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?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 188

  • 1935-1937 (aka 1937-1939) Montgomery Street (N & G Ventures LLC, November 2005, $65,000)

November 2005

Sporadically occupied into the early 2000s (probably illegally so), this house was the last one on the 1900 block of Montgomery to be inhabited. Blairmont bought it from a private owner, for exactly the price that had been posted on a hand-lettered sign in 2005.

May 2007

December 2007

May 2008

After the brick rustlers had finished their grisly work, I paid what I knew would be my final visit to this house on a beautiful morning in November of 2007. With the day's waking sunlight on my back, I stood beneath what remained of the old house's solid brick walls. I stared up longingly at that beautiful brick cornice, thrown into a sharp relief of brilliant reds and deep shadow. I photographed it from every angle, taking shot after shot, because I knew it would soon be gone. One hundred and sixteen years after St. Louis's gifted masons laid these intricate patterns, they were about to die.

November 2007

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 187

  • 1915 Montgomery Street (N & G Ventures LLC, May 2006, $100,000 - multiple properties)

March 2003

This was one of two Blairmont houses on the St. Louis Place site which I used for my thesis project several years ago; hence I've kept close track of its changes. And change it has:

May 2006

November 2007

December 2007

May 2008

It had been vacant for over 15 years... yet somehow, the brick rustlers struck only a year after Blairmont purchased it.

While the city finished demolition of the two neighboring LRA houses that were also brick rustled, Blairmont couldn't even be bothered to clear away the pitiful pile of debris that remained after the brick rustlers had passed through.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 186

  • 2545 Warren Avenue (Sheridan Place LLC, January 2007, $75,000 )
  • 2543 Warren Avenue (Babcock Resources LLC, September 2007, $60,000 )
  • 2539 Warren Avenue (N & G Ventures LLC, January 2006, $50,000 )

May 2008

Two of Blairmont's holdings here are plain 1970s HUD houses. But the third...

March 2007. The HUD house on the left is an LRA property.

The third, a historic property at 2539 Warren, was totally destroyed by brick rustlers.

November 2007

Eight months later, the corpse was still standing. Eight months, and nobody from McKee's companies noticed this?! It was finally demolished in the summer of 2008. Compassion and concern for the neighborhood, those are the Blairmont watchwords!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 185

  • 1508 St. Louis Avenue (VHS Partners LLC, November 2005, $28,500)

May 2008. 1508 is the large house on the left.

This house stands near the prominent intersection of St. Louis Avenue and W. Florissant. Its city history shows it to be vacant since 2000; boardups have slowly accumulated over its windows. In back, the rear wall is starting to crumble; the roof rotting away.

September 2006. The center house was owned by the LRA, and has since been demolished.

June 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer

March 2003

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 184

    Left to right:
  • 1918 St. Louis Avenue (Larmer LLC, March 2008, $25,000)
  • 1922 St. Louis Avenue (N & G Ventures LLC, May 2006, $100,000 - multiple properties)
  • 1924 St. Louis Avenue (N & G Ventures LLC, January 2006, $70,000)

August 2003

Amazingly, I somehow haven't gotten an updated photograph of this prominent trio of St. Louis Avenue houses. They're all still standing, for now. And as of this year, they're all Paul McKee properties. The best I've got is this sidelong view:

May 2008

But you don't need to be told the story by this point, right?

March 2003 - the half-gabled rear wings are a very common design element of St. Louis houses.

May 2008 - the half-boarded up windows are a very common element of Paul McKee houses.

August 2003 - 1918 is clearly occupied in this photograph by Kevin Kieffer.

August 2003 - 1924 is undergoing exterior facade repairs. Photograph by Kevin Kieffer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 183

  • 2224 Warren Street (VHS Partners LLC, November 2005)

August 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer.

I never even saw this one. It was demolished in March 2006, only 5 months after Blairmont's purchase.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 182

  • 2903-2905 Delmar Avenue (Noble Development LLC, November 20006)

December 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer. Blairmont owned the right half of the building.

You can venture to the site today, but you won't see this beautiful building.

August 2008

These lovely townhouses, part of a sequence known as Givens' Row, suffered a fire and were demolished under Paul McKee's ownership in November 2007. The fire damaged Blairmont's unit, as well as an LRA-owned unit adjacent. Only one separate unit, owned by another company, escaped the wrecking ball.

More on Givens Row can be found at Vanishing STL and at Landmarks Association.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 181

  • 1408 Biddle Street (Union Martin LLC, May 2008, $125,000)

August 2008

Sharing the same city block as the time-ravaged Carr School, this little building stands isolated from most of Blairmont's holdings.

August 2008

September 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer

Two successive salons occupied the ground floor: If Looks Could Kill prior to 2003, and Mane Agenda from 2004 until the Blairmont buyout. The latter business undertook a remodeling of the street level storefront, repainted the building, and generally tidied up.

Now the business is gone, the last vestige of life on this block which stands so close to the active Carr Square housing complex. If McKee is buying here... what could he have in mind for the adjacent Carr School?

November 2005

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Daily Dose of Blairmont 180

  • 1124 Tyler Street (MLK 3000 LLC, February 2007, $45,000)

August 2008. 1122-1124 is the building on the right.

Blairmont owns the half on the right; a private citizen has the left half at 1122. Neither seems to be making very good use of the building, which is tucked away in a rather hidden corner of Old North, right under the old elevated rail lines (slated to become a bike path.)

Now, wouldn't you be shocked to discover that Blairmont owns a building that was inhabited just a few short years ago?

August 2008

May 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer
Of course you wouldn't!

How 'bout if I told you that the city had to board up Blairmont's building for them? No? Not a shock either?

What if I told you that the building still isn't secure? That wouldn't surprise you either?

Is there anything about Blairmont that does come as a shock at this point? Anything at all?