Paul McKee amassed more than 250 acres in north St. Louis as part of his $8 billion redevelopment plan.
In June the City of St. Louis announced that McKee's Northside Regeneration had defaulted on its agreement with the city after nearly a decade. McKee vehemently denies that.
St. Louis Public Radio examined two specific accountability measures included in those agreements that were ostensibly meant to track maintenance and complaints for McKee’s properties. What the reporting found was that only portions of the requirements were met, and the city did little to ensure that the developer followed through completely.
When Northside Regeneration bought more than 1,200 properties from the city’s land bank in 2012, the city put checks in place. The sale agreement outlined a Property Maintenance Plan that required Northside Regeneration to set up a database and hire an ombudsman to manage the database and properties.
In 2014, the city reached another agreement with Northside Regeneration expanding the Property Maintenance Plan requirements to all Northside Regeneration-owned properties — roughly 2,000 parcels.
Identical language in both the 2012 and 2014 agreements describes the ombudsman as someone “independent from his or her employer” and who “shall possess appropriate neighborhood knowledge.” The ombudsman would live and work in the neighborhood. Northside Regeneration would pay the ombudsman.
Duties would include:
- Organizing property maintenance
- Inspecting properties at least every four weeks, except in cold weather
- Receiving complaints from residents
- Responding to complaints
- Keeping a log that includes date and time of the complaint and Northside Regeneration’s response
- Notifying inspectors and aldermen of complaints within two days
- Respond to complaints or citations received from city inspectors
Northside Regeneration was “responsible for notifying neighborhood associations and residents” about the maintenance complaint process, and creating a “simple system” to help residents contact the ombudsman.
McKee hired Delonia Winston, a former St. Louis building inspector and longtime resident of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, for the role in 2011. Winston, 71, has a lifetime of familiarity with the north St. Louis neighborhoods in the Northside Project Area, which covers sections of the Carr Square, JeffVanderLou, St. Louis Place and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods, in an area far larger than Forest Park.
Winston said that many neighbors know her because she’s lived in the area for years, and that people recognize her as a Northside Regeneration employee.
“Everybody knows where I am, everybody knows to call me and I’ll solve the problem. If somebody calls me with a problem, I’m on it right then and there. I don’t hesitate,” she told St. Louis Public Radio.
The St. Louis building commissioner’s office reports a positive relationship with Winston. Building Commissioner Frank Oswald, who manages inspectors and building-related issues in St. Louis, said Winston has helped manage grass-cutting problems that sprang up as McKee purchased properties. He called her “very accessible” and easy to reach.
“She is extremely responsive if we ask her to get a building secured,” Oswald said.
Who took complaints; the city or the ombudswoman?
Yet residents active within the Northside Regeneration footprint say that while they knew Winston attended community meetings, her role was never explained. Several said Northside Regeneration did not notify them that Winston was taking property complaints, as the agreement instructed.
“We were always told [by elected officials] that if you have a problem with a property in your neighborhood, especially the Northside Regeneration property, call the Citizens' Service Bureau,” said Sheila Rendon, a lifelong resident of the St. Louis Place neighborhood and vocal critic of McKee.
St. Louis Public Radio contacted the aldermen for the four wards that contain the bulk of Northside properties; none responded.
The station also contacted organizers for the three neighborhood associations run by local residents. Brian Krueger of St. Louis Place Community Association said that Winston was “visible” and “fairly well known” to residents around the neighborhood. But he wouldn’t have identified her as an “independent” ombudsman or associated her with all the duties in the 2014 agreement.
“Not wanting to sound tacky, she’s like a girl Friday,” he said. “If I have a real estate question, I call her first. If there’s a grass-cutting issue, I call her first. She’s like a customer service rep.”
Asked if he knew that she was the primary point-person to direct property complaints towards, he responded, “I don’t know about that.” He said that he encourages residents to report complaints to both the Citizens' Service Bureau and Winston.
But organizers for associations in JeffVanderLou and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods said that neither they, longtime attendees nor their association boards were aware that Winston was supposed to take property complaints.
McKee said he finds that hard to believe.
“The whole community knows that Delonia’s here and that’s what she does,” McKee said. “We go to community meetings, and then we respond to emails.”
Asked how neighbors would know about Winston’s role, McKee said, “From community meetings,” and added, “We’ve gone to jillions of community meetings in the last five years.”
Yet he acknowledged that there was “not really” a formal announcement, email or flyer that notified residents of her role. They hand out business cards at community meetings, he said.
Northside Regeneration’s website shows little information about how to make a property complaint directly to the company.
Winston appears as a “Regeneration Coordinator” on the website of Lafser & Associates, a historic preservation consulting firm that has worked with Northside Regeneration. On Lafser’s website, the email listed for Winston misspells her last name and bounces back if written as-is. Her profile is the only one on the Lafser website that does not have a photo.
McKee suggested that residents aren’t listening to his instructions about how to solve problems with Northside Regeneration properties.
“Usually when we get complaints, we beg the people to call us direct, but they call the city because they think they’re getting us in trouble,” McKee said. “No matter how hard we work to get them to call us direct,” he said people keep calling the Citizens' Service Bureau and inspectors.
After interviewing with St. Louis Public Radio, Winston provided a reporter an extra business card to provide to anyone who didn’t know how to reach her.
The Property Maintenance Plan included in both the 2012 and 2014 agreements also required Northside Regeneration to create an “online electronic database.”
According to the agreements, the database should record:
- Complaints made to inspectors and the ombudsman
- Inspections conducted on the properties by inspectors and the ombudsman
- Actions taken to solve any problems
- The timing of responses to complaints, citations, negative inspection reports and solutions
It was also supposed to “be available to” multiple people and city agencies, including the inspectors, alderpersons elected to serve the Northside project area, the Citizens' Service Bureau, neighborhood stabilization officers and multiple individuals at St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
But officials at the building commissioner’s office, which oversees the inspectors, said they had never heard of such a database.
“I think we would’ve used it, but I’m sure we have never had it offered to us — if it exists,” said Oswald. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe that was ever provided.”
St. Louis Public Radio first filed a Sunshine request for the documents, but were told the city did not retain documents responsive to the request. The station asked all the city departments that were named explicitly in the agreement. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said it was unaware of such a database, and city officials said the Citizens' Service Bureau does not have the records.
But McKee pointed to spreadsheets kept at Northside Regeneration’s office at 1701 N. 11th St., as fulfilling the agreement’s requirement for a database.
In McKee's presence, Winston showed St. Louis Public Radio a spreadsheet noting lawn cut dates, which she uses to pay small contractors who mow the more than 1,600 properties that Northside Regeneration owns. Other spreadsheets include records of buildings that are boarded up, existing structures and a property list.
According to McKee, the database can be viewed by anyone who makes an appointment to meet Winston in person at the Northside Regeneration office.
Yet McKee declined to allow a St. Louis Public Radio reporter to copy the spreadsheets after viewing them in person. He cited concerns that if publicized, the information could be used by rival developers. He gave the same explanation for why the database was not available online.
Asked twice how and where Northside recorded complaints, a major part of the requirements regarding the database, McKee was evasive.
Winston described her complaint volume as “not a lot.” About the same three people call each month, she said, and she receives a few additional complaints on top of those.
By contrast, the Citizens' Service Bureau recorded more than 840 complaints from January 2017 to August 18, 2018, associated with addresses that Northside Regeneration included on a property ownership list dated October 2017.
McKee told reporters to direct future inquiries to Winston through him and responded himself to follow-up emails sent to Winston.
The Property Maintenance Plan made Northside Regeneration responsible for keeping extensive online records. It tasked the company with communicating clearly with SLDC and residents. It offered residents a "simple system" to reach a point-person in their neighborhood who would coordinate with the city to solve complaints.
But in practice, the database was not kept online, and the city received and recorded the bulk of residents’ complaints directly, then routed them to Winston.
SLDC officials said that they could not provide an interview because of ongoing lawsuits. However, they answered a few questions by email through the City Counselor’s office. John Parker, SLDC's director of corporate communications and media, wrote that the agency had known about the database since 2012.
“However, it was to be maintained online,” he wrote. “Whether City or SLDC staff or others chose to use [sic] in later years is irrelevant. The fact remains that it does not appear to be online at this time.”
According to SLDC officials, ultimately Northside Regeneration bore responsibility for maintaining records and fulfilling the agreement. Though, wrote Parker, “typically SLDC would monitor the responses.”
Parker said that regular communication between Northside Regeneration and SLDC in 2012-2014 “caused SLDC staff to believe information was being provided when required and would continue to be made available. That is no longer the case.”
McKee said he wasn’t aware of a specific person at the city who would have checked the database or enforced the agreement’s terms. McKee also said that he and Winston maintain the spreadsheets to “protect ourselves,” noting that the mowing records could prevent the city from claiming that the work wasn’t done.
“Nobody ever looks at the list, I promise you, except us,” said McKee.
Rendon, who has watched her neighborhood change since McKee began buying up property more than a decade ago, said that it didn’t surprise her that SLDC had not enforced accountability checks for Northside Regeneration.
“SLDC, LRA, LCRA, all these entities that are under the same umbrella have been allowed to walk hand-in-hand with Paul McKee,” she said.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin
More: View the Property Maintenance Plan on page 84 of the 2014 Amended and Restated Redevelopment Agreement.