Benign Neglect Part III: The mystery of Paul McKee

Benign Neglect Part III: The mystery of Paul McKee

ST. LOUIS PLACE – A big part of what is viewed as “today’s story” of north St. Louis comes with one of our city’s most perplexing set of questions: Just who is Paul McKee, and what is he trying to accomplish?

Is he the man who set the table for the largest investment the north side has ever seen? Or is he the man who bought up more than a thousand properties and let most of them rot? Is he the visionary who sees hope for the north side and has said so with his pocketbook? Or is he a profiteer who has been part of putting families out of their homes?

In one way or another, the answer to all these questions, in some form or another, is “yes.”

Despite repeated requests, Paul McKee declined to be interviewed for this story.

Jerrie Whitaker lives on Madison Street, north of downtown.  She wasn’t aware who the owner of the lot next door is, but, in fact, it’s Paul McKee. He owns the vacant buildings adjacent to it as well. The “who” is not nearly as important to Whitaker as the “what.”

“It’s horrible,” she said of the conditions next to the apartment house she lives in. “They don’t want to come and cut it. They wait till it grows up so high that the babies can go and hide and you can’t find them.”

McKee’s quiet ownership and lack of maintenance are a signature, according to critics. They say it’s the way he has tried to clear property and accumulate large tracts of north-side land to develop.

That’s a strategy that goes all the way back to the “Team Four” plan of the 1970s. Activist Percy Green says it’s all too familiar.

“Some citizens in the community kept their property up, but then the property next to it was allowed to deteriorate, bringing the property value down of the property next to it,” he said. “Then those people were being constantly annoyed, that you better move out before your property value deteriorates even more than what it is now, because it will be down to practically nothing. So those tactics were used to force people out.”

Some call it “blockbusting.” Among them is Washington University professor Michael Allen.

“Blockbusting, I think also in this case, was how McKee was able to depress property values,” he said in an interview. “To scare people. Because if you’re the last person on the block and every other building is being broken into or burned down, it’s scary. It’s dangerous. It’s not safe.”

Allen would know.  He has spent years unraveling the mystery of Paul McKee.   It’s a mystery that dates back to about 2005 when Allen was with the city’s Landmarks Division. He noticed that many buildings were being bought up by different companies in north city but that they all had something in common.

“It’s like 50 properties show up, all over a very concentrated area just north of downtown,” he remembered. “Then I punch in a mailing address. Six other companies sharing the same address of a downtown real estate office, buying in the same area.”

He blew the whistle, and soon the name “Paul McKee” was becoming well known.

As it became clear that McKee was buying up property with shell companies, and there was no longer a need for secrecy, the developer conducted a merger. State records show him consolidating 13 different outfits in 2009. Who owned them all? Paul McKee was the signatory for all 13.

“I think the real reason for the clandestine buying was to avoid publicity,” Allen said. “Not because he was really worried about having to pay people. He went to the state and got a tax credit and got half the money back. So, it was more, I think, the political firestorm, because McKee was a young contractor starting out in the ’70s. He would have been well aware of ‘Team Four’ and the political blowback.”

Even today, searching for clues about McKee can be challenging. For example, if you “Google” his company, Northside Regeneration, you’ll be given an address on North 11th Street in the city. The address listed and the one appearing in city property records are different, by the way. The building has been empty when we’ve visited, and Missouri’s Secretary of State associates a St. Charles County address with the company. That address is not the one most readily available to someone searching online. Those St. Charles connections may be another reason McKee was being so hush-hush.

“I think if word had spread quickly that a wealthy white developer best known for his Winghaven development in the suburbs was buying up north St. Louis, his project would have been over before it started,” Allen surmised. “He needed the secrecy, especially to build relationships with north-side politicians.”

Third ward Alderman Brandon Bosley is one of those politicians.

“Of course I have issues with how things conspired, I have issues,” he said in reference to McKee. Asked if it appeared “shady,” he doesn’t hesitate. “Oh it’s very shady!”

Bosley, an African-American representing one of the city’s poorest areas, would seem a likely McKee nemesis, but that’s not the case. Why?

“Paul McKee took what everyone else was saying no to and said, ‘I’m going to say yes to it,’” Bosley explained. “You can be pissed off at him about it. I’ve told him before, ‘I don’t like the fact you don’t keep your properties up. I don’t like the fact you don’t cut the grass regularly.’ I have my qualms with the way he conducts business, but am I mad because he saw the diamond in the rough before anybody else? He did.”

Once he was “outed,” McKee began talking about that vision for the north side that made Bosley and some others take notice. Artist renderings of things shiny and new raised eyebrows and caused excitement. The trouble is, for the most part, these things never got past the drawing board.

Bob Lewis, the Saint Louis University professor and former Team Four consultant you heard from in our earlier reports, has also worked as a consultant for McKee.

“The Paul McKee case is a classic as a start of somebody who really wanted to do good and reinvest in St. Louis, or so it seemed,” Lewis said. “Paul, however, got caught in a situation where he really wasn’t that good at it.”

“Not good at it,” because you need to do more than just buy up the property to get a big project underway. You need community buy-in. You don’t tend to get it when the properties you own look like they’ve not been maintained for years. And that’s before you even get into the perceived efforts to hide what you’re doing.”

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t play well in community development,” Lewis said. “It looks like you’re being shady. It looks like you’re trying to hide something. His actions at the state legislature with some of the tax incentives that he got passed looked like they were only for him, which starts to look a little politically shady.”

But those upkeep issues probably proved to be his biggest downfall. McKee is accused of being a “slumlord” largely because of the fact that so many of his properties are in complete disrepair.

“When he was very, very active his tactics included, I think, intentional neglect,” Allen said of the time McKee’s acquisition project was at its peak. “He never said that was his goal, but the conditions of not cutting grass, of letting buildings get stripped. There was one night when eight buildings were burned all at once, most of them owned by his companies. And the wreckage piles were there; actually one or two of them are still there. And that was in 2008.”

The overgrown area at what was once 2621 Sullivan Ave. is one example he’s referring to. If you look back inside the weeds, you can see what is left of that house, which burned more than a decade ago and was never cleaned up.

So, for more than a decade, McKee has been gathering up property. The gas station pictured on the front of his website is the most visible, completed project. But what is underway is the place where some are giving McKee credit.

NGA West: The National Geospacial-Intelligence Agency, is being built, in part, on McKee land. The $1.7 billion campus may be the largest project in the city’s history. That’s all of the city, not just north St. Louis. And some give McKee the credit for getting it rolling.

“Hell, the mayor’s office acted like they didn’t know anything about it,” Bosley says. “This man is going around assembling all of this land and you’re going to act like it’s not happening. They never expected anything like the NGA to come. They never expected him to actually have an ability to do it. A lot of people don’t know, but Paul McKee was the one who actually petitioned and actually started the process on the NGA. It wasn’t the city of St. Louis. Had it been up to the city of St. Louis the NGA would not be here.”

Of course, not everyone sees that as a bad thing.

Gustavo Rendon and his wife were among the families displaced by the NGA project.

“We lived, 2314. That empty space is where my home used to be,” he told us on a recent evening, adjacent to the fence blocking off the NGA site.

According to the city, most sold and left willingly. But Rendon, who every Sunday night at sunset comes to the site to protest, was not one of them. He points to a letter he received from the office of then-Mayor Francis Slay in 2008 saying, among other things, that the mayor “would not support eminent domain for owner-occupied properties.” In the end, four such homes were taken.

“For a while I remember trying to avoid coming across Cass [Avenue] because it was kind of sad to remember that the house, our home, used to be there,” Rendon said. “Basically anybody that can say, ‘I can do better than what that person is doing. I can improve the public image by taking over that person’s property,’ and the city will just do it for them, you know?”

What will happen to the remainder of McKee’s properties – and there are hundreds of them – remains to be seen.  You can see an interactive map of McKee’s properties put together by St. Louis’ Landmarks Association here.

Some still hold out hope that his vision for a “regenerated” north side can be moved forward. But few believe it’s likely McKee will lead any such renaissance.

“If he could afford to build something of scale, it probably would have been occupied,” Lewis said of opportunities already passed. “My challenge to Paul was, he just never took that risk, or didn’t feel he was in a position to be able to, to build something of scale.”

Allen believes it will take McKee’s land and a different developer to achieve progress.

“I think the best hope is to figure out ways in which other projects need his properties and to facilitate sales. I mean, I think all along he was banking on the value of that land.”

Lewis still gives McKee credit for his initial concept.

“Paul had the right idea, but for whatever reasons, and I really don’t know the reasons, couldn’t pull it off and hasn’t pulled it off. And yet I think the opportunity is still there.”

But future opportunity means little when the “here and now” is an eyesore.

“Why don’t they tear them buildings down,” Jerrie Whitaker asks from her porch back on Madison. “They’re there for anybody can snatch them little babies around here. Then show some concern then. They need to do something about that. All them lots over there! Come on, now!”

She wants demolition because that seems to be the latest answer being touted around north St. Louis. But is that the best hope for the future? We’ll address that in our final report.

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