Foreclosures and Demolition in Gravois Park

by Michael R. Allen

Vacant lots silently are starting to multiply on the city’s “state streets,” especially in parts of Gravois Park and Dutchtown between promising business districts on Cherokee Street and Meramec Avenue. Even worse are the innumerable signs of future trauma: bleached-red plywood, windows gasping through shards of broken glass, front doors hung ajar, downspouts and gutter pans already smelted in blast furnaces outside Beijing and weeds that cannot be cut enough to stay low. While much attention has been shed on vacancy’s impact on the north side, the south side is showing the signs of a future crisis.

Foreclosure has been a huge factor making neglect more difficult to sustain. As waves of investors abandoned underwater multi-family buildings, the vacancy rates soared in Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Dutchtown and other neighborhoods. In 2008, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city a $5.6 million grant to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed homes. Under the direction of then-Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman, the city’s Community Development Administration targeted those funds in Gravois Park, Benton Park West and Dutchtown. At the time, the city projected the purchase of 87 homes and an application to receive $10 million toward purchasing 231 more.

3006-8 Cherokee Street in 2003. Image from Geo St. Louis.

Today, the area targeted four years ago suffers as much from vacancy and foreclosure. Furthermore, the Dutchtown south Community Corporation that once served the cluster of south side neighborhoods hit the hardest by the foreclosure crisis has lost professional staff and at the moment is receiving no Community Development Block Grant funding. No other organization has taken its place, and rehabilitation efforts are scattered aside from the area’s thriving commercial streets.

All of this is a long introduction to an item on the agenda of the St. Louis Preservation Board’s monthly meeting on September 24. Wells Fargo Bank is appealing the Cultural Resources Office’s denial of a demolition permit for the four-family building at 3006-8 Cherokee Street located on the block between Pennsylvania and Minnesota in Gravois Park. The long introduction here is a way of stating that the Preservation Board’s decision, which is likely to uphold the denial, may not be the most important decision regarding the future of the property. Should the Board uphold staff denial, 3006-8 Cherokee Street will remain a vacant building with an owner unwilling to cut its losses and sell the building.

3006-8 Cherokee Street this week.

The building is sturdy and sound, despite over ten years’ vacancy and a back wall that has suffered a collapse. (The rear wall here as in most historic masonry structures is not supporting the structure; the joists run between the side walls.) Built in 1907 by W.G.C. Wahlers, the two-story brick building has a fairly typical-four-family layout, and a shared wooden front porch common for the era. As with many of the “common” stock buildings of this city, this one has no identical twin. The facade is variegated and rises to a corbelled and metal-capped parapet that seems to have descended from the heavens above. Yet we know that it came from human hands, growing upward.

Detail of the brick work between the center entrances.

City records show that Steven and Deborah Kotraba owned the property until 2001, when they sold it to Tonya L. Jones. Jones owned the property until 2011, when Wells Fargo Bank foreclosed on a note with a little under $30,000 owed. (This is not the only recent bank foreclosure on a property owned by Jones, an investor.) However, property taxes on the building were paid through 2011, which means that the property cannot be seized by the Sheriff for the city’s Land Tax Auction. Barring tax delinquency, the city’s only leverage over the property is code enforcement — a slow tool, and one that rarely leads to property forfeiture.

The rear elevation. Look up from the collapsed section and see that is where a downspout is missing. Common damage that is easy to repair.

Wells Fargo apparently wants to wreck the building and keep the land. The Building Division first cited the building for the collapsed rear wall on May 1 this year, and the company — from a South Carolina mailing address (note: there is no “South Carolina” among the state streets) — responded by applying for a demolition permit on July 31. The Cultural Resources Office examined the permit for what is a contributing building in the city-funded Gravois-Jefferson Historic Streetcar Suburb District, and denied the request. Wells Fargo bothered to appeal, when it may well have unloaded the building on one of Cherokee Street’s active rehabbers.

The building next door at 3012-14 Cherokee Street, under renovation.

Next door, an owner (Allen Parish LLC of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania — a state represented by the street at the east corner) is rehabilitating the very similar four-family building at 3012-14 Cherokee Street, which was built in 1904 by Frank Lunt. That building had been vacant prior to sale late last year. The price of sale reported was $26,842.00, hardly an amount that outweighs value. The vacant buildings of Gravois Park are bargains.

Of course, Cherokee Street’s fortunes are stronger than that of surrounding streets. While the building at 3006-8 Cherokee Street will likely be met with Preservation Board and public scorn, other demolitions have gone unnoticed. Mounting vacancy in the rest of the building stock portends many more Preservation Board agendas with buildings from the area, unless a larger intervention occurs. At least slapping down Wells Fargo is a good step, but so much more is needed to translate denied demolition permits into an area full of strong and safe streets.

PRO Intern Emily Kozlowski contributed to this post.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/naffziger Chris Naffziger

    Pathetic, I cannot believe this. I am so sick of banks. What does Schmid think about this?

  • samizdat

    Ah, yes, yet another way in which the Banksters have sought to destroy our Nation. Aided and abetted of course by both wings of the National Party–Democratic and Republican. Drone-bama and his hiring of former GoldmanSachs executives, and his ‘look forward’ attitude regarding not only the torture and war crimes committed by this country (of which he seems to have joined in with both feet, including assassinating American citizens), but obviously the crimes committed by the Wall St. Ponzi hucksters. Hedge funds, mortgage brokers, MERS, et al, have perpetrated a massive fraud on the American people, and compound their crimes by wrecking perfectly good residential neighborhoods.

    This is not the first time I’ve read about banks having foreclosed on properties, and then just sat on them, allowing them to decay in the manner of 3006-8 Cherokee, subsequent to having them demolished of course. I’ve always wondered why the building on Louisiana just around the corner from Meramec was demo’d, as well as the single-family not 100ft away on Meramec. I’ve long suspected that the rash of demos here were the doings of banks. So, it’s finally come to St. Louis, eh?

    I suppose we can look on the bright side here, and note that at least we aren’t ten years behind the rest of the country, as per usual. Seriously, though, if a foreign government came and did the same thing, we’d take that as an aggressive and belligerent action. But a good ol’ fashion capitalist enterprise, well, it’s their property, and the free market, and America…or something.

    Why the banks and their CEO’s haven’t been charged for treason, and sent to a Federal prison is a mystery. Oh, wait, no it isn’t, because Drone-bama and the rest of the corrupt lot in DC don’t represent the interests of the people, having been bought off by the banks, and others.

    What I wouldn’t give to see the CEO’s of most major supranationals strung up, and left hanging in the wind, just like they’ve left millions of human beings, and the cities they live in.

  • http://twitter.com/YASTLBlog Kevin Barbeau

    “At least slapping down Wells Fargo is a good step…”

    Yes. A strong, unified response to these demo requests can set the precedent for future rehabilitation. If the option for demolition is made easy, then more banks and “property owners” (I use that term disdainfully) will take the simpler, cheaper and ultimately destructive path. If their first and best method is maintenance or sale to a rehabber, then the City’s stock survives. It requires resolve from the Preservation Board, Cultural Resource Office and Mayor’s Review Board though.

    That’s why I was so upset at the overturn of the Pevely denials. If not for the buildings, it was an opportunity for the City to set a precedent against destruction. Instead, it caved to the demands of a big business (and yes, I consider SLU that) threatening to take it’s ball and go home.

  • PeterXCV

    Do you think that the southside will hollow out and decline like the northside did?

  • Travis

    Why is this the banks fault? They foreclosed in 2011. The wall collapsed this year. I don’t think it’s unusual that it’s taken this long for Wells Fargo to do something with the property. They probably view a partly collapsed building as a liability. If someone wants to rehab it, call them or quit your bitching.

  • samizdat

    Because it is their property, or do corporations–as bonafied people, mind you–not have to obey the same laws that we do as bonafied human beings? As for doing “something” with the property, what would that something be, might I ask? The only thing they did (you should re-read the article, chief) was apply for a permit to demo it. They didn’t put it on the market, they didn’t hire someone to at least repair the collapse (it is quite possible to rebuild this wall), they didn’t hire someone to rehab it. They’ve sat on it for a year. And have continued to let it deteriorate. Did the conditions which lead to the collapse begin under Ms. Jones’ ownership? Probably. But did she own it at the time of the collapse?

    As for the tried and true strawman argument–or should that be ‘tired and trite’–that you should “quit your bitching” if you don’t personally rehab it, or hire someone who will, well, your basically saying that the owner is off the hook because ‘someone’ didn’t come along, take it off their hands, and put it back on the market.

    And if the Wells Fargo company is so worried about liability, then why did they not repair and stabilize the structure?

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    The signs are present that parts already are hollowing out. The Census shows definite decline in a cluster of connected neighborhoods from 2000 to 2010:

    Benton Park West: -19%
    Dutchtown: -8%
    Gravois Park: -10%
    Mt. Pleasant: -10%

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    City government needs to take a confident posture in order to inspire confidence in its citizens and people outside of the city. Constant caving in to pressure makes the city seem weak and desperate.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    the house is not listed in the MLS and has no for-sale sign. Who would someone interested even call?

  • Travis

    According to Geo St. Louis, the foreclosure sale is listed as July 2012 for $73,249. The previous sale in 2001 was the $30,000 mentioned above. Also according to Geo St. Louis, this property was listed as vacant for 2010 an 2011. Ms. Jones must have been doing some creative financing to create this large increase on a loan of a loan on a vacant property. Considering the property has been vacant for years, I am confidant the cause of the collapse is from the neglect of Ms. Jones. Since the foreclosure sale is posted at July 18, 2012, it seems that the foreclosure wasn’t completed at the time of the collapse. It seems that Wells Fargo requested a demolition permit as soon as they owned this property. They probably feel the cost of stabilization is equal or exceeds the value of the property. Keep in mind that it costs money to list and sell a property. I think they’re fear of continued collapse and liability are the issue. If someone has interest, their address is listed as:

    Wells Fargo Bank NA
    3476 Stateview
    Fort Mill, SC 29715

    There are hundreds of wonderfully constructed buildings all over the city that are in danger. When the cost or rehab exceeds the value demolition happens. I bought a property in the area in 2007 and started rehab. I now have $72,000 into it and it’s uninhabitable. The value for that type of property is now less than $30,000. What should I do, continue to rehab?

    I am just pointing this out because the same upside down finances are what keeps things from improving. The main reason the values have continued to decline after the bubble burst is crime. Crime and quality of life issues drive people out of the area creating that “hollowed out” area.

  • Tara

    Do you have a contact with the bank for interested buyers of this building? This building has NOT been listed in any recent memory, and the building next door was listed for $19K before selling for, apparently, $26K+. I am sure interested parties would jump on the opportunity, even with the massive repairs necessary.

  • Addison Kraft

    Travis claims this is due to crime but the answer is, unfortunately, not that easy. We have a city run by an “old boy’s club” that is incapable of thinking outside the box and serving anything other than their own short-sighted needs. Crime is the result of this, not the cause of it. My wife and I bought a house built in 1884 in 2009. We have been working on it since that time as it was previously owned by an unscrupulous “rehabber”. We bought in the city as a way to support this place. There was an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” between the city and myself; we would come, be boosters of the city, work in the city, live in the city, play in the city, and do our best to make it better. It turn, the city would welcome us and listen to the people with new fresh ideas. Now, over three years later, I see more clearly than ever the fiddling around that the city is constantly engaging in. I see the political games, cronyism, and far to much interest in appealing to other millionaires (see Rams Football) than the people who actually live here. Most of the city’s old boy’s club use the city as their playground and actually don’t live anywhere around here. How many members of the Bogey club do you think live in city limits? They answer to no one but themselves and they have backward and warped ideas of what will work to change things. The bottom line is that, without massive political change, this city will continue to fail, and it will do so in an ever more spectacular way. I regret deeply having to say this, but if I had it all to do over again knowing what I know now we would not have bought a house in the city. This city is not set up for people in our income range. If you can afford private schools and a house in Lafayette Square, for example, you’ll be fine. If not, then you are taking a gamble. There were safer gambles but we chose this one because we wanted to give a midwestern urban area a chance. Reality smacked us in the face and I can see the light of change is dim.

  • samizdat

    Ah, but is it actual crime, or the perception of crime? My wife and I have lived in Dutchtown since ’03, and have experienced no serious property crime, and certainly have not been assaulted in any way. Which is not to say we haven’t heard gunshots. New Year’s Day, at about 12.05am: Our neighbor to the north basically empties the clip of his semi-auto 9mm…in the back yard…then proceeds to do the same thing again…ten minutes later, in the front yard. Did we call the cops? No. What’s the point? They wouldn’t have come. And it would have been like this, if they did: “Here’s my card”. They don’t live there anymore, thankfully. Was that a crime? Yes. A serious one? No. He’s just an asshole with a man-toy, someone who has trouble coming to grips with his insecurities. However, how many other people (black, white, what have you) have heard that and said f*** this, packed it up and left the City? I would guess that if one were to ask those leaving, “why have you made the decision to leave?”, many would say that these quality of life issues were the primary reason, especially if they had children. Of course, having overheard a white couple say that they were probably going to move out of the City once their children were school age, the perception that City schools are worse than any other teach-to-the-test school in the country doesn’t help. They were discussing this even though they didn’t have children yet.

    This whole mess is probably more complex than you and I would like to spend time on. It’s a puzzle, with so many pieces. Mr. Kraft has one piece, I’ve got one, you’ve got another, Mr. Allen and Mr. Barbeau have one more each, at least. The Po-Po being controlled by the Confederate State of Missouri doesn’t help, either. Cops don’t care, because they don’t have to. Solutions have been suggested, as Mr. Kraft has noted, but little progress has been made. Most residents, for some inexplicable reason, are satisfied with their alderman, even though most are venal, corrupt, incompetent, lazy, and more. But, you know, my alderman, Representative, Senator, President is just wonderful.

    I stand corrected with regards to the Cherokee address. You win the internet. Say, can you get me better speeds?

    Having said that, I still find it disturbing that, seemingly as policy, Wells Fargo’s first reaction upon gaining possession of said property is to request a demo permit. And again, this goes to a larger issue: How can these supranational mega-banks possibly be any good for a society and a Nation, when they are so remotely removed from the neighborhoods in which they have services and property? Which raises another issue: consolidation.

    Hmm…maybe I should just stop now.

    What a world.

  • Travis

    I lived in Dutchtown from 2003 until early this year. I didn’t have any problems until 2009 and then it seemed like my property had a target painted on it. I got broken into a couple times, a/c units stolen, one of my tenants got broken into and later I was broken into again.

    Toward the end, one side of the building got stripped of copper. Once I lost my last tenant, I gave up. I was fed up that none of my neighbors ever saw any of this happen, but they sure noticed when I wasn’t home.

    The police caught one of the a/c thieves in the alley. I pressed charges, etc. In the end, it took two years for the guilty party to take a plea bargain. It was a giant waste of my time to deal with a man caught red handed.

    In regards to the Cherokee property, Wells Fargo probably was aware of the damage prior to the foreclosure being settled. What do you think they would do, restore it and lose more money because it’s a nice looking building? Numerous banks and individuals own lots of nice looking buildings but won’t renovate them unless it financially makes sense.

    I agree, what a world.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Apparently Wells Fargo is being aloof toward interested parties who have called. people are getting a runaround rather than clear instructions on how to make an offer.