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Government, Politics & Issues

Clemens mansion may be reborn as apartments, community space

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - One of the oldest buildings in the area of the projected North Side redevelopment plan may become the first to be refurbished.

Plans for the Clemens mansion at 1849 Cass Avenue include 49 one-bedroom apartments renting for $400-600 and aimed at people age 55 and older, plus a community space that could work with institutions like the Missouri Botanical Garden and the History Museum.

Robert Wood Realty will collaborate with Paul McKee's McEagle Properties on the $13 million project, said Dan Holak of the Wood company. They have applied to the Missouri Housing Development Commission for 9 percent low-income tax credits; if the credits are approved, Holak said, the project could move forward next summer with a 12-month construction schedule.

A spokesman for the Housing Development Commission said its staff would make recommendations for approval of applications in February.

Holak said without the credit, the renovation would not be able to go forward.

"Any market user would not pay a rate that would allow the project to be developed without the tax credit," he said.

The Clemens property dates back to the 1850s and was believed built by a member of the family of the Missouri man who became known worldwide as Mark Twain. Over the years, it has served as a home, a convent and the headquarters for several social services organizations before falling into disrepair.

In the late 1800s, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who had bought the property in 1885, added a chapel to the east of the original building.

As the property began to deteriorate, it was one of the first of many parcels bought by McKee in the footprint of his NorthSide regeneration project, which has now won initial approval from the Board of Aldermen. Earlier this year, McKee said he had removed and stored some of the ornamental iron work so it could be put back into place when the property was restored.

Holak said Wood, which renovated the Franklin School at 19th and Delmar into apartments, would do a similar transformation with the Clemens property.

"We created not only a quality living space but a community space," he said.

He said discussions with the History Museum and the Botanical Garden have centered on using the community space for events, gardens and other purposes.

"There's going to be a combination here of preservation and affordability, education and philanthropic involvement," Holak said.

"Obviously this is a building that has extreme historical significance, not only to the neighborhood but to the city as a whole. It includes a lot of the aspects that Paul has talked about in the project, like community and educational opportunities and preservation of an important architectural artifact."

Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, D-5th Ward, welcomed news that the Clemens property could be on its way to being renovated.

"I think what they're proposing is a good development," she said. "One building is a landmark, and the other would be a museum, which is something we've been talking about. It's a great fit."

She also praised the fact that McKee is not waiting for use of the tax-increment financing that has been approved for the first two phases of the massive $8 billion redevelopment before proceeding with the Clemens work, which is outside the first two project areas.

"They're taking the initiative to find others ways to pay for it, besides the TIF," she said. "They're reaching out to the state and federal levels to get all kinds of sources that are available to get redevelopment going in the area. They can't just depend on the city's resources to make projects happen, or we'll be forever trying to get something done."

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