by Michael R. Allen
In a written statement sent to Riverfront Times reporter Kathleen McLaughlin, developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. remarked of his north side holdings, “what we do own, with a few unremarkable exceptions, is owned in small, undevelopable scattered sites.”
McKee is wrong on several counts:
– The most desirable and sustainable development in any urban area is precisely done in small, scattered sites. Great cities are built through accumulation, not master planning — the same goes for great redevelopment. McKee’s 662+ parcels were each developable, or they never would have been surveyed and divided as parcels. These are not good sites for large buildings or homes with generous front lawns, but they are perfect for dense urban infill construction.
– With property values rising throughout the city, all property in the city is “developable” — especially land as close to downtown as McKee’s holdings are. Even what he owns now could lead to an extremely profitable develoment program.
– McKee owns dozens of historic buildings in the Murphy-Blair, Clemens House-Columbia Brewery and Mullanphy National Historic Districts — many adjacent to rehabilitated buildings or soon-to-be rehabilitated buildings. Obviously, he’s already eligible for an established and proven state development tax credit: the historic rehabilitation tax credit. His Paric Corporation can been seen all over the city serving as general contractor on numerous historic rehabilitation contracts utilizing the tax credit, and that company does good work. He could proceed with rehabilitating all of his holdings eligible for the state historic tax credit and make a huge and qualitative difference in north St. Louis.
– In Old North St. Louis and the eastern side of St. Louis Place, McKee’s holdings fall among rehabbed buildings, maintained houses, businesses and new construction. Large-scale development is not only unfeasible in these areas, it’s not needed. There already is development activity scattered in these areas. On some blocks, everything is in good repair except the holdings of McKee and the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. Surely he can put together development projects on a small scale where they will make such a critical difference.
Overall, McKee’s holdings are a remarkable development opportunity as-is. Rather than wait for big political deals to take shape, the developer is posed to start now on meaningful development based on community needs and sensitivity to the existing urban fabric. In fact, if he only rehabbed every building eligible for the state rehab tax credit the difference on the near north side would be clear. If that statement doesn’t seem true, one need only look at the result of the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance’s CONECT project on North Market and Monroe streets in Old North St. Louis. There, scattered rehabs using the state historic rehab tax credit and other existing financing mechanisms changed the character of some blocks from hopeless to hopeful. Simultaneous construction of new houses helped make the difference bigger. Some of these blocks are unrecognizable in their renewed states.
As such good changes take place, they spread — fast. Private development is at an all-time high in Old North St. Louis. Within a few years, the 14th Street Mall will be reopened and dozens of historic buildings will be rehabilitated as part of that project. In short time, figuring out what to do with all of the vacant land in the neighborhood won’t be a problem; the gaps will fill in. This won’t happen in even ten years, but I’d be surprised if it takes more than thirty. Given the magnitude of the decline of the neighborhood, that is remarkably fast.
With careful planning, McKee could identify other potential historic districts among his holdings and carry that momentum westward into JeffVanderLou. That process seems to coincide with Mayor Slay’s statement that historic preservation is part of what will happen in development of McKee’s holdings.
The large scale on which McKee has operated is hardly visionary any more. We have watched decades of such projects fail. In the meantime, we have seen developers make bigger differences in reversing decay by tackling the city on a parcel-by-parcel basis — the same way the city was first developed. McKee has the chance to do something unique by putting his resources and energy behind smarter urban development projects. No matter what happens, development of his parcels will take decades. Why not start now and work steadily doing something no other developer can do?