Brick Theft North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Another Summer for Brick Thieves

by Michael R. Allen

This summer is no different than others in the past few years for brick thieves. On the 2500 block of West Sullivan in St. Louis Place, the south side of the street has been badly ravaged in the last few weeks.  The north face has already been hit hard.  Of course, there are still occupied houses amid this wanton destruction.

Brick Theft Public Policy St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Brick Thieves and Brick Dealers

by Michael R. Allen

After this week’s spate of fires in JeffVanderLou, Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) proposes changing city ordinances to force brick thieves to pay back the amount of damage that they cause, instead of the current maximum of $500. Moore’s proposal makes sense.

The commercial building at 2538 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place, destroyed by brick thieves in August 2007.

Yet a new ordinance should go further. The thieves are only the first — and least compensated — beneficiaries of the money generated by the stolen brick. Penalties for dealers who buy stolen brick are the same as for the thieves. Those should be increased too.

The commercial building at 2538 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place, destroyed by brick thieves in August 2007.

What if dealers caught buying stolen brick permanently lost their business licenses?

Brick Theft North St. Louis Vandeventer

Depletion, West Evans Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

This summer and fall, brick thieves have destroyed four houses on the 4200 block of West Evans Avenue in the Vandeventer neighborhood. Shown above are three of the houses, the privately-owned 4219 W. Evans (left) and the Land Reutilization Authority-owned 4207 (center) and 4203 (right) W. Evans Avenue. Across the street are the remains of the privately-owned house at 4202 W. Evans Avenue.

This block is located in the city’s Fourth Ward, which is represented by Alderman Sam Moore (Democrat). Moore has been vigilant in trying to keep brick thieves out of his ward, as he explains in a 2007 video produced for Pub Def by Antonio French.

Brick Theft Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Depletion, West Sullivan Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

The north face of the 2500 block of West Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place, May 2008.

The same view, October 2009.

Out of this row of eleven small shaped-parapet brick houses, six have been destroyed by brick thieves in the last two years. Seven are owned by McEagle affiliates. These houses are within the footprint of one of the “employment centers” in the NorthSide project. The row would have been eligible for listing as a small historic district. Perhaps the ultimate fate under the redevelopment plan would have been demolition, but the availaibility of histoic tax credits here might have spared the row and its remaining residents’ quality of life.

Brick Theft JeffVanderLou LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

NorthSide Depletion Continues

by Michael R. Allen

The corner commercial building at 2501 Glasgow Avenue in better days, 2007.

Call it collateral damage, block busting, destruction or just the cost of large-scale development — the term doesn’t matter. The reality is that within the boundaries of McEagle Properties’ NorthSide project, historic buildings continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Natural forces have claimed a few buildings, but brick thieves and scavengers are slaying the rest.

Let us look at the loss of buildings on a single city block in the last two months. Our city block is 2539 in JeffVanderLou, which is bounded by Montgomery, Slattery, Benton and Glasgow streets. Now, the condition two months ago was not great: in the sixty years preceding, some 75% of the historic building fabric on the block was lost. Yet what was left three years ago was nearly all occupied. McEagle’s purchases changed that.

Two months ago, enough of the block’s historic fabric remained for at least the possibility of inclusion in a historic district. Even if a district was impossible or undesired, the block’s remaining owners — including the St. Louis Equity Fund — are keeping their buildings in good shape. The Equity Fund is rehabbing its building on Glasgow Avenue. Building loss through neglect is an insult to the owners and residents keeping this block alive.

At the start of this essay is an image of the corner storefront building at 2501 Glasgow (at Benton) in 2007. Owned by a McEagle affiliate, this building suffered a partial collapse in storms in September. Brick thieves have started picking, and the photo above taken in early October looks idyllic compared to the current scene.

Up the block to the north stands an imperiled row of three historic houses owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The front has been altered to shrink the size of window openings, but a magnificent wooden cornice remains. However, the back and sides of the row were part of this fall’s brick harvest at the hands of thieves.

Across the alley on Slattery Street, both the houses at 2616 (owned by Carmen McBride) and 2614 Slattery (McEagle) have been brazenly damaged by thieves. The front walls are being picked apart in plain view of the few remaining residents of the block. Conditions like these explain the continued fear and resentment expressed toward McEagle by north side residents. While there are many residents of the project area hoping for McEagle’s development to transform their blocks, there are many who look at scenes like this one and find little good faith effort on the developer’s part.

During the aldermanic committee hearing on the first bills relating to the NorthSide redevelopment agreement, Paul J. McKee, Jr. stated that his company could not deal with problems like the brick-rustled buildings until after he received the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits later this year. Of course, those credits reimburse 100% of demolition and maintenance costs, so both security of intact buildings and clearance of destroyed ones could happen now. Why didn’t McKee direct his companies to engage in clean-up before seeking the largest tax increment financing deal in city history?

McKee and his consultants talk a lot about preservation, urbanism and sustainability. In no way is willful neglect of once-occupied historic buildings compatible with any of those values. Depletion of historic housing stock destroys urban character, wastes precious and irreplaceable natural resources and robs neighborhoods of affordable housing and small business spaces. We are losing solidly built, easily rehabilitated buildings for the uncertainty of a multi-phased project that places areas of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou dead last in order of development attention.

Don’t get me wrong: Much progress has been made toward making the NorthSide project better for everyone. I am willing to applaud — and have applauded — real steps that safeguard north side neighborhoods. The redevelopment agreement binds McEagle to identify buildings for preservation and demolition by the end of 2010 — albeit without professional preservation planning. While the contracts and ordinances contain hopeful language, however, the reality is contradictory — and it’s a long way toward the end of 2010.

Brick Theft JeffVanderLou Northside Regeneration

Brick Thieves Strike Again on Montgomery Street

by Michael R. Allen

The 2900 block of Montgomery Street has changed a lot in the last two years, and I covered the changes back in June (A Block of Montgomery Street Two Years Later.

Brick thieves have laid claim to the small house at 2946 Montgomery, shown in this 2007 photograph just to the right of the former North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.

Here is a view of what the west wall looked like yesterday. While the other houses and church remain sound, the architectural context will be more diminished. The other side of the street is now down to two buildings, one of which has been fatally damaged by brick thieves.

On August 16, 2007, this block was the scene for a press conference against the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act and bus tour of McEagle-owned property organized by State Representatives Jamilah Nasheed (D-60th) and Jeanette Mott-Oxford (D-59th) and Alderwomen April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) and Marlene Davis (D-19th). McEagle had already bought out most of the buildings on that block, making it a perfect example of a block that had actually become vacant and dangerous because of the developer’s acquisitions. (Coverage from the time: Urban Review and Urban Review STL Flickr.)

Times have changed, and some of the buildings are gone and two are on the way out. Also, the opinions of the elected officials involved with that event have changed significantly.

Brick Theft Historic Preservation JeffVanderLou Northside Regeneration

Building Losses Continue to Accumulate in NorthSide Project Area

by Michael R. Allen

The sad end of the McEagle-owned four-family flats at 2621 Sullivan Avenue in JeffVanderLou is complete. Brick thieves have taken down the sturdy historic building, leaving a pile of rubble. Last year, a small fire struck the building (see “Fire Strikes House in JeffVanderLou”, October 30, 2008). The photograph above commemorates an only slightly better day for the building.

Mark this as yet another historic building to be lost under the ownership of McEagle and its subsidiaries. Two years ago, this building was occupied and had minimal code citations. Then, it went vacant and soon after was visited by fire. The owner, Sheridan Place LLC, did little to address the fire. According to city records, the Building Division had to board up the building in the wake of the fire and then sent notice to the owner.

Now, the building is gone. Would this building have contributed to a new historic district? Could it have been rehabilitated using state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits? (McEagle listed a whopping $149.7 million in historic tax credits as revenue on its first-draft tax increment financing application.) Was this one of planner Mark Johnson’s “legacy properties” identified for preservation? We’ll never know, because McEagle has not divulged any of its preservation plans. We do know that this building sits in one of the projected “employment centers,” so it could very well have been doomed anyway. Yet that’s just a guess.

Citizens and their elected representatives contemplating a redevelopment agreement for McEagle’s NorthSide project need facts that demonstrate commitment on the part of the developer to back up all of its promises about historic preservation. Meanwhile, the facts that speak loudest about commitment to saving historic buildings don’t match the developer’s promises.

Ravaged brick buildings, constant fires, collapsing walls, missing boards and dozens of sound historic buildings now forever lost seem like the antithesis of the carefully-planned preservation of “legacy” buildings described by McEagle’s executives and NorthSide master plan author Johnson (of Civitas, Inc.). Certainly, this slipshod management belies Johnson’s immense professional reputation and commitment to progressive, community-oriented planning ideals. It’s hard for seasoned preservationists to believe that McEagle really wants to save historic buildings in the project area — but that is what the company and its planner keep saying they want to do.

Brick Theft Historic Preservation North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Brick Thieves Assail Presumed Legacy Property

by Michael R. Allen

Criminals can work pretty damn fast, as the condition of the McEagle Properties-owned house at 1930-6 St. Louis Avenue shows. Two weeks ago, the vacant house was sound. Last Wednesday, the side wall had started to come down at the hands of the north side vultures (see “The Precarious Condition of Two Houses on St. Louis Avenue,” (August 12, 2009). Today, almost all of the ell of the old house stood destroyed. The bricks no doubt have cycled through Pope’s or one of the other yards around 25th and University, then on to hands more legally clean of fencing stolen goods but no less complicit.

Meanwhile, McEagle has taken no visible step to safeguard the over 150 historic buildings that it owns in north St. Louis, or work with residents to report brick thieves, who prey also on other buildings. Perhaps no one has seen the activity here. After all, thieves picked apart many buildings to the south of this house, McEagle emptied the three houses to the east of this building and two of the three buildings across the street is vacant. Four years ago, the brick thieves would have been afraid to pick on this block, and now they seem to be able to rule the roost.

However, what is done is done. Complaining about the past won’t secure a future for the McEagle-owned historic buildings across north city. What will do the trick is actual preservation planning: architectural survey of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou, listing of eligible buildings and districts, placement of the 5th and 19th wards in preservation review (solely the responsibility of the alderwomen) and strict rules about security and stabilization as part of the redevelopment ordinances facing the Board of Aldermen. If McEagle and planner Mark Johns of Civitas are serious about saving “legacy properties,” it’s time to tell us how they will do that.

The facts on one hand: Brick thieves demolishing McEagle buildings. Historic buildings deteriorating and left open to the elements. On the other: A promise. Promises don’t save historic buildings, or we’d all be rehabbers. I don’t mean to condone or chastise McEagle for the past failures, but urge the developer and city leaders to take action now as part of the negotiation. If McEagle lacks the capacity, then it should work openly with the city and other developers who can bring funds for preservation planning, stabilization and rehabilitation. We can’t save everything, and we’ve lost a lot. (We lost more in St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou before McEagle arrived, in fairness.) Yet we can take the circumstances we have and turn a developer’s promise into action that will reassure residents of north St. Louis that McEagle is as serious about the attempt as it is about the sell.

Brick Theft LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

The Precarious Condition of Two Beautiful Houses on St. Louis Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

Brick rustlers have returned to the lovely stone-faced house at 1930-6 St. Louis Avenue (see ““Who Would Destroy This Building?”, January 7, 2007). Most recently a funeral home, the house was first built in 1873 by wholesale grocery merchant Bernhardt Winkelman. Winkelman was one of the numerous new-money German-Americans whose lavish homes gave St. Louis Avenue the nickname “Millionaire’s Row.” Today, a different millionaire owns the property: developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. through holding company N & G Ventures.

The damage from 2007 concerned only a one-story flat-roofed addition behind the home, but this week’s damage concerns the side wall of part of the house. Since joists run laterally and rest in the brick side walls of most 19th century buildings, this damage will eventually cause collapse of the roof and floors. However, the thieves have only struck an addition to the Winkelmann house’s ell, so the original section is not yet damaged.

On May 21 and other occasions, McKee mentioned having a list of 60 “legacy properties” in his possession worthy of preservation. Is this house one of them? It should be. However, the list is a mystery to myself and many people in city government and the development world with whom I have discussed preservation issues related to the NorthSide project. We do know that the house at 1930 St. Louis Avenue made an official list that gives it undisputed historic status: the house is a contributing resource to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District. It ought to be preserved, and McKee should secure it against further attack.

Across the street is another fine stone-faced house with a lovely wooden Italianate cornice. The house at 1925 St. Louis Avenue dates to 1879 and is owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The house is outside of the present historic district boundary. The front looks ragged but sturdy, but a walk around the side reveals the sad truth.

The east side wall of the ell is in shambles, although the second floor and roof are holding on for now. The condition of this house raises a preservation question related to NorthSide that has not been widely discussed: what happens to the numerous vacant historic buildings within the NorthSide footprint not owned by McEagle Properties and its subsidiaries? Most of those buildings are on the list of needed properties that McEagle submitted to the city’s Tax Increment Financing Commission in May. Is the building at 1927 St. Louis Avenue one of the 60 “legacy properties”? There are more than 60 historic buildings owned by McEagle worthy of preservation, and at least as many in the project area owned by LRA and other entities.

City officials should not wait for the list of legacy properties to set into motion a sensible preservation plan for the NorthSide project. If public financing is on the table, that can be leveraged to ensure that buildings like the two above can be mothballed for eventual redevelopment in future phases of the NorthSide project.

Brick Theft JeffVanderLou LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

A Block of Montgomery Street Two Years Later

by Michael R. Allen

Yes, the congregation eventually sold the church voluntarily. I still remember the day back in 2006 when the pastor of the North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church called us at Landmarks Association of St. Louis asking for help with a real estate agent who had approached the church for an offer. Our advice was that the buyer was likely Paul McKee, Jr. and McEagle Properties, and the church should not worry about standing firm because this was a big, long-term project and there was no need to move out right away. However, by summer 2007, North Galilee was long gone.

Now, in 2009, the cornerstone is removed. North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church has moved to Moline Acres in St. Louis County. The building that housed African-American Christian worship since 1906 — over 100 years — sits empty, with its front door constantly pried apart by vandals seeking copper. The block that the church anchored was once proud — a solid part of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood. Now, the block barely recognizes the state it was in in January 2007 when I first photographed it.

At that point, the church was surrounded by fairly well-kept brick housing that was privately owned. This block stood out in a neighborhood where much of the remaining historic housing stock east of Grand is owned by a few large owners, including the valiant St. Louis Equity Fund. Here was a block that spoke not only to the past but to the future — institutional stability, private ownership and safety. Needless to say, McEagle got a foothold in 2006 and proceeded to buy out every private owner in the next two years.

It’s day and night. When I now set foot on the block, I feel a heavy sense of loss.

Here is the view of the church and three neighboring shotgun-style houses in January 2007:

One of the houses was occupied then, while one was owned by McEagle and another by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. The three houses remain:

Across the street stood three two-story houses. The center house still had its elaborate historic wooden porch in January 2007:

East of the group of three houses stood an already-boarded one-story shotgun house. Apparently, life at this house was happy, as now-covered graffiti left by its occupants indicated two years ago:

This side of the block has changed radically in the past two years as McEagle finished acquisition and brick thieves destroyed the group of three houses. Here’s a recent view:

When McEagle discusses saving all buildings that can be saved, what does that statement mean? For the 2900 block of Montgomery Avenue, a block that would have been an ideal block for preservation and infill, that promise is retroactive and meaningless. The buildings fell. The church moved to the county. Day is night, up is down, and the neighborhood is out one of its most hopeful blocks and a historic African-American house of worship.