In June 2005, Michael Allen was scanning Craigslist when he came upon an ad seeking information about “a company called ‘Blairmont Associates LC,’” which had just bought the Clemens Mansion. The ad’s writer, “Lyra,” said she had fallen in love with the mansion and wanted to restore it. “Problem is, Blairmont Associates LC’s last address is on Olive Street, and they are no longer there…”
Allen was house-shopping in Old North at the time, and he was well aware of Blairmont. The company had been buying steadily—here a parcel, there a lot—since 2003. But the Clemens Mansion? For Allen, an architectural historian then doing preservation research for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, that purchase raised the ante.
He posted the ad on his Ecology of Absence blog (eco-absence.org).
By November 2005, he had an address for Blairmont Associates. Strangely enough, it wasn’t a business address. It was the private residence of Roberta Defiore, who’d signed as an agent on some of Blairmont’s purchases.
A month later, someone registering as “Anonymous” commented on Eco-Absence: “TIME TO START NAMING NAMES: The name I have heard is that Blairmont is a front for Paul McKee. I have no idea if that is true…Michael, who do you think Blairmont is?”
Allen keyed back, “I don’t know. Who are you?”
The next puzzle piece slid into place on December 18, when one of Allen’s neighbors (by now he’d bought in Old North and begun stripping and scrubbing) happened to read the July 15 Quarterly Report of the Jordan W. Chambers 19th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. Lo and behold, a list of real-estate holding companies that had made political contributions—including Blairmont Associates and McEagle Properties—all shared the same address. Paul McKee’s office address.
“What is the exact link?” Allen wondered aloud. “And what is the plan for such a large area of the city?”
Three days later, he tried a direct plea: “If a Blairmont agent is reading, consider the smallest gesture of contact—a call to the head of a neighborhood group or a meeting with an alderperson. Those of us living in the near North Side don’t want to stop something good—but we don’t have any reason to believe that what you are proposing is good. Dialogue might resolve the fears and animosity.”
“Anonymous” posted a comment the following week: “You don’t think the Post is complicit in a conspiracy to establish a hero image for Mr. McKee as precursor for some big NorthSide ‘reclamation’ project, do you?”
The question hung there. Allen kept close watch, and Old North’s rehabbers monitored the buying. Architect Rob Powers posted “A Daily Dose of Blairmont,” documenting, with photographs, statistics and historical research, just about every change on the near North Side. Online speculation flared and subsided.
A year went by.
Finally, in January 2007, The Riverfront Times came out with a story, “Phantom of the Hood,” that took Allen’s deduction a step further. The St. Louis Business Journal followed in February, writing in its usual calm tone about McKee and Blairmont. On June 17, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it all together in a front-page story: “A tax-credit bill for one man? Developer Paul McKee helped draft a $100 million tax-credit program. Residents and lawmakers decry secrecy of land purchases and legislation.”
McKee grumbled about being “flushed,” which forced him to stop acquiring land and start mending fences. But the mystery was solved. Everybody settled back to wait for the dramatic denouement, when the Board of Aldermen would gather in the parlor to decide McKee’s fate…
But in June 2008, a new buyer surfaced.
Harvey Noble, the same agent who had bought so many properties for McKee, had now registered a new company: Urban Assets. Soon UA was purchasing dilapidated properties on the North Side, some of them gorgeous near-mansions crying out to be restored. The acquisitions were just west of the McKee development’s footprint.
Some speculated that it was McKee, up to his old tricks. “It smells like him,” one onlooker remarked.
McKee denied it categorically, agreeing with those who guessed the Roberts Brothers. Recently featured on CNN’s Black in America, Michael and Steve Roberts are city developers whose holdings are worth an estimated $1 billion. “They’re doing the same thing,” McKee says, “and nobody picked on them!”
In February 2009, Noble registered six goofily-named holding companies—Diligent Property LLC, Feasible Projects LLC, Incentive Properties LLC, Marketable Property LLC, Premises Property LLC, Prudent Investor LLC.
By June 2009, Urban Assets owned about 240 properties on the North Side. By fall 2009, only two of the newer companies were acquiring—but their properties were, again, on the North Side, west of the McKee footprint. Allen posted one of the warranty deeds on Ecology of Absence: a transfer of property from Steven C. Roberts to Diligent Properties, Harvey Noble, agent.
Did it mean anything? Roberts had owned the house for years; maybe he was ready to unload it and the mystery-buyer came along at the right time. Or maybe it was a transfer designed to remove his name from the pool of possible developers. Heck, maybe Noble himself was Urban Assets, investing in land he knew was about to increase in value because of McKee’s project.
Setting the new mystery aside for the time being, what’s Allen’s take—is McKee the diabolical capitalist he’s been portrayed to be?
Nah. He’s a little cocky—but “part of development is convincing people that something that isn’t true yet is true now.”
He’s wedded to his own vision—but it’s as altruistic as it is stubborn.
“There’s a lot of good intentions there,” Allen says. “At least, they seem like good intentions to him. But he’s in a framework in which those good intentions are so intertwined with personal gain that the line blurs.
“There are a lot more ruthless and evil developers out there than Paul McKee,” Allen continues. “The biggest problem with him is that he doesn’t listen to good advice. Preserve the historic buildings first. Do the maintenance. Be open about your plans. Split the project into smaller chunks. Make amends with the Board of Aldermen. Work with Old North Restoration Group.
“Everyone from City Hall to me to Rodney Hubbard, we were trying to help the guy, and he just couldn’t take a hint.”
Forced to the table, McKee eventually took most of that advice—but he could have avoided a lot of battle scars if he’d listened at the start.
“It’s hard to be sympathetic,” Allen says. “But it would be even harder to see the plan go up in smoke. Because if Paul McKee fails because of his own blind spots, he’s going to tell a lot of developers and politicians that it just can’t be done in North St. Louis, and that’ll provide cover for another generation of apathy.”