Features
6:39 am
Mon February 25, 2013

While Northside Waits, Clemens House Crumbles

A huge redevelopment project on St. Louis’ north side has been in a holding pattern for years.

A lawsuit challenged the city’s authorization of millions of dollars in tax incentives for the 1,500-acre development “Northside Regeneration.”

The Missouri Supreme Court could rule on the case as early as Tuesday.

But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports, the years of waiting for work to begin have left questions about whether developer Paul McKee can really pull off his expansive plan.

The Mark Twain Connection

On St. Louis’ near north side there sits a boarded-up mansion with a lot of history behind it.

The Clemens House was built by Mark Twain’s uncle in 1860.

Just four years ago it was to be the very first project in Paul McKee’s massive redevelopment.

The grounds are littered with bricks and even a portion of the portico that was taken off the mansion.
The grounds are littered with bricks and even a portion of the portico that was taken off the mansion.
Credit (Maria Altman/St. Louis Public Radio)

Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office, says today the property is in disarray.

“We have pieces of the house strewn about, bricks piled up, bricks on pallets, bricks thrown all over the place,” he said while recently walking on the mansion grounds.

Allen says city and state government officials have handed over plenty of tax incentives to McKee, but the developer has yet to deliver.

He says Clemens House as a prime example.

“The thought that the owner has received $40 million in state tax credits, you wouldn’t believe it looking at the place.”

A Symbolic Start

Back in November 2009 the mansion’s future seemed bright. 

"A lot of people thought we were going to abandon places like this. That's why it's so symbolic to begin here." - Paul McKee

It served as a backdrop when St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed legislation authorizing hundreds of millions in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for McKee’s Northside Regeneration. 

At the event McKee promised a $13 million rehab of the Clemens House.

“A lot of people thought we were going to abandon places like this. That’s why it’s so symbolic to begin here,” McKee said at the time.

But no rehab took place or any other ground-breaking.

Creating Jobs And The Waiting Game

Instead, McKee awaits the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in hopes the ruling will free up $390 million in TIFs authorized by the city.

While the developer has received $40 million in state tax credits this month he returned to Jefferson City telling legislators he needs to buy more land.

“I don’t know how to create jobs without land,” McKee told a state House committee. “This land assemblage tax credit is the pathway to assembling land in the heart of our worst urban core in the heart of the north side of St. Louis.

McKee points to his previous developments in St. Louis County that attracted big businesses like Mastercard at Winghaven and Express Scripts at North Park.

The corner of Grand Blvd. and Cass Ave. where a Dollar General is slated to be built.
The corner of Grand Blvd. and Cass Ave. where a Dollar General is slated to be built.
Credit (Maria Altman/St. Louis Public Radio)

But instead of big business campuses the first project in North St. Louis is on a much more modest scale.

A Dollar General store is now planned just a few blocks west of the Clemens House.

Mayor Slay’s chief of staff Jeff Rainford says McKee is waiting on his bigger plans.

“Until the TIF is restored you’re not going to see anything that’s going to be Northside Regeneration,” Rainford said. “Really until you see a TIF in place and potentially the Land Assembly Tax Credit renewed that’s not his vision and you won’t see his vision until those things happen.”

Macro Plans vs. "Micro Solutions"

Meanwhile Michael Allen says the mansion’s roof has suffered two collapses and an adjoining chapel likely can’t be saved.

He wishes someone else could buy the property from McKee.

“This is just one of many examples where his ownership is preventing a micro solution from emerging and that’s the whole problem with the scale of his project,” he said.

Allen just hopes the Clemens House won’t disintegrate further while St. Louis waits for Paul McKee’s vision to become a reality.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman