by Tom Finkel
A whole lot of people in north St. Louis know who Paul McKee is, but not many have made his acquaintance.
The publicity-shy McKee has acquired hundreds of lots and buildings in the neighborhoods of Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou. But much to his neighbors’ consternation, he has yet to say what he has in mind for his burgeoning real estate portfolio.
That might change next week.
McKee is scheduled to appear at an October 25 meeting at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Hyde Park, at the invitation of Metropolitan Congregations United, a coalition of civic-minded churches. The meeting is open to the public.
Organizers of the event say the developer, whose under-the-radar dealings have been addressed on numerous occasions in Riverfront Times (including here, here and here), accepted their invitation, but they're not guaranteeing anything.
“He definitely knows about it and has it penciled in, so we’ll see,” says MCU director Katie Jansen.
MCU has seen to it that if he comes, McKee won't be pelted with questions.
“We script these things very carefully. He knows he won’t get killed,” assures Holy Trinity's pastor, Rev. Richard Creason.
Creason says McKee's appearance will be the last item on the evening's agenda. After the developer discusses his vision for north St. Louis, a representative from MCU will outline the group’s four development principles and ask McKee whether he is committed to them. Those principles:
showing respect for urban character not displacing people providing affordable, mixed-income housing inviting community participation
Creason says there will be no Q&A but that guests are welcome to try to buttonhole McKee afterward.
The looming question for north St. Louis is to what extent McKee might use eminent domain. Homes and businesses in some areas are surrounded by properties owned either by McKee or by the City of St. Louis. If the city invokes eminent domain, a developer may acquire land from an uncooperative owner.
Creason says MCU has taken no position on the use of eminent domain -- and that question won’t be put to McKee on October 25.
“The goal is to get him more involved in community,” Creason says. “I think he needs to sit down at the table -- and he acknowledges this -- and talk to various neighborhood groups about his vision becoming a plan, with their participation.”
Though McKee reportedly has not settled on a plan for the land, he has met privately with Mayor Francis Slay and with MCU’s economic-development task force. He also met with board members of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and with the Post-Dispatch editorial board.
Word of McKee’s first public appearance in connection with north St. Louis is already circulating among urban enthusiasts. Michael Allen, a preservation advocate who did extensive research on McKee’s acquisitions and blogged his findings at eco-absence.org, posted a notice of MCU’s meeting on the Rehabber’s Club listserve, urging people to attend.
One of the first replies to that post was a plea for someone to give McKee a copy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Creason says MCU’s economic-development task force contacted McKee in December or January. At that time McKee pointed to his “LifeWorks” development philosophy but declined to elaborate while tax-credit legislation that would offset his costs was pending in the state legislature. (The Missouri Legislature approved a major tax credit for land acquisition during a special session this past summer.)
So, how did MCU persuade the developer to “pencil in” face time with the public?
Creason says McKee and the coalition have worked together in the past and maintain a good relationship.
Translation: McKee owes them.
McKee's company, McEagle, is part of a partnership called NorthPark that is developing a large industrial park east of Lambert International Airport. NorthPark Partners had a chance to bid on the project only after the various municipalities that controlled pieces of the more than 500 acres could agree on how to proceed.
“We did a lot of heavy lifting politically,” Creason says. “The mayors were at each other’s throats. We were the ones who held community meetings. We were the ones that negotiated among the mayors, to create a sense of peace.”
Holy Trinity is located at 3519 North 14th Street. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.