James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

Questions for Northside Regeneration

by Michael R. Allen

The Missouri Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling issued yesterday affirming the Northside Regeneration redevelopment ordinances means “we’re open for business,” in the words of company leader Paul J. McKee, Jr. Of course since Circuit Court Judge Robert Dieker, Jr.’s July 2010 ruling invalidated those ordinances, Northside Regeneration has not really been doing much different. The company acquired 162 city-owned parcels in St. Louis Place and a two-year option on the Pruitt-Igoe site last year, demolished some buildings, convinced the Board of Aldermen to add the ailing “Bottle District” site into the project boundary, hired 17 lobbyists to push for extension of the controversial Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit in the state house and continued to meet with politicians and editorial boards.

Northside Regeneration’s foot print circa May 2009. The Bottle District land is not included here.

What the lack of a final legal ruling has meant is that both Northside Regeneration and the City of St. Louis have had a major excuse for not pursuing basic points engrained finely in the 2009 redevelopment agreement with the city. In terms of the built environment, McKee and officials in city government had repeatedly said that the pending Supreme Court ruling is the reason that dangerous half-demolished buildings cannot be removed, why historic buildings cannot be maintained, and why there can be no sale of Northside Regeneration’s curious supply of buildings in Old North outside of its boundaries.

Consequently, the people who should see the “need for development” most strongly are among those least impressed by Northside Regeneration’s much-touted “vision.” This is as much a failure of operations as it is in relationship-building. If Northside Regeneration truly is to be “open for business” it may consider that public relations are far more crucial to project longevity than the company’s penchant for making large campaign contributions. After all, city residents are going to be forfeiting sales tax revenues to the developer for years to come. The subsidy makes us investors — and investors need to see the balance sheet, right?

Then again, what some residents have begun to suspect is that Northside Regeneration is a land banking operation disguised as a development project. The proposed rewrite to the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act makes changes that extend remuneration for long-term ownership, change compensation for demolition for 50% to 100% of the costs and generally suggest that long-term holding is what is being incentivized, not large-scale urban redevelopment.

A very early public meeting on what became Northside Regeneration was hosted by Alderwomen April Ford-Griffin and Marlene Davis at Vashon High School in August 2007.

According to McKee and the Slay administration yesterday, those suspicions would be gravely mistaken. Development is coming soon. Then now is the time for answers to some of the questions that neighborhood preservationists have been asking for awhile. Before I present those questions, consider that they would be more potently – and transparently — answered in a public meeting. The last public meeting for Northside Regeneration was nearly four years ago. How about City Hall and Northside Regeneration booking the auditorium at Vashon High School — needs to be a public building, for obvious reasons — and holding a forum where residents can’t get some current answers?

Meantime, I will place a few questions related to my professional concerns (and these are as much directed at McKee as they are to City Hall which is supposed to be overseeing this project for us taxpayer-investors):

Northside Regeneration circulated this rendering of the James Clemens House complex back in 2010. Where do things stand now? And can we get some roof repairs?
Stripped of portico, here is what the James Clemens House looks like today.

What is the time line for rehabilitation of the James Clemens House? The James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896) sits in shambles. The roof is deteriorating. The front door to the chapel has been wide open for months. The lawn is strewn with garbage and tree limbs. The front wall is collapsing. Northside Regeneration once promised to make preservation a priority, but its first plan fell apart. Will the complex be lost before the city takes action to renew the developer’s promise?

This bar on St. Louis Avenue brings people together, pays taxes and keeps the corner safe. Why should its owners face eminent domain?

What was that about eminent domain again? There has been a lot of talk but people need something placed in writing clear as crystal. The redevelopment ordinances leave eminent domain an open option, but obliquely — they don’t expressly authorize it but they don’t suspend its use through existing means. Everyone knows that once an area is blighted private property rights are thrown out the window. Yet Mayor Francis Slay and Mckee have stated that owner-occupants are safe in the Northside Regeneration foot print. Let’s get that in writing. Oh, but: what about small businesses? Why aren’t they safe too? Small businesses represent a form of personal wealth, and we know that eminent domain has been used to disempower African-American and poor St. Louisans for decades. It could easily do so again.

Northside Regeneration owns three houses on Old North’s only block without demolition. What gives?

Why won’t Northside Regeneration sell its parcels in Old North (including dozens of historic buildings)? Northside Regeneration owns an estimates 62 parcels in Old North outside of its project boundary. At least a dozen historic buildings, like those pictured above on the 1400 block of Hebert Street – Old North’s only block with no demolitions – are deteriorating under Northside Regeneration ownership. One recently burned to the ground, damaging adjacent occupied buildings. None of these properties are listed for sale or sport for-sale signs, and potential buyers have received conflicting answers about their availability. McKee told KMOX last month they are for sale. Are they?

2900 St. Louis Avenue (c. 1880) is one Northside Regeneration-owned building that supports a strong context and is in good condition. Will it be preserved?

Will Northside Regeneration create a list of properties to be rehabilitated as required by the redevelopment agreement? There are dozens of historic buildings owned by the company within historic districts , or in areas that are intact settings with occupied housing. The house shown here, at 2900 St. Louis Avenue, has no official historic status but sits in a very intact section of St. Louis Avenue facing the new Lindell Park Historic District. The redevelopment agreement requires a list of buildings to be rehabilitated with a timeline for taking steps toward rehabilitation. No one expects full rehabs right away, but selection and then intervention to stabilize and beautify these properties would be a sign of good faith. (This house ought to be one of the ones saved.)

Brick thieves might not ask permission, but Northside Regeneration is still liable for the conditions of its properties.

Will we stop seeing half-demolished “doll houses” any time soon? Northisde Regeneration’s frequent statement that it can’t demolish houses severely damaged by brick thieves until the Supreme Court ruled made little sense. These are hazardous sites, with potential for injury and lead paint and asbestos airborne toxicity. Reusable building material gets lost, and legitimate demolition jobs are lost. These sites must be demolished immediately. Other buildings proposed for demolition should be demolished legally so that these horrendous and unsafe brick-rustled monstrosities stop plaguing people’s neighborhoods.

There are questions that I have been asking for years about Northside Regeneration. Hopefully these will be answered in short time. What are other questions, readers?

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This Building Matters #2: James Clemens, Jr. House

On Christmas Eve, we visited a hallowed site in our city’s architectural heritage: the James Clemens, Jr. House. The condition of the house and its still-evident beauty moved Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, who joined us for the visit. As the video shows, the condition of the Clemens House continues to worsen. Yet we cannot let this treasure be lost.

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Clemens House Update

by Michael R. Allen

Readers are always asking what is the status of the James Clemens, Jr. House complex, which includes the mansion designed by Patrick Walsh (1860), a dormitory addition (1887) and the chapel wing by Aloysius Gillick (1896). The complex has been owned by Northside Regeneration LLC or its predecessors since 2005, and two years ago was the site where Mayor Francis Slay signed into law the master redevelopment agreement for Northside Regeneration.

Northside Regeneration had partnered with experienced historic rehabilitation developer Robert Wood Realty to redevelop the Clemens House as senior citizen apartments with a small museum component. However, on January 1, the developers failed to make their deadline for selling tax-exempt low-income housing development bonds authorized by the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC). The developers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that other options for the historic buildings would be explored as well as re-application to MHDC.

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James Clemens, Jr. House Stabilization Underway

by Michael R. Allen

At long last, there has been some stabilization work underway the James Clemens, Jr. House. In the last two months, crews working for Northside Regeneration LLC have removed debris, removed all asbestos, lead and PCBs and undertaken some structural stabilization work. This project unfortunately timed with the year-end announcement that Northside Regeneration’s buyer could not close on purchasing the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC)-issued tax-exempt bonds for the Clemens House. Those bonds were available through stimulus funding and could not carry over to 2011.

The James Clemens, Jr. House could remain at square one — except that the work done now advances it beyond its starting point nearly six years ago when Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Blairmont Associates LLC purchased the historic building. Now, McKee and his partner Robert Wood have invested money into the property, and the condition has started to improve. What comes next is uncertain, but McKee and Wood vow to pursue financing in 2011. Unfortunately that will mean waiting until September to re-apply for MHDC financing.

The most stunning part of the work done to date is the removal of the roof on the wing of the chapel wing, which was built by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1896.  Not only has most of the roof structure been removed, but also five bays of the wall itself above the first floor are now removed as well.  Of course, since a collapse in May 2008, three bays had already collapsed.

The sight of the Clemens House lawn littered with parts of the massive trusses, laden with impressive historic hardware, sent this author looking for answers as to the methodology of the stabilization work.  Lafser & Associates is the consulting firm working on historic preservation issues for Northside Regeneration. Fred Lafser, president of the company, described the work to this author recently.

“Large roof trusses, saturated with water and frozen, weighing 4 tons each, had fallen against the east wall, taking a portion of the roof and wall with them. In recent weeks, the pressure had caused a portion of the east wall on the second floor to separate 12 inches from the south (façade) wall,” said Lafser. “A number of other trusses were likely to fall in the next few weeks due to the expansion during the freezing and thawing cycles.”

According to Lafser, removal of the trusses safely was extremely difficult. The trusses has to be cut out from distances and staged slowly to prevent damage to the rest of the building. Unfortunately the removal of the trusses is the only planned work on the chapel until full financing is in place. The developers are committed to making emergency repairs, however.

Fred Lafser sent photographs that show the chapel work from the interior.  The first photograph  shows that the bowing of the western wall of the chapel is also advanced.  Removal of the trusses will prevent sudden collapse.  Still, part of the wall will have to be dismantled and rebuilt later.

Photograph provided by Lafser & Associates.
Photograph provided by Lafser & Associates.

Other work performed now included insertion of sistering structural members at weak columns and joists and complete board-up of openings.  The photograph below shows that the rear (north) elevation of the chapel remains sound.

The eastern elevation of the dormitory wing has long had masonry issues.  The dormitory wing itself is a hybrid building, with its original two-story western portion being the Clemens House’s servants wing.  The top two floors and the eastern section were built as dormitory for the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1887, two years after they purchased the property for use as a convent.  The dormitory originally had a two-story gallery porch on the east, set into the wall inside of massive segmental arched openings.  These openings are now infilled with brick.  The wall has some weak spots addressed by the stabilization work.

While the James Clemens, Jr. House is not fully stabilized after this recent work spree, it is definitely in a safer condition than it has been in over a decade. Northside Regeneration is now the first party to spend money on stabilizing the Clemens House since the Universal Vietnamese Buddhist Association abandoned their work in 2004 — a fact that few would have predicted back when talk of “Blairmont” first surfaced. Full rehabilitation also seemed a remote prospect then, but now it seems a logical next step.

Rendering provided by Robert Wood Realty.
DALATC James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

McKee’s Open Letter on the Future of Northside Regeneration

by Michael R. Allen

Before the end of 2010, the Missouri Department of Economic Development awarded $8 million in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits (DALATC) to Paul J. McKee, Jr.’s Northside Regeneration LLC. Because of a St. Louis Circuit Court ruling, Northside Regeneration’s redevelopment ordinances currently are invalid pending either refinement addressing the ruling or successful appeal.

DED included the first-ever clawback for the DALATC that requires Northside Regeneration LLC to return the full amount within 30 days of a final court judgment upholding the circuit court ruling. DALATC has no clawback provision, a flaw noticed by many observers when the credits were considered by the Missouri General Assembly in 2007.

In May 2009 at a public meeting, McEagle showed this rendering of the Northside Regeneration project looking southwest toward downtown from Cass Avenue and 13th Street.

With the fate of Northside Regeneration questioned, this Wednesday McKee himself published an open letter to “the people of St. Louis” entitled “A Perspective for the Year 2011.” The St. Louis Business Journal posted that letter here.

Of special interest to readers of this blog is this passage about the James Clemens, Jr. House:

Now in 2011, the structure has been stabilized and our Team along with MHDC will revisit our
original request and restart the renovation. McEagle made a commitment to the people of the
Northside and to the historic preservationists that we will renovate, and reuse the historic and
reinvent salvageable structures in the Northside area. We will stand tall and meet our commitments
even when unforeseen problems occur.

The delay in starting The Clemens House has nothing to do with the approval process for the balance
of the Northside Regeneration. The Northside Regeneration approval process will be finalized in
specific redevelopment agreements with the City, currently under consideration.

In an itemized list of projects underway is the “demolition and environmental cleanup of over 187 buildings” as well as recycling of demolition materials suggesting interest in deconstruction. Other projects mentioned are historic rehabilitation of an unnamed school building for a charter school and rehabilitation of another unnamed historic building for biotech companies.

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MHDC Approves Two Major North St. Louis Projects

by Michael R. Allen

Last Friday, the Missouri Housing Development Commission met and approved financing for two projects involving large historic buildings in north St. Louis.

The former Blind Girls Home at 5235 Page (1908; J. Hal. Lynch, architect) will receive 4% low-income housing tax credits for Places for Page. Places for People states that the residents of the building will be “individuals living with severe mental illness who can and want to live independently, but who may need the attention and support provided by on-site staff.” Places for Page is a project that would not happen without these credits, and not devised by a developer because of the incentive program (some applications seem to be, but usually aren’t approved).

The second major north side project involving a large historic landmark approved last week was the James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896; Patrick Walsh and Aloysius Gillick, architects). McEagle Properties and Robert Wood Realty requested and received approval for MHDC to issue tax-exempt bonds for the rehabilitation of the buildings into senior apartments as well as museum space. The Clemens House, at long last, will be rehabilitated!

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Have You Seen These Interior Pediments?

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1982.

Have you seen this lovely dentillated pediment? It once was the crown of a door casing inside of the first floor hall of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis.

The four pediments from the center hall door openings are now missing, as these photographs show.

However, the pediments were in place in the following photographs taken by this author on May 13, 2007.

If you have any information about these stolen pediments, please drop a line. Architects at Klitzing Welsch (314-772-8073) are looking for them. It’s urgent, too — they are preparing plans for rehabilitation and need them back! Even one would be very helpful.

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A (Legitimate) Look Inside of the Clemens House

by Michael R. Allen

On Sunday, Landmarks Association of St. Louis wrapped up its annual Preservation Week with a tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis Place. That’s right — Landmarks offered a tour of a vacant building! While there have been many “before” tours of historic St. Louis buildings, none has offered a look at such an early phase of a rehabilitation project.

Landmarks Association Executive Director Jeff Mansell welcomes the crowd along with Dan Holak of Robert Wood Realty and David Lorentz of Klitzing Welsh.

Developers Robert Wood Realty and McEagle along with architects Klitzing Welsh Associates bravely threw open the door (okay, unscrewed the plywood) to the James Clemens House to the public for Landmarks. There was a small charge, a limited number of tour spots and a mandatory liability waiver, but all of those were necessary to make the tour work. Hopefully it can be offered again!

The developers started the tour by explaining the redevelopment plan, which calls for senior apartments in the mansion, dormitory and first floor of the chapel with an educational use in the chapel space. Nothing has been firmed up about the chapel use yet, but the original volume of the space will be restored for the first time in generations. The use of the chapel will allow for public access to the grounds, which will be opened up by removing the brick wall (built in 1887 and somewhat removed now) and building an iron fence similar to the original long lost fence on Cass Avenue. The Clemens House complex will again be easy to locate, and will open up a relationship with its neighborhood once more.

The apartment use precludes public access to the mansion and its lavish interior, and will entail some tricky accommodations like kitchenettes and bathrooms in the first floor parlors. (The dormitory is a perfect fit.) However, the project will follow the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic rehabilitation, and all original fabric will be retained. The extensive cast iron work will be refurbished and missing parts replicated (albeit probably in a fiberglass-based casts). I have yet to thoroughly study the details of the rehabilitation, and will continue to observe.

The tour offered a very limited view inside. Visitors entered at the rear of the dormitory and proceeded about fifteen feet from the front door. Structural problems in the partly-collapsed chapel and the house itself precluded further adventure. Still, what was open was lit up brightly than ever. This photographer was able to re-do some old clandestine photography!

Paul J. McKee, Jr. was prominent in the group, and was freely talking with guests. There is a long road ahead for the developer’s Northside Regeneration project, and many unanswered questions. (This post is not about them.) Yet the one certain fact is that McKee is starting the project with rescuing the James Clemens House, and that has become the early symbol of the project. It’s easy to point out how much this move benefits McKee — but easy to guess that it’s not necessarily the first move he wanted to make.

The truth is that those who benefit the most from the rehabilitation of the Clemens House, however, are residents of surrounding St. Louis Place who have long suffered from the abandonment in the heart of a largely stable area. Oh — and everyone who wants St. Louis to have an indelible, storied historic character benefits from saving this city’s most architecturally significant pre-Civil War mansion. There are eternal essences that make this city what it is, and their defense should be more fiercely and continually waged than momentary battles. After all, brick walls last longer than fleeting political maneuvers.

As an aside, Landmarks Association of St. Louis is at its best when it offers the community the chance to directly interact with historic architecture in unexpected ways. While its board has spent considerable time, effort and money on the Architecture St. Louis space downtown, the organization’s most unique strength remains the ability to forge connections out in the places where we live. Kudos to current Executive Director Jeff Mansell for doing just that with this tour!

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Clemens House Moves Closer to Rehabilitation

by Michael R. Allen

Rendering courtesy of Robert Wood Realty.

Developer Robert Wood’s $13 million plan to rehabilitate the long-beleaguered James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue, illustrated above, is moving closer to reality. In collaboration with owner McEagle Properties, Wood proposes creating senior apartments in the historic mansion and dormitory wing, and a museum in the chapel wing.

The staff of the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) has recommended that the Commission approve the project for a combination of a 4% low-income housing tax credit ($828,000), gap financing ($4.5 million) and tax-exempt bonds ($7 million). Wood had sought 9% credits. The MHDC will meet on February 19 to allocate credits. The City of St. Louis made the Clemens House project its #1 priority for the 9% credit.

Strange that the Clemens House, the building that first piqued preservationist outrage at McEagle’s land assemblage, may become the first completed project of the NorthSide project? No. As we have been saying all along, the strongest factor in the NorthSide project is the existing fabric of the near north side.

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Video Tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House

by Michael R. Allen

In September, as part of a tour of St. Louis Place and Old North, I guided the Rehabbers Club around the grounds of the James Clemens, Jr. House. Jeff Seelig captured the end of the tour on video. Better days could be ahead.