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'Passionate Visionary' develops spaces that are both green and historic in south St. Louis

Patty Maher inside building on Wyoming.
Thomas Crone | for the Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2013: For the better part of the past decade, a historic structure on the corner of Wyoming Street and Arkansas Avenue was abandoned, left to the elements as boards came and went from windows. The first floor was sealed but the second floor was open, subjecting the building to rain, snow and cold.

For developer Patty Maher, that situation has been a blessing, not a curse.

With work crews fully engaged on the project, Maher has set her sights on the conjoined 3455 and 3457 Wyoming St. as her only rehab project of 2013. Her plan is to turn the one-time laundromat and multi-unit residential space into two townhomes, priced at $199,000 each. She’s a constant visitor to the site, going through the brick beauty daily. She has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of every section, every loose step.

And that’s how she knows that the second floor actually benefitted from those open windows.

"There was air and movement on the second floor. The open air up there has kept things from rotting," she said.

This structure was arguably the single-biggest black mark against the neighborhood in which it sits. It is in the heart of a densely-populated corner of the city’s Tower Grove East neighborhood.

"This was a building that was built to last 100 years," Maher said. "With this rehab, it’ll be good for another 100 years."

But just as Maher is aware of the many rooms and sub-sections of this once commercial-and-residential building, other folks also came to know it, too. The homeless found shelter in the old building. When demo crews arrived, a bed, a folded-up sleeping bag, a cell phone and a new backpack were among the items scattered within a couple feet of the windows on the second floor. On the first floor, where there’s less light, another squatter had set-up shop with a mattress, boxes of food and other sundries. Mahler’s found hypoderic needles in the space and there’s no telling how many people might be crashing in the rooms during the nighttime hours.

"When demo began, the crew got here just before I did," she recalls. "A couple (of the squatters) walked out looking bedraggled. They put on backpacks, walked up to Grand and got lost in the humanity."

When projects arise in St. Louis, there’s often a worry that developers don’t have a sense of the locality; in city terms, being from a few miles away can set off small alarms. But Maher lives just five blocks from her concern. She’s conscious that "this was the last major board-up in this area. A few years ago, you might have found 20."

She completed a recent project a block away, at 3434 Humphrey St., and she’s worked in neighborhoods such as Forest Park Southeast, Benton Park and Fox Park. While Maher goes to pains to note that she’s not responsible for the turnaround in those neighborhoods, she has often been on the scene just as an area is about to break for the good. Her enthusiasm for tackling a major development project hasn’t flagged.

Maher doesn’t shy from challenges. She was one of the few women taking classes at Ranken Technical College in the 1970s, and the first woman in her department at McDonnell-Douglas in the 1980s. Now she’s the contractor on jobs that feature craftsmen with years of service in the field.

"And, mind you, this is after going to Mizzou for philosophy in the early ‘70s," she said.

Building a new home in a 100-year-old shell

That mix of backgrounds might explain her joy during the project acquisition phase. That’s "the fun part: getting the banks, getting the loans. Once we close, we fly. We rock’n’roll with as good a crew of craftspeople as you’re going to get." In turn, neighbors love that she’s around.

"To say this has been a long road is a major understatement. As you are no doubt well aware, this building has been a major eyesore for way too long," Christian Saller, a longtime neighborhood activist and advocate wrote, in response to an email. "Patty has a great track record as a developer."

Maher is faced with "building a new home in a 100-year old shell," and there’s a lot of financial work going into this deal’s viability.

For starters, there’s the matter of picking up the building’s option from the city of St. Louis for one dollar. That seeming give-away is a win for the city. It gets one gutted building off of the city’s extensive roster of the same and it gets the project into the hands of an experienced developer who has a sense of the surroundings, of what the market will bear and what this corner of the city needs. With Grand Boulevard just a block away, Maher wants this space to be more than housing. For example, the westward-facing, outer property holds some appeal for a possible first-floor gallery or shop.

More importantly, in her mind, is a commitment to a fully-green rehab.

"We could afford to have another dozen green developers working in the city," she said. "It’s so worth it. Why would we do it any other way, in this day and age?"

She hands off a flyer, sketching out the main, green additions to this from-scratch build-out, a list that includes everything from fully-foamed walls to Energy Star-rated windows to all-new, energy-efficient HVAC units. She says that the process could be done much more cheaply and, to some degree more quickly, if she didn’t add these elements.

"I could save myself $20,000 on each side if I didn’t do it that way," she says. "Maybe I’m not a great businesswoman, but I am a passionate visionary. Since 2007, I’ve only done my buildings green. That’s my niche: I do green and historical, from the basement to the roof. I’m building it this way, but if a buyer came to me now and wanted to add geo-thermal elements, we could do it. I’m coming from a place that would say ‘right on’ to that."

A huge believer in Missouri’s historic tax credits, Maher says that "I wouldn’t be in the game, I wouldn’t be in it at all, without them. Let’s say that I put $200,000 into each of the sides (of the building), I’ll get $25,000 each back in tax credits. So that might be $50,000, or it might be a little less; say, $46,000 or $47,000. Well, that allows me to tackle the project.The other $150,000 is going to job creation. I’m hiring architects, roofers, painters, insulation people."

Maher argues that the tax credits have often been cast in terms of urban vs. rural and that critics have looked at the tax benefits as serving only city populations. Her contention is the credits could help revitalize a historic, rural bank, grocery store or livery just as effectively as a corner storefront in the middle of inner-city St. Louis.

"This is important policy for small towns, too," Maher said.