Photographs by Virginia Lee Hunter
May 21, 2009. The alderwomen watched the crowd file into Central Baptist Church and braced themselves. Marlene Davis (19th Ward) and April Ford-Griffin (Fifth Ward) had accused Paul McKee of wanting to destroy the black race on the North Side, fought state legislation that would give him a tax credit, and riled up their constituents to believe he was one more exploiter, swooping in without permission. But last spring—just after he applied to the city to approve his redevelopment plan—McKee let them in on his vision. And his NorthSide Regeneration project was the most exciting, transformative plan St. Louis had ever seen.
Besides, by then McKee owned such a big chunk of the near North Side, they’d be crazy not to listen. So tonight they were hosting a community meeting. McKee could make his presentation, and they could test the reaction.
They’d hired a consulting firm to facilitate small-group discussions after the presentation, dividing people up with colored strips of paper as they filed into the church.
They ran out of strips.
Hundreds of people crowded into the pews, picked out McKee near the pulpit, and trained their eyes on him, waiting.
He began genially. “My job tonight is to listen, and what we are going to do is share with you a vision of what we have been working on,” he said. “I need to apologize to you all about why it’s taken me five years to get here”—and before he could finish, a man screamed, “You are a goddamned liar!” and began a rant about white guys f—ing up north St. Louis. (He was white himself.)
There were stern reminders that this was a place of worship, admonitions about respect. One man said later, “It was almost like this weird reality TV show, where the villain stands up and faces all his accusers!”
McKee resumed. “Yeah, we are a bunch of white people from west St. Louis County.” He tried for street cred: After all, his mother had been born and raised on the 4400 block of N. Market Street. “I have roots here,” he insisted, “and it’s my passion to try to make a difference. I can’t do it without your help… We’re here to listen.”
Cuing up the PowerPoint, McKee proceeded to describe about 4.5 million square feet of new office buildings and stores; 22,000 permanent jobs; 10,000 new homes for all income levels; bicycle paths and a trolley; verdant parks; well-lit, freshly paved streets and new sewers (this, in an area where sidewalks end abruptly and some blocks don’t even have trash pickup). He said NorthSide would have its own power grid, wind turbines, and rain gardens. He said the plan was to rehab four schools and add a fifth. “The North Side,” he said, “is the gateway to the future of greatness in this city.”
It was hard to object.
But one of the slides was a giant map of the area, and it told its own story. From the back rows, the map looked like an abstract painting of purple squares, with bigger patches of blue and random squares of white. The purple squares, McKee already owned. The blue were takeovers that the city had learned to hold for big projects, like this one, instead of parceling them out. The scattered white blocks? Owned by individuals and businesses now terrified they’d be eminent-domained.
McKee had been covertly acquiring the purple ones for five years, via a host of mystery companies that all happened to list his WingHaven office as their registered-agent address. He knew he could turn the blue to purple pretty easily. And he’d already begun—anonymously—to make offers to the white squares’ owners.
He was about to control the heart of north St. Louis, and hardly anybody there trusted him.
In the audience on May 21 was Michael Allen, a historic preservationist and, at the time, an Old North resident. It was Allen who’d first figured out—with relentless research and a few anonymous hints—who the mystery buyer was. After the meeting, McKee asked Allen what he thought.
“Everything I want you to do is in my blog [eco-absence.org], which I know you read,” Allen replied. In truth, he’d been glad to hear McKee emphasize jobs, the missing piece in all the previous, failed plans for the North Side. But Allen knew there was “a chasm about 10,000 miles wide” between 3-D renderings and what actually got developed, and he knew how easily historic buildings could get knocked into that abyss.
Also in the audience: Barbara Manzara, one of a close-knit group of urban pioneers who’d been rebuilding Old North one block at a time. Described by one McKee supporter as “overcaffeinated white yuppies,” these fiercely dedicated homesteaders were about to become McKee’s biggest enemies.
Alderman Antonio French, who publishes the PubDef.org political blog, was there too. He later summed up McKee’s presentation as: “‘You want a church? We’re gonna build you a new church. You want a dog park? No problem. You want a cotton-candy stand? We’ll put one on every corner.’ No specifics at all. My concern is this: He has tens of millions in toxic assets on his books right now. He has everybody looking way out here: ‘We’re going to change the face of north St. Louis.’ That isn’t the game at all. The play is to say anything he needs to say to get a development plan passed by the Board of Aldermen so he can clear off his books.
“Before I want to see another PowerPoint presentation,” French concluded, “I need to see a spreadsheet.”
When the idea of NorthSide was sparked, back in 1998, it was strictly business. McKee was competing to bring MasterCard to WingHaven, the planned community he was developing in O’Fallon, Mo. “The city thought they were in play,” he recalls, “because they owned all this ground. They hand somebody a black binder with a big proposal; they have no clue what it takes to win one of these things.”
Sure enough, McKee won MasterCard, but he came away determined to find the one thing he didn’t have: a big piece of land in the city. “If our city is ever going to be great again, it takes job growth,” he says now, “and it takes land to grow jobs. Well, where in hell is there land in the city? On the North Side. In 2003, I drew a circle around an area and asked a real-estate broker I respected to take a look. Did they think we could get 50 percent of the land without eminent domain? The answer was yes.”
He’s skipping ahead a bit; others remember McKee bringing up the idea of a huge planned community on the North Side in 2000, during Mayor Clarence Harmon’s administration. They say he was told, in essence, that his idea was “much too glamorous”—and that rather than shrink or modify it, he walked away.
In June 2002, he set up Blairmont Associates, naming the company for a North Side street, and in 2003, Blairmont started buying. The housing bubble hadn’t yet burst, and in those days, banks were gaily handing out mortgages. McKee quickly formed seven more companies, and they bought him empty lots and neglected buildings. “Most of ’em didn’t know it was us,” he says, “in our secret days.”
As his plan solidified, he designated certain parcels “critical” (needed for roadways or one of his four planned “job centers”), and his agents sent out letters offering to buy occupied homes, sometimes at startlingly high prices.
What he wanted, at that point, was a North Side WingHaven. McKee calls himself “a dirt guy,” but he reads books like The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart and Generations: The History of America’s Future. His development company, McEagle, trademarked a kind of New Urbanism called LifeWorks, and WingHaven was its first big test. The idea was to surround one or two major employers with quaint stores, coffeehouses, trails, and homes of all sizes, and thereby “create the space where community takes place.” Some perceived the project as sweetly old-fashioned and restorative; others saw it as contrived and coercive. But McKee believed in it with all his heart. “If you can work, learn, live, play, and pray in the same place, your life has a chance of working,” he was fond of saying.
Granted, that wasn’t what made his own life work. McKee grew up in a big Catholic family in no-frills Overland, and his dad worked in construction and spent a chunk of his paycheck to send Paul across town to Chaminade High School. His mother was the kind of woman the Irish call “sainted,” and his high-school sweetheart, Midge, was just as devout. They married and had four kids, raising them in St. Charles County until the boys started at Chaminade, then moving to the wealthy enclave of Huntleigh.
He named McEagle for the symbol he used to inspire his kids to be independent: “Eagles fly high. They don’t flock.” And when the nest emptied, Paul and Midge started talking more about feeling “called” to do certain things, like founding Barat Academy as a private, Catholic school for kids in St. Charles County. Its president, Debby Watson, makes an admiring observation: “If they feel a sense of calling, that they are supposed to do this, and they don’t know all the answers, they are willing to walk that journey.”
Which is precisely what drove people crazy as the plan for the near North Side unfolded.
McKee’s vision might have started as shrewd commerce, but it had become a mission—and he wasn’t about to get bogged down in public debate over the details. McKee liked doing big things, moving straight ahead, calling his own shots. He believed the way he developed a place could change people’s lives. He’d planned WingHaven to counter the disconnected feel of strip-malled suburbs. A planned community on the near North Side could restore order and hope, bring jobs, stabilize downtown, and revive the entire city.
That was all he needed to know.
Many of the strategies McKee would use, he learned in St. Charles County. He’d done his share of kingmaking there, grooming and supporting local politicians. “Paul McKee ran O’Fallon for years,” says Joe Brazil, a St. Charles County Council member. “He and [Mayor] Paul Renaud had a great thing going.”
But the St. Louis mayor was more remote, city officials and aldermen less predictable, NorthSide’s cost (an estimated $8 billion) far higher. Developing in a centuries-old community would be far different from building from scratch in weedy cornfields.
Just how different, it would take McKee years to realize.
Meanwhile, he did what he knew how to do.
He hired strategically: David Barklage had been Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s chief of staff before coming to work for McEagle; Bridget Calcaterra had been deputy director of real estate for the city’s development corporation.
McKee and his companies donated money—sometimes thousands—to a long list of politicians, among them former Gov. Matt Blunt; Lt. Gov. Kinder; then–Attorney General Jay Nixon; Sen. Kit Bond; Sen. Claire McCaskill; state Sen. John Griesheimer; state Reps. Ron Richard, Rod Jetton, and Rodney Hubbard; St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay; and several aldermen.
He met people on their own terms. Says Hubbard, “I heard about some of the stuff he was doing in regard to education, and we kind of hit it off.” St. Louis Alderman Quincy Troupe says, “We spent a lot of our time talking about access to healthcare, finding out we both agreed on a lot of things. So I like Paul.”
McKee got to know Griesheimer through a mutual friend, the president of the Bank of Washington. They started off at loggerheads, but soon McKee had Griesheimer’s support in the legislature and six deeds of trust on record from the Bank of Washington.
Big St. Louis banks were more skeptical, but he also managed a $14.8 million loan from Corn Belt Bank & Trust Company, a Pittsfield, Ill., bank that would later collapse.
The masterstroke, though, came from his attorney, Steve Stone, of Stone, Leyton & Gershman. Early in 2007, Stone shaped legislation that would reimburse McKee for the bulk of his acquisition expenses. He could demonstrate his sincerity by investing $42 million of his own money—and recouping most of it.
It was a funny thing, the way McKee’s story slowly trickled into the press. First, a few devoted bloggers raised the alarm about a mysterious intruder buying up land on the North Side. They documented the buildings’ deterioration, raged about its effects on the neighborhoods, and speculated endlessly about the buyer’s identity. Then, in late 2005, Allen actually named McKee on his blog. A handful of preservationists and urban pioneers vented their fury in the comment boxes, but McKee continued his acquisitions undisturbed.
More than a year later, in January 2007, the Riverfront Times’ Randall Roberts implied that the mystery buyer was indeed McKee. “At that time, he wasn’t returning anybody’s calls,” recalls Roberts, who now writes for an alt-weekly in L.A. “The vibe was that he was still wanting to deny everything.”
What he was wanting, of course, was land—enough to qualify for the proposed state tax credit. He kept mum and kept buying.
Eventually labeled the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act, the bill would reimburse McKee—or rather, any qualifying developer—with transferable tax credits of as much as $10 million a year, up to $95 million total, for all closing costs, demolition, and maintenance, as well as half the purchase prices. “Our attorney thought of it,” says McKee, referring to Stone. “We’re really proud of it. Illinois is looking really hard at it; the feds are even looking at it.”
All spring, the act inched its way through the state legislature, like a piglet through a boa constrictor. Then, on Father’s Day 2007, McKee picked up the Post-Dispatch and saw his name on the front page.
The headline read: “A tax-credit bill for one man?” What followed was a story about the secretly purchased properties, the generous political contributions, how the proposed tax-credit bill seemed tailored specifically for McKee.
“What that did was, it kept us from buying more land,” McKee says now. “Can you imagine being my banker and seeing that on the front page? I’d planned on applying for city approval last summer rather than this summer. But when it flushed us, I couldn’t get the land I needed for another year. Those people have no idea the foul ball they hit. They think they did the community a service by flushing us. They did a huge disservice. The bankers were believing in me; the city was coming along. And then bam, it all got turned upside down, and I had to go start from scratch. I’m not used to doing that.”
Midge remembers reading the paper and wondering, “‘Oh my gosh, what have we done, for this to come out so negatively?!’ Then you sort of feel like, ‘Well, we just won’t say anything.’ What’s the point, when they take your words negatively and twist them?”
But McKee’s silence made room for all kinds of speculation: He was going to people his project with all the blacks who’d moved to North County; he was going to kick out all the blacks and move whites in; he was going to take public money and just do Phase I; he was buying up all the transportation hubs along I-70; he was re-creating the plot of Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City.
Most people would’ve responded by paying a PR firm to package and repackage their message. McKee dismissed Fleishman-Hillard and controlled his own message, from early chats with handpicked nonprofits and individuals (no politicians, no media) to an amateurish YouTube video, a discussion board he promptly took down because of profanity, and a Twitter account on which he never tweeted. Even after his plan had been publicized ad nauseam, he continued to forbid reporters and bloggers to record or videotape (he says he didn’t want to discourage residents’ comments). He was determined to explain his vision in his own words.
“Nobody can talk to this like me,” he insists. “Nobody can make my case the way I can.”
Debate on the state tax creditturned explosive after McKee’s outing. Several politicians leaped to his defense, including Slay, who responded with a post on his blog dismissing the Post’s story as a “thin web of half-facts, rumors, and tenuous connections that would have benefited from better editing and less careless reporting.”
But other news outlets began to weigh in, and their reports often pointed to McKee’s unmaintained buildings and the problems they caused. Citizens and politicians questioned McKee’s tactics. Under the public’s watchful eye, Blunt vetoed the bill in early July, but another version emerged instantly.
On August 16—just before a special legislative session on the bill—local state reps and media joined Alderwomen Davis and Ford-Griffin on a bus tour of McKee’s dilapidated properties. The politicians made passionate speeches, with Ford-Griffin noting that city workers had boarded up many of the buildings’ windows the day before. “Once again, they were able to use city labor, city trucks, city resources to help maintain a millionaire’s property,” she said. “Currently, there’s a piece of legislation that would reward Paul McKee for doing business the way he has. You should not be rewarded for neglect.”
When it came time to testify against the bill, Davis and Ford-Griffin set out for Jefferson City to do battle but wound up getting into a car wreck at the Wentzville highway ramp. Within hours, McKee says, he was hearing rumors that he’d hired somebody to run them down.
Davis made it to Jeff City anyway. “I stood up there on that floor, with my ribs hurtin’ after that accident, holdin’ ice on myself and trying to talk to those guys before they took their vote,” Davis says now, “because it couldn’t be the way it was written.”
Troupe also testified against the bill, urging that the Board of Aldermen should have some control. That afternoon, state Rep. Rodney Hubbard—a longtime North Side resident whose father ran the Carr Square development and who’d embraced McKee’s vision from the start—introduced an amendment: Before McKee could receive any tax credits from the state, he would have to have an official redevelopment agreement approved by the city.
Hubbard thought Davis and Ford-Griffin would be grateful. Instead, he says, he got no thank-you—and he’s now convinced his support of McKee cost him election to the state senate. “I lost by 95 votes to Robin Wright-Jones,” he says. “They put a lot of negative literature out saying I was selling out the black community.”
In the end, though, only a handful of Democrats voted against what Sen. Joan Bray called “a massive amount of wealth for one guy.” Bray says hers was a gut vote, “’cause I got all the pressure and had the personal phone call from Paul McKee, and his attorney has been a very big supporter of mine. Was, shall we say?”
The revised bill passed easily in special session—but the Board of Aldermen now had a large role in deciding whether the project ever left the ground. Hubbard’s amendment would wind up causing his friend weeks of hassle as deputy mayor for development Barb Geisman cheerfully ran him through the wringer in summer 2009.
By then, McKee had filed his TIF application, disclosing the broad outlines of his plan, listing hundreds of properties inside the project’s footprint, and asking the city to give him $410 million in tax-increment financing. He voiced no objection to the added hurdle of aldermanic approval, and he continued supporting Hubbard: According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, 27 companies, all using McKee’s office address, donated a total of $18,950 to Hubbard’s state senate campaign. Did McKee ever mention that pesky amendment? “You know what?” Hubbard says with a chuckle. “We’ve never had that conversation.”
After the tax-credit act passed, McKee’s vision was one step closer to reality—but he still wasn’t ready to reveal any details. Instead, he worked on plans for his next coup. The proposed Mississippi River bridge would give his project a new entrance from the east and, as he’d hoped, would land right in front of his strategic 2006 purchase, an old Schnucks site. All he needed—and he got it the same year—was another new state law, this one allowing the Missouri Department of Transportation to sell or swap land it owned without putting it up for bid. In McKee’s case, the proposed trade was his Schnucks lot for a portion of the empty but choice ground where 22nd Street met Highway 40. He put things in motion and waited impatiently. (“That bridge was like a birdie going back and forth over the net for two years!”)
Once plans for the bridge stabilized, McKee started discusing the swap as a fait accompli. “Our Gateway Mall ends in a 25-foot-deep hole in the ground, which is an embarrassment,” he says, showing off renderings of a gleaming office tower and landscaped boulevard.
But insiders say the swap is far from a done deal; it would require an expensive new interchange at Highway 40, and McKee’s land is worth a fraction of MoDOT’s property. “We need a couple acres from him, and at 22nd Street, we own, like, 30 acres,” says Greg Horn, a MoDOT engineer working on the project. “He’s a pretty good guy, and he’s trying to do a good thing for the city, but we’re not going to give away anything.”
McKee says he can easily prove equal value. “We can prove what we paid for everything,” he says, then leans forward. “Right now that bridge is funded. So the land we own for that bridge is pretty damned valuable—they can’t land the bridge without it! So… Which piece is more valuable?”
McKee had one very large reason to want that bridge to land in his development: His vision now stretched all the way to China. In 2005, Stone mentioned a cousin whose company helped open trade with China after World War II. Stone and McKee started talking about making St. Louis a central distribution point for trade with China, and McKee made several overseas trips with Missouri delegations. Today, St. Louis has a new, federally funded Midwest China Hub Commission, and the area’s foreign trade zone has expanded from 11 acres to 825 acres and includes McKee’s NorthPark development, tucked close to Lambert International Airport, with a hotel and plans broached for a $20 million “China mart.” NorthSide could be another piece in the puzzle, with plenty of room to warehouse goods trucked over the new bridge from Illinois’ MidAmerica Airport.
A citizen posting on PubDef.org countered with one question: Was McKee planning on blighting the Great Wall?
On Thanksgiving 2008, McKee listened to President-elect Barack Obama speak and saw green: “We said, ‘We’ve got the answer for this, dude.’ And we invented the Obama Book.” A fat binder of NorthSide’s sustainable infrastructure projects, its message was “Federal government, you should look closely at what we’re doing—and by the way, we need $1.3 billion.” He showed Missouri senators. “Kit Bond laughed and said, ‘I’ve never gone for a billion-three earmark!’” says McKee. “Claire McCaskill said, ‘I don’t believe in earmarks, Paul.’ Well, then the stimulus bill gets passed, and I’m beating on their doors. There’s gold sitting there on that table, and nobody wants to get off their dead ass and reach their hand in there.” McKee can’t apply for any of the stimulus money himself, which is killing him. But he’s lit fires under every public official who can, and thus far at least five applications are pending.
Both senators seem to be supporting him. “Everyone has been calling Paul’s proposal transformative. I agree, and I’ll do everything I can to help,” replies Bond via email to SLM, adding that he’d be willing to help secure funds for a new interchange at Highway 40. “It is this type of project—where the developer or community has skin in the game—that makes sense for the government to invest in.”
The rehabbers weren’t as easily persuaded. They put up such a fight that in June 2008, McKee removed Old North from his project. “They fought us in Jeff City. They fought us at the city level. And then they said take us out,” McKee recalls, exasperated. “We said, ‘Are you sure?’”
Oh, they were sure. Not only did they want out of his plan, they also wanted him to sell back the 60 parcels he’d bought. They were going to have a hard enough time retaining the spirit of their community with some suburban developer’s mystery project right next door.
They also wanted him to do historic preservation—not just on the crumbling James Clemens Mansion, but on many of the once-dignified redbrick row houses he’d purchased so casually. “Every time I met with him, I brought it up,” says Allen. “Not once did he say anything that would suggest that they had seriously done any planning for preservation. I asked to see the list of ‘legacy properties’ they were going to preserve and never got it.”
McKee was hearing a similar message from his own consultants. He could not build another WingHaven, they informed him; he had to respect the urban grid and preserve or re-create the texture of its architecture. This wasn’t the suburbs.
He went looking for a new model. “We looked all over to find—I don’t use this word often—somebody who’s converted a ghetto,” he says. The only good example he found was Stapleton, Colo., so he hired the guy who’d done the planning: Mark Johnson of Civitas.
“Here you’ve got small parcels of land you’ve got to deal with,” says McKee, with a sweeping gesture as he drives through the development’s footprint. “Out at WingHaven it was cornfield, so you didn’t have this all around you that you’ve got to respect.”
He was learning to sit quietly while angry residents drummed in their points: They did not trust him with the power of eminent domain, they wanted a say in the reshaping of their community, he needed to respect its cultural heritage (African-American, Italian, German, Polish), and goddammit, he needed to mow his lawns.
In city records, the McKee properties make a grim litany: “rats,” “debris,” “weeds,” “graffiti,” “concerns about drug and prostitution problems,” “stolen brick,” “collapsed walls,” “fire damage,” “vacant and unsecured,” “dangerous.” In May 2008, 11 fires were set in a single weekend. Both sides blamed each other, neighbors saying McKee wanted to hasten the condemnation process, and McKee wondering if he was being sabotaged. Next, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources notified him that one of his buildings had been reported as contaminated—which it was. Someone had tossed in asbestos, still sealed in black plastic bags.
Blogs like Curious Feet St. Louis called a sudden epidemic of brick theft “Paul McKee’s gift to the Near North Side.” Neighbors swore he was leaving his buildings unboarded to speed deterioration. But Sal Martinez, executive director of Community Renewal & Development Inc., says, “I have seen his structures boarded up, and within 24 hours, I’ve seen the boards pulled down.”
McKee just shakes his head. “I can’t afford to do more. People say, ‘Why would we trust you when you can’t even keep your grass cut?’ The answer to that is ‘I gotta get through this year.’ Then I get money back, and I can continue to do a better job. We’re approaching $1.5 million in spending on board-up, cleanup, and maintenance.”
The figure’s plausible; using records for companies with PEM Agency Corporation, at McKee’s address, as their registered agent, the City of St. Louis Forestry Division tabulated almost $550,000 paid over four years, with $267,000 still owed. That’s only the money he’s paid to the city, which he swears is not doing his maintenance for him. “They [city crews] go over our ground, and they send me a bill. Because I paid some of them, the paper got hold of that and said, ‘The city’s doing your work for you.’ Shit, I don’t need the city to do anything!”
Except approve that TIF.
For a long time, the TIF’s chances LOOKED slim. Yet McKee showed an uncanny ability to win over his harshest critics. (His enemies credit this to political contributions; his allies, to his grand vision.)
Allen remembers how startled he was when, as he was waiting for his own appointment with McKee, “The door opened, and he came out with Robin Wright-Jones.” After becoming state senator, she’d decided she needed to learn more about his plans. She now says, “He has a real vision of a planned urban community and, from an infrastructure perspective, a national and international commerce perspective.”
As for the aldermen, bits of the plan fell in the wards of Aldermen Freeman Bosley Sr. and Kacie Starr Triplett, but about 85 percent was in Ford-Griffin’s ward, 12 percent in Davis’. In late March, after more than a year of ignoring their calls, McKee invited the pair to his office.
Now, both speak favorably of the plan. “First, I was dealing with a lot of abandoned property not being maintained well and a lot of angry residents,” Davis explains. “The next thing on the horizon was the land-assemblage tax-credit bill, with no need for the developer to work with the local municipality. And eminent domain. Those two things have been handled to some degree. It’s gonna continue to be a struggle. There’s a whole lotta days I know he wishes I didn’t show up. But you know, we’ve gotta get this done.”
McKee had come a long way in convincing key politicians and neighborhood groups. But if he was going to get public funding, he’d need far wider support. So on May 20, after dodging reporters for years, he arranged a meeting at the Post. A roomful of Posties—including two cartoonists—listened for more than two hours as he unfolded his plan. Afterward, McKee turned to reporter Jake Wagman, who shared a byline on the Post story that outed him, and said, “‘Jake, you have been awful quiet. You’ve been doggin’ my ass for two years. You have got to have one question.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, I do,’” McKee recalls. “‘How come the aldermen changed their minds? I think you paid them off.’ I said, ‘I don’t operate that way. I’m not going to play the good-old-boy game.’”
Wagman recalls it a little differently: “I don’t use the term ‘paid off’—that’s just not in my lexicon. It’s far more likely that I did ask about political contributions, which McKee has given a lot of.”
By June, Tim Logan had replaced Wagman as the reporter covering McKee.
In mid-May, the Post ran another front-page story about McKee and the near North Side, this time detailing what the mysterious buying, the tax-credit bill, the political connections had all been leading toward: A $5.4 billion plan to shape more than 500 acres of St. Louis—an area larger than downtown Clayton—that had suffered disinvestment for more than 60 years. In the TIF application that McEagle submitted a week later, those numbers were $8.1 billion and more than 1,500 acres.
It would be the single most ambitious project in the city’s history.
In fact, the most consistent criticism is that McKee’s too ambitious, his project too big. “Everywhere else on the North Side where they piss-anted a solution, 10 years later, it’s ghetto again,” he retorts. “Think of this like a huge lake—people have been throwing pebbles around the edges for 100 years, and the ripples have never hit the other side.”
The NorthSide project proposed to focus on six goals: economic development, education, energy, transit, environment, and health. Eventually, after accusations that he was trying to “bulldoze the ghetto,” McKee would add a seventh—heritage.
Suddenly, the O’Fallon developer was handing out business cards and hosting neighborhood meetings. As he met with residents, he realized he was no longer “creating the space where community takes place.” Instead, he was entering an existing community and trying to transform a patchwork of spaces with a long, glorious, painful history.
At WingHaven, he’d initially thought that if he just built it right, the community part would take care of itself. When it didn’t, he hired a social director who organized parades, fireworks, bike races, and a bocce league.
He couldn’t exactly hire a social director for the near North Side. And now he was beginning to realize it wouldn’t be necessary.
What he had to do was win entrance to the community that already existed.
“He talks about ‘work, play, pray.’ We already do that,” says Sheila Rendon, president of the North Side Community Benefits Alliance. The group formed to resist eminent domain and make McKee accountable to the community. The idea was nothing new; CBAs in other cities had set up legally binding contracts to ensure their concerns were addressed. “The idea that we could have a seat at the table gives people hope,” says Rendon. “Decisions have been made without us for so long, and they’ve totally not been in our interest.”
The CBA was worried about the human cost of McKee’s vision: friends were leaving the neighborhood, renters were being evicted, buildings next door were crumbling. They feared crime would increase, property values would plummet, their homes would be taken, redevelopment would never take hold, McKee would use public money to bail himself out of debt. They spent hours researching his mortgages, appraisals, and company aliases. By their math, McKee had borrowed $166 million from the Bank of Washington, which would have presumed a hugely inflated value for his properties.
When McKee saw the figure in the Post, he demanded a retraction. According to McKee, the deeds of trusts, whose amounts the CBA had totaled, were actually listing six different companies’ properties as collateral for a single $27.8 million loan.
CBA organizers didn’t believe him. They staged David-versus-Goliath press conferences and neighborhood forums. “I’ve obviously got people at all these meetings,” McKee says. “They just resent that they nickel-dimed it, and I’m able to come at it in a big way.”
But could he sustain the magnitude? When reports surfaced that a McKee warehouse in Hazelwood was “in foreclosure,” CBA pounced. By then, McKee wasn’t even bothering to defend himself with details; he simply snapped that the property was not foreclosed.
“I played chicken with those guys,” he says now, referring to the financers. “They wouldn’t drop the rent to let us meet the market. I said we had to drop the rent, and bam! They filed for foreclosure. I didn’t think they’d do that.” He rescued the property, and now, he says, “they’re going to drop the rent. When you are playing with big-money people like we do, you gotta play hardball.”
As one skeptic remarked, “Paul McKee has a tiger by the tail, and he has to keep swinging it, ’cause if he ever stops, it’s going to eat him.”
Jack O’Leary, president of Fehlig Bros. Box & Lumber Company, recalls finding out his business was listed in McKee’s TIF application. “I called [McKee’s] office, and he didn’t call, and then a cousin who goes to Mass with him said, ‘You better call Jack O’Leary.’ He came down and spent an hour with me. I kind of appreciated that.” McKee assured O’Leary that the century-old lumberyard wouldn’t face eminent domain and gave him an overview of the plan.
Other business owners weren’t as fortunate. Michael McClane, owner of Cardinal Machine & Nipple Works (the nipple is the threaded end of a pipe), hadn’t even seen the list when the CBA called. “We just want to stay here doing what we’ve been doing,” says McClane, whose father started the business in 1947.
When we mentioned McClane’s nervousness to McKee in August, he replied, “Well, we’re gonna let you stay, that’s what I’m thinking!”
By then, he was saying the right things consistently, although he wouldn’t put any of them in writing. He promised to make sure that there was plenty of low-income housing in the mix; that no one would be displaced; that he’d respect the area’s urban character; that he’d listen to its residents. The need for secrecy was over, he said.
But the damage was done.
Says a local development expert, “They thought the more they talked about it, the higher the price would have gone. But the problem is, it bites you in the ass later, because everyone thinks you are a liar, because you’ve lied. And then you have to go all humble and say, ‘My mother was born in the neighborhood,’ and everybody’s going, ‘Uh-huh.’ They are trying to rewind now.”
There were opportunity costs, too. Developer Richard Baron, who’s done well-received urban work, says, “Because the process has gone on so long, it was difficult to try to continue any more development on the near North Side. The city froze all of the LRA [Land Revitalization Authority] ground. So we stopped.”
As for historic preservation—a new concept for a suburban builder—activists kept demanding to see a list of “legacy properties” that McKee planned to preserve, and they grew more suspicious when it didn’t materialize. At press time, McKee still hadn’t released the list, but he said Civitas had found about 80 buildings it deemed worth saving.
“It would have been an easier job if a lot of maintenance had been done at the very beginning,” remarks Jeff Mansell, executive director of Landmarks. “It might have been a really good PR move.”
Now in damage-control mode, McKee submitted a revised TIF application in late September, after having his “nose bloodied every week” by Geisman. “She’s tough as nails, but she’s smart as hell, and you cannot outwork her,” he admits. “She beats the shit out of us regularly.”
Now he was asking for $398 million, not $410 million. Any use of eminent domain would require the Board of Aldermen’s approval. And he’d postponed the original application’s most controversial element: city backing for half his TIF obligation.
The city has backed a TIF from the general fund only twice before: St. Louis Marketplace and St. Louis Centre. It’s already paid more than $3 million for the failed Marketplace, with another $800,000 due in 2010, and if no progress is made on St. Louis Centre, it expects to fork over more than $1 million in 2011.
By the time the city TIF Commission held a public hearing, on September 23, McKee’s detractors were whispering that he was strapped for cash—and McKee wasn’t denying it. “When you are six months pregnant,” he says, “is there any going back?”
The lack of liquidity wasn’t stopping him, though, and by September, even the CBA was weary of the fight. “At this point, all we have left is a certain amount of moral outrage,” says Manzara. “None of us think we’re going to quote-unquote win anything. I honestly think the bulldozers are gonna be here before we know it. I honestly think they’re gonna do the thing where they take all the money, do all the stuff downtown [McKee’s Phase I], and then leave us to rot for 10 more years.”
French wasn’t going to let it happen: “Every step of the way, he’s only giving as much information as he absolutely has to. After a while, you have to call him out and say, ‘Look, dude, you have to have some sort of plan. Especially when you say to the city, ‘I want you to cover half of it.’ At that point, you have to say, ‘Bullshit aside. Enough of the vision language. I’ve got people walking up and down Natural Bridge at 2 a.m. having visions.’”
McKee’s stock response: NorthSide’s a concept—it’s still evolving. But the vaguest piece of all, just how he’s going to create jobs from scratch, is the one he feels most confident about. “Job creation is really what we do, so at the end of the day, those four job centers are really crucial,” he says.
One hub is his proposed office tower at 22nd Street. A second would be near the new bridge’s landing, a third clustered around Sensient Technologies. The hubs’ themes would range from retail (“As one gal said, this area’s a retail desert”) to light industry. He grabs a pen and draws a pie chart, illustrating his idea for the fourth one. “St. Louis can hold the very unique position of being the food center of North America, so we would like to theme one of these around food.” He scribbles faster, listing names of agriculture (corn, soybeans, animal feed); processed food (beef, pork, and poultry associations); plant science; life science (with “energy” and “food-safety technology” in the margin).
Granted, the ag associations tend to cluster near the University of Missouri’s ag extension, and plant- and life-science companies already have designated corridors in other parts of the city and county. But McKee thinks proximity will draw companies from “China, Chicago, Dallas, South America...”
When people look dubious, he reminds them that he hasn’t even started marketing yet.
On September 23, more than 400 people climbed the marble steps inside City Hall. More than half were turned away. The Kennedy Room was small, the balcony barricaded for structural reasons. Restive, the crowd milled outside, and when Geisman began her presentation of McKee’s TIF proposal, there was a thunderous banging on the wooden doors. She just kept going, detailing the new numbers (the TIF total had dropped again, to $390 million), the protections now built in for the city and its citizens, and 20 anticipated sources of funding. “There will also be, according to the aldermen, no eminent domain ever for owner-occupied residences and churches,” she said. (As for commercial buildings, the Post wrote on September 20 that there were four owners whose properties would be critical to the project. “It’s less than 10,” says McKee. “Let’s do it that way.”)
The meeting switched gears as Geisman turned the mic over to the public. Over the next three hours, the fears of recent months and the anger of nearly a century spewed forth. In counterbalance, there was cheerleading from trade unions eager for jobs, ministers eager for hope, and lifelong residents sick of staring at empty lots and broken windows.
“It’s time for our government to illustrate that St. Louis extends north of Delmar Boulevard. Or have we just been separate for so long that we’re afraid to see what it looks like to be equal?” asked Cheryl Walker, who wore one of the neon-yellow shirts signaling support for McKee. Many of the comments turned into dialogue: “He got his lawyers. He got his research time,” Mike Moore told the crowd. “What you got?!” Someone in the audience shouted back, “Nothin’!”
“I oppose this TIF because I think the person whom it will benefit does not have to live with its consequences,” said Thomas Duda, a resident of Holly Hills. He then refused to leave the podium because hundreds had been denied a chance to speak. There was a tense pause before guards appeared and escorted him out.
Scott Ogilvie stayed calmer: “‘Job centers’ is a marketing term for office space, and there’s a lot of vacant office space in St. Louis, Clayton, and farther west… Unless the guys at this table are like the five smartest guys in the country all gathered together, there’s a very high degree of probability that this project will be a failure.”
Angry as they were, though, the opponents seemed to sense that the TIF’s victory was inevitable. “I guess what I’m hearing is that it is a done deal,” said one woman, “and that’s scary.” Indeed, at the end of the night, the commission would vote unanimously in favor.
But first, after the comment session closed, the aldermen were invited to speak. Ford-Griffin, accused repeatedly through the evening of “selling out her” constituents, didn’t mince words. “Don’t get it twisted—there’s nothin’ about me that changed,” she said, explaining that by the time McKee came to her with the plan, it had changed dramatically. “We asked him to apologize to the community, and we told him, ‘It’s a must that you maintain your properties,’” she said firmly.
“At the end of the day, he owns the property,” Ford-Griffin reminded the audience. “People have overwhelmingly told me for 12 years to get some development. For people to say, ‘We don’t need it,’ just because of the way he did it—‘We’re OK the way we are’—we are not OK the way we are! Everybody’s saying, ‘What if he doesn’t get the money?’ Well, guess what, then it doesn’t get done. The TIF is being used for infrastructure, which we need.”
Davis laid it on the line: “If we don’t try something different, if we don’t go large, we will lose the entire North Side.”
Jarrett Medlin is SLM’s senior editor, and Jeannette Cooperman is the staff writer.
Can't get enough NorthSide coverage? Check out SLM's web extras below, including the best quotes on the cutting-room floor, a history of near North St. Louis, how Allen unmasked McKee, the experts' opinions, and more:
- Web extra: A Brief History of the Near North Side
- Web extra: The Case of the Blairmont Buyer
- Web extra: One Neighbor's Perspective
- Web extra: The Experts' Take
- Web extra: Quotes from the Cutting-Room Floor
By Jeannette Cooperman and Jarrett Medlin