmont came along, and they would still have troubles if Paul McKee had never set foot in them. But Blairmont's work has visibly made things worse, not better, and so far there has been no payoff whatsoever for all the damage done.

As I try to take stock of Paul McKee's tactics, I find myself unable to grasp his plans, unable to understand what it is that he wants to do. There are only a few possibilities, and all of them defy logic:
  • A suburban-styled development, perhaps with some token concessions toward New Urbanism, perhaps gated, maybe with a golf course. This would explain what appears to be a drive toward total site control. However, it would require unfathomable amounts of demolition -- not just of the remaining historic stock, but of extensive new construction in numerous locations in all three neighborhoods. Furthermore, even controlling all of JeffVanderLou, Old North, and St. Louis Place will not sanitize the remaining areas around them. It will not transform Hyde Park. It will not make the eastern Ville any less rough. Even if such a thing belonged in a city, the idea that an untouchable enclave could be created on McKee's land is simply a fantasy. Furthermore, if it could be done, why not go ahead and do it on the empty acres of the former Pruitt-Igoe site just to the south?

  • Light industry. This would make some sense for the area; it's more easily defended and can co-exist with empoverished neighborhoods. But if that's the plan... why the hell hasn't he already done it?! Again, the Pruitt-Igoe site begs for new development. The 23rd Street prairie contains vast amounts of empty land. The endless game of buy-and-wait, buy-and-wait, buy-and-wait defies all notions of conventional development; McKee is pouring huge sums of money into property acquisition, and has yet to see a penny in return after three years.

  • Mississippi River Bridge clearance. I don't know exactly where the new bridge is supposed to come through, but it could affect a few of McKee's properties. But that bridge is years away... if it happens at all.

I don't know what Paul McKee is planning. It seems like nobody does. And this uncertainty is a cruel burden to place on those who call JeffVanderLou, St. Louis Place, and Old North home.

It is long past time for McKee to come forward and publicly announce his plans, meet with residents, and take action on his long-neglected properties.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 189

  • 1930 St. Louis Avenue (N & G Ventures LLC, March 2006, $125,000)

May 2008

It is perhaps the single most beautiful building endangered by Paul McKee's destructive blockbusting. Last serving as the Price Funeral Home, its front facade features a wealth of architectural detail, including diminutive inclined columns which have long brought to my mind the works of Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. Gothic arched windows, a thick lacework balcony, floral inscriptions, ornate brackets, raised medallions, and corbeled parapet wall ends add to its rich ornamental program.

It was wisely chosen by Landmarks Association of St. Louis to represent all of McKee's buildings on the annual Eleven Most Endangered Places list. Even this amazing building is not immune from the destructive forces set loose by the widespread negligence in Blairmontland; brick rustlers damaged a corner of a rear garage annex, but fortunately did no further damage to the main section of the building.

March 2003, while still in use

March 2007, boarded up. 1937 Montgomery stands in the background at left.

May 2008. In the foreground, a dirt patch is all that remains of 1937 Montgomery.

1930 St. Louis contains a concentrated dose of the beautiful architectural embellishment found on so many Blairmont buildings, a built legacy that is being allowed to crumble and die. The building abley stands for all that is endangered by Blairmont's speculatory investment: architecture, business, homes, neighborhoods, community.

More on 1930 St. Louis Avenue at Ecology of Absence: Who Would Destroy This Building?