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Bus Tour of Dilapitated McKee-owned Properties Ignored Other Issues

This past Thursday morning I attended, as did many others, the press conference and bus tour relating to 500+ properties owned by Paul McKee through various companies in his control. For those of you living under a rock for the last year, McKee had quietly bought hundreds of properties mostly in the city’s 5th ward through companies with names like “Blairmont Associates, LLC” and “Dodier Investors LLC” (see list). Blair and Dodier are both street names in the area. In the last Missouri State legislative session McKee’s attorney Steve Stone wrote a tax credit bill worth $100 million for anyone that assembled large acres of land in distressed areas. All sounds good so far, right?

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Paul McKee, Board Member of St. Charles-Based Pro-Sprawl “Urban Choice Coalition”

Paul McKee, the St. Charles developer and land baron behind the “Blairmont” project has continued to remain in the news of late. I ran across his name while researching the board members of a pro-sprawl, anti-city group based in St. Charles County. Mr. McKee is a board member of a group that interestingly is anti government intervention out in the virgin farmlands but is all in favor of intervention in the city.

The following is the mission statement for the Urban Choice Coalition in its entirety:

WE BELIEVE in the right of individuals to live wherever they choose and can afford. We reject the blanket condemnation of growth in suburban counties as being a root cause of urban decay and further reject the pejorative term “urban sprawl” to describe the healthy expansion of new communities.

WE BELIEVE that it is the right of individuals to select the state, city, county, neighborhood or development of their choice to call home and not be denied governmental services, grants or benefits, otherwise available on a national or statewide basis, because of their choice of residence.

It should not be the role of government to deny services to anyone based on their choices of where to live.

It should not be the role of government to set up artificial growth boundaries, outside of which citizens or communities receive any less governmental benefits.

It should not be the role of state or regional government planning agencies to erect growth boundaries and attempt to dictate or dissuade anyone from living where they choose.

WE FURTHER BELIEVE certain public policy issues should be resolved on a statewide or regional basis, but that those decisions concerning who and where to extend local utilities and roads, or to build new schools and local government facilities are, for the most part, best left to local decision makers elected by the people they represent and that these local decisions should not be turned over to or subject to, further review by statewide or regional planning commissions not elected by the people.

WE FAVOR enhancing the quality of life in the urban core and positive inducements to promote “city living” as the best means of attracting new residents and stabilizing older neighborhoods.

But presumably it should be the role of the state governent to enact massive tax breaks for one person, say Paul McKee, so that he may assemble large areas of land within a single municipality within the state. Of couse the legislation passed by the Missouri legislature isn’t limited to McKee’s well-known but unannounced housing project but the various requirements pretty much make it tailor made just for him.

It would seem to be that an individual property rights type person, one who opposes big government intervention in land planning matters, would also oppose such intervention everywhere. But to McKee and his co-sprawlers they want it all — the ability to rape open farmland with single-use projects which are auto dependent as well as receive huge tax breaks for assembling land (which happens to contain people & buildings) on the scale of urban renewal projects like Pruitt-Igoe.

Oh yes, I see, they believe we need to have “positive inducements” in order to attract people to this idea of “city living.” Why the quotes on city living McKee & Co? I know why, you don’t really understand city living. Or maybe you do? You are likely afraid of the whole idea of people enjoying dense and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. Sure, you talk a nice game about the “rights of indiviuals” to live where they like but you are all afraid they will stop picking the auto-centric housing subdivisions you call “communities.” And face it boys, the sprawl neighorhoods you’ve littered on the landscape for years has absolutely nothing to do with free choice — government planning has created the zoning codes that mandate everything from the lot size to the street width.

Pro-sprawl zoning in the suburbs has limited choices  — you can’t just build a corner storefront with your living space above anywhere you think their might be demand.  Oh no, in their world we must divide everything up — no mixing of residential, retail and office.  They  don’t really support individualism or free thinking about land use, they like what exists and simply want nobody to stop them until they’ve managed to merge St. Louis with Columbia MO.

The only way New Town at St. Charles got built in the urban manner that it did (urban relative to lot sizes, setbacks, street widths, etc…) is that the City of St. Charles agreed to adopt DPZ’s smart code for New Town.  Without this new zoning, what we see in New Town would not have been legally allowed as the area was zoned for industrial uses.  So where are McKee & Co when it comes to the sprawl-mandated zoning that predominates St. Charles County?  Right behind it 100%!

Another section above is how they like decisions left to local decision makers.  I’m just guessing because that is cheaper for them than having to contribute to a bunch of regional and state officials.  This weekend’s Post-Dispatch story on McKee pointed out his contributions to Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and Mayor Francis Slay.  Of course, to get that new tax bill passed he had to drop some money around the state as well.

To see the list of directors for the Urban Choice Coalition don’t look for it on their website.  You might even get the impression from their anonymous site that they are ashamed of their views — not wanting to be associated with it.  I can’t say that I blame them really, I would not want to put my name on that BS either.  So for the board list I had to go to the Secretary of State’s records, click here for their last report.  Basically it is all the people that financially benefit from the planned sprawl of the countryside in St. Charles County, including engineers, road builders, and the Executive Director of the Home Builders Association of Greater St. Louis.

Everyone agrees that North St. Louis needs major new investment and infill construction.  I just don’t think McKee and his anti-city, pro-sprawl buddies are the right people for the job.

 

“Blairmont Scheme” Is Fulfillment of Official City Plans

Much has been written lately about the sinister plot, known to many as “Blairmont”, to bulldoze North St. Louis (specifically the St. Louis Place neighborhood). The focus has been on various straw companies such as Blairmont Associates, LLC and part owner Paul McKee. McKee is a founder of well known commercial contractor Paric, an officer in McEagle Development and current Chairman of BJC Healthcare. In other words, a prominent citizen for all that’s worth.

The major issue has been these companies are buying hundreds of properties, including some very historic structures, and letting them sit empty and decaying. A few have had some devistating fires. Nobody has been able to track down any more information on the motives & intention behind these purchases. Interestingly, the answer was under our noses the whole time.

This is all part of a public plan, one of many actually.

The city’s 1947 master plan highlighted many areas immediately south and north of downtown, indicating they were obsolete. You know, places like the trendy Soulard neighborhood. This plan called for it to be wiped clean and given a fresh start with cul-de-sac streets and lots of the much touted “open space.” Subsequent plans have followed along this same theme with the “Team Four” plan, a reaction to an early 70s research report from the Rand Corporation commenting on the conditions in St. Louis, calling for reduced services to parts of North St. Louis so that people will leave.

In 2002 the city’s Planning Commission adopted the 5th Ward Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan. It should be noted the boundaries are the old 5th Ward, not the boundaries as changed around the same time as the plan was being adopted. Anyway, in the plan a large swath of land just north of the long vacant Pruitt-Igoe site is shown hatched out with the designation “Proposed Large Land Use (for further study).” In other words, level anything remaining and start fresh. There it is, fully adopted after numerous public meetings and everything.

zoning1201

[Above: 5th ward zoning proposal shows large white area with red diagonal lines as a proposed large land use]

McKee’s various companies own many properties within the large land use area as well as areas surrounding it. Much has changed since the first public meetings where held in the Fall of 1999, adoption in April 2002 and today. In places the change has been good — new infill construction (some of it actually attractive, the rest not so attractive) as well as strong renovation efforts. In other parts of the ward, however, people have left and buildings have continued to deteriorate and be razed.

In the Spring of 2005 the city adopted a new Strategic Land-Use Plan. For the most part it was simply a recording of uses already in existence but in places the plan does call for changes. Also, the city has failed to follow through with the next step which was to be new zoning which cooresponds to the land uses. In this land-use plan, however, we can see the large area from the 2002 5th ward plan designated as “Neighborhood Development Areas (NDA):”

Residential/non-residential areas with substantial amounts of vacant land and abandoned buildings suitable for new residential construction of scale/associated neighborhood services, respecting stable properties that may be considered as part of any new development. Opportunities for new housing construction/replatting at critical mass scale defining a new neighborhood character over time.

The land-use plan goes further than the 5th Ward plan, calling out additional land as “Opportunity Areas:”

Key underutilized locations where the use of the land is in transition. Location and site characteristics of these areas offer particular challenges/opportunities that could be advantageous to a range of development activity. This designation is intended to be flexible and specific development proposals will be entertained as they present themselves.

Stable areas such as the Old North St. Louis neighborhood and the area immediately surrounding St. Louis Place Park are designated as “Neighborhood Preservation Areas:”

Areas where the existing housing and corner commercial building stock will be preserved and augmented with new infill residential and corner commercial development physically integrated with, and primarily serving the immediate neighborhood. These areas generally consist of stable residential areas of the City, including but not limited to historic districts, where the character of the neighborhood is currently well preserved with relatively few vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The plan contemplates continued preservation and improvement, with quality rehabilitation and infill new construction that is sensitive to the character of existing residences. Commercial and institutional uses catering to the immediate needs of the neighborhood are acceptable and reflect the traditional role such activity has played in the history of the City.

So, in keeping with officially approved plans I expect to see some large-scale reconstruction in the area just north of Pruitt-Igoe as well as lots of infill housing in surrounding areas such as Old North St. Louis.

Local architectural firm Arcturis has been mentioned by others as being involved in whatever the plans are for the area. I asked Arcturis COO Vernon Remiger about “Blairmont” earlier this week and he declined to comment. This tells me their firm is most likely still involved. Of course, the bulk of this area does need large quantities of new housing. In places like Old North St. Louis the neighborhood itself is working with developers and they have been building attractive new housing and rehabbing other buildings. Numerous vacant lots remain throughout the neighborhood.

For me my concerns are several. In areas where large-scale redevelopment is proposed will it simply involve possiblly replatting the lots to be slightly wider or do they want to screw up the highly functional grid of streets & alleys? Furthermore, do they want to build a bunch of similar looking single family detached housing or will we see a mix of housing types such as townhouses, live/work spaces and condos/apartments over storefronts? What about new alley houses like we used to have and like those being built out in New Town at St. Charles.

The problem with building most new construction next to one of our older houses is no matter the condition of the old house it almost always looks more graceful than the new. The materials and proportions are better, the detailing is stunning. New housing, next to old, just pales. This, I believe, is why many suburban developers seek to raze existing properties.

For further reading check out the “World of Blairmont” on The Ecology of Absence webiste. They’ve compiled a list of their own posts on the subject as well as from other sources, including the RFT.

 

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