No to the Code



The mood at a neighborhood meeting in McKinley Heights Saturday morning was tense as a Cardinals-Astros series with a pennant on the line. Some 70 to 80 residents gathered at McKinley Classical Junior Academy to hear about the local housing corporation's proposal to make a loca historic district of the neighborhood, which is bounded by Gravois Avenue, Jefferson Avenue and Interstate 44. It's a plan five years in the making.

Michael Burns, treasurer of the McKinley Heights Housing Corporation, opened the meeting by saying: "This is not by any means a done deal."

But some in the crowd immediately disagreed. Homeowner Liz Zelenka attempted to the take the floor and present a request for information as to how the housing corp. assembled the proposal and whether its four members did so in violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law. Burns refused to hand over the microphone, prompting Alderwoman Phyllis Young to jump from her seat and run interference.

When an explanatory PowerPoint presentation by Kate Shea, director of the city's Cultural Resources Office, finally got under way a few minutes later, Shea found herself chiding some of the attendees as if they were schoolchildren.

"I make it a practice never to interrupt people when they're speaking, because I learned as a young child that was impolite," Shea scolded a gentleman who asked for a clarification. Later, to the same man, she added: "You're going to let me finish talking, Mister. You're so rude -- unbelievably rude."

On the heels of a rehabbing and real estate boom, many formerly shabby St. Louis neighborhoods have acquired historic-district status in recent years. Benton Park did so just last month, making it the fifteenth such area in town; two are located on the north side (the Ville and Hyde Park); the remainder in the south.

Historic-district status offers to investors and homeowners an array of state and federal tax credits, and, according to Shea, stabilizes property values while it preserves architectural stock.

But the designation is enforced with a strict code for new construction, renovations and demolitions. The city's Cultural Resources Office must approve any adjustment to a building's exterior. "Eighty percent of all permit applications are approved by my office over the counter," Shea stressed.

Problems that come about are quickly rectified, she added. The Lafayette Square neighborhood, for instance, "went ballistic" recently after a townhome builder, unaware of that historic district's building code, placed utility meters in front of his properties, according to Shea. (He had to reinstall the gauges on the side of the homes.)

Opponents grumbled that stricter rules are likely to increase the cost of living, and gentrification of the mixed-race and mixed-income area will ensue. Mostly, though, the proposal's foes were enraged that they won't get to vote on the matter.

"It's being railroaded on us," said Donna Drew, who owns two properties in the neighborhood.

Alderwoman Phyllis Young said homeowners will have time to suggest design changes to the draft code before it goes to the city's Preservation Board for approval. Once Young has its OK, she'll introduce an ordinance to the Board of Aldermen to ratify the district. Two public hearings are part of the process.

After the meeting, opponents indicated they would fight the historic classification in court if it garners aldermanic approval. Mark Reed, president of the neighborhood housing corporation, said many of the naysayers haven't pulled their weight in the neighborhood: "Unfortunately, most of the negative information has been disseminated by people who have a lot to lose." -Kristen Hinman


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