Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Board of Aldermen Urban Assets LLC

French Introduces Bill to Place 21st Ward in Preservation Review

by Michael R. Allen

Today Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) introduced Board Bill 78 to make his ward one of the preservation review districts governed by the city’s preservation ordinance. Preservation review allows the city’s Cultural Resources Office to review demolition permits in the ward and deny them based on the architectural merit and reuse potential criteria established by the ordinance.

The 21st ward is one of nine city wards that are not preservation review areas. Here is a map showing the distribution of wards that do not participate (in white):

This map shows that the area covered by the McEagle NorthSide project (mostly the 5th and 19th wards) is not included in preservation review. Neither is most of the north city swath in which Urban Assets and other holding companies are buying buildings and land.

A ward’s lack of preservation review enables demolition on a wide scale — not necessarily all at once, either. The conditions of many wards without preservation review have deteriorated through the loss of one building at a time for decades. Loss of buildings means loss of residents, loss of job and loss of a sense of community — adding up to conditions that make wards vulnerable for land-banking. Preservation review is not designed to keep every old building standing forever, but to create a mechanism for careful decision-making about the physical resources of our neighborhoods.

Alderman French has a great ward with a largely intact building stock. Placing the 21st ward under preservation review will help keep the 21st ward in good shape for generations to come. By making the move to place the ward under such review early in his tenure, French shows that he will be working to protect and strengthen the neighborhoods he already governs, rather than jockeying for the big development that can shatter communities.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Urban Assets LLC

North Side Aldermen Should Be Wary of Urban Assets

by Michael R. Allen

This magnificent house at 4200 Cook Avenue in the Vandeventer neighborhood attracts the awe of architectural enthusiast and neighborhood resident alike. Standing in the street and taking its photograph, several people commented to me that the house was a great one and hoped that I was there to buy it and repair it.

No dice, even if I wanted to. The house is owned by Urban Assets LLC, the new Harvey Noble-fronted holding company that is buying out north St. Louis. This is one of about 180 historic buildings that they have purchased since September 2008. Their purchase of the property is particularly disappointing because there once was a great plan to bring this house back to its former glory. All things pass, especially plans. Yet when the long-lived resources of a neighborhood pass, the chance for a sustainable future often goes with them.

The house dates to 1892, when Richardsonian Romanesque had architects under its sway. This house employs many Richardsonian tendencies, like the Roman arch window facing Cook Avenue, the bow-front facing Whittier Avenue and the snug fit into the urban lot. This is a splendid house that may very well disappear. Critics can retort that the house was already well on the way to disappearing, which is true, but they would miss the real problem: no one else will have the chance to pull the house back from the ravages of fate. No human presence will be found at this corner for an indefinite time — no eyes or ears directed at the street, no kindness directed at adjacent residents.

Th acquisition pattern of Urban Assets LLC is highly troubling from a preservation perspective, but the bigger threat is spreading the neighborhood social disintegration that the McEagle acquisitions accelerated into more densely populated parts of north St. Louis. If the problems that land banking entailed in JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place are cause for alarm, the effect west of Grand Avenue could be much worse.

Aldermen whose wards are infected with Urban Assets’ property (1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 18th, 19th, 21st, 22nd, 26th) need to find out who is behind the purchasing and take the steps needed to safeguard their neighborhoods. This city doesn’t need another Blairmont — and I don’t mean in terms of political hoopla, but actual deleterious effect on the city’s people. Aldermanic leadership now can head off a potential development problem.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration O'Fallon Public Policy The Ville Urban Assets LLC Wells-Goodfellow

Private LRA in the Works Across North St. Louis?

by Michael R. Allen

The house shown here, located at 4448 Athlone Avenue in the O’Fallon neighborhood, is just one of the 225 vacant properties purchased by a holding company named Urban Assets LLC in the last six months. The spending spree has attracted the notice of neighborhood leaders and elected officials across north St. Louis. Urban Assets has purchased across a wide swath of north St. Louis, mostly between Delmar Boulevard on the south and Natural Bridge Avenue on the north — all of the way from Grand Avenue on the east to the city limits on the west.

Here is a crude map of the holdings made by this writer using Geo St. Louis:

The holdings are spread across nine wards and include 120 vacant lots and 85 buildings, mostly historic. The wards and number of properties are as follows: Ward 1 (7), Ward 3 (4), Ward 4 (64), Ward 5 (5), Ward 18 (39), Ward 19 (11), Ward 21 (4), Ward 22 (64) and Ward 26 (27).

There are distinct concentrations in the Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods as well as the Wells-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. There are a handful, like 4448 Athlone, standing alone far from other holdings. Urban Assets began aggressively purchasing properties at Sheriff’s tax sales in September 2008. Most of the holdings come from tax sale purchasing, with prices often less than $2,000 at auctions with no other bidders.

This purchase pattern is reminiscent of the start of purchasing by McEagle holding companies like the infamous Blairmont Associates LC — and the same real estate broker is making the purchases for the parties behind the holding company.

On June 6, 2008, real estate broker Harvey Noble of Eagle Realty incorporated Urban Assets LLC online. The incorporation filing and the registered agent listing on the Secretary of State’s website misspell Noble’s name as “Nobel” and incorrectly state that the zip code for Noble’s office is 63102.

On the record with KWMU and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Paul J. McKee, Jr. denies any involvement with Urban Assets. Examining the acquisition patterns of Urban Assets, one sees that there is no overlap with the McEagle project and a few intense concentrations that suggest efforts to buy out other areas. Whoever is behind Urban Assets could very well soon be in competition with McEagle for the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act.

While Urban Assets seems to be buying whatever it can acquire in certain small areas, generally the company seems interested in vacant property in as much of north St. Louis as possible. The acquisitions almost seem like a private land bank like the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

The only apparent incentive to this type of far-flung land banking, however, is the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit. In order to receive that credit, a developer must be appointed redeveloper by the Board of Aldermen. Redevelopment rights don’t necessarily mean that a developer will clear-cut a redevelopment area. Those rights fundamentally mean that a developer acts as gatekeeper for all investment within a redevelopment area — allowing some in and keeping others out.

Is Urban Assets seeking to become a gatekeeper for north St. Louis, or is their acquisition simply a land-banking scheme?