Kevin McGowan fondly recounts his first taste of living it large in downtown St. Louis. In 1996, he and two of his brothers moved into a penthouse unit on Washington Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare. You'd expect McGowan to reminisce about the breathtaking views and gorgeous interior finishes. Instead, he affectionately describes living like a vagabond—roughing it, without heat or air conditioning; trekking down a flight of stairs to use a working bathroom; taking cold showers under a makeshift shower constructed of a hose duct-taped to a one-piece tub and shower unit. And the view? Apocalyptic. Block after block of abandoned and derelict buildings.
Not exactly your typical penthouse. But McGowan and his brothers couldn't have been happier, despite the tenuous living conditions. McGowan, who moved to St. Louis in 1996, spotted the building as he drove down Washington Avenue to check out the city's downtown. “I was fascinated to see all of these buildings that looked so beautiful to me but were empty,” he says. “And the fact that the entire street could be that way for at least 10 solid blocks was amazing to me.”
Without hesitation, McGowan and his brothers bought a dilapidated seven-story, 60,000-square-foot building on Washington Avenue and promptly moved into the top floor—a.k.a. “the penthouse.” The former warehouse, built in 1903, had sat vacant for more than 10 years and needed a healthy dose of TLC. “I had a penthouse in a slum,” McGowan says rather proudly. “We wanted to live on the top floor because that is always where all the rich people live. We felt like we were it, because we bought this big building downtown.”
Little did he know that the building would be the start of his career as a multifamily developer. Initially, McGowan had no intentions of turning the building into condos or rentals for the public. After all, he wasn't a developer; he sold property insurance and fixed up single-family properties on the side. He planned to rehab the building with the help of his brothers, who would each live on a floor. But McGowan's plans changed after he discovered the financial incentives tied to state and federal historic tax credits. Using these credits, McGowan redeveloped the warehouse into market-rate apartments. When it opened in 2000, McGowan Lofts was the first loft rental mixed-use project to grace the otherwise derelict downtown.
McGowan and his brothers didn't stop there. They formed McGowan Brothers Development and in a five-year period pioneered the transformation of the city's down town with a half-million square feet of development along Washington Avenue.
“Truly I believe that Kevin, more than any individual, has led the resurgence of the city of St. Louis,” says Dennis Woldum, an investor in a handful of McGowan's projects and vice president of the St. Louis-based insurance and financial services agency Welsch, Flatness & Lutz. “The man has unbelievable energy and his enthusiasm is infectious. He is truly selling St. Louis 24 hours a day.” And his strategy works. In 2006, St. Louis had its first population increase in more than 50 years. Today, McGowan continues to fearlessly trailblaze with his work as president and CEO of Blue Urban (formerly McGowan Walsh), a firm he launched in October 2007 to take his vision to the next level. Armed with a deep understanding of the region's underpinnings, Blue Urban is redeveloping 17 historic properties throughout Missouri and Ohio and eyeing opportunities in Pennsylvania. Clearly, where there is broken glass and crumbling brick, McGowan sees energetic, livable communities capable of transforming the Midwest.
SETTING THE STAGE Friends, colleagues, and city officials alike affectionately call McGowan the “mayor of Washington Avenue.” It's a fitting nickname. McGowan was a driving force behind the street's renaissance. Stroll down Washington Avenue today, and block after block are examples of McGowan's work, from the 33-unit condo property Window Lofts to the 60-unit apartment building Fashion Square.
“It's pretty amazing what's going on,” says Chris Woldum, a project manager at Blue Urban. “People always say, ‘I don't know,' when Kevin talks about his plans, but Kevin has been right every time. He's got another dozen crazy ideas he's springing on us.”
Washington Avenue—now sparkling with colorful storefronts and gleaming building façades—was a ghost town just a decade ago. For about 15 blocks, abandoned, boarded-up buildings (mostly shoe warehouses) lined the street, which had once flourished as part of the garment district back in the 1930s and 1940s. Developers were afraid to touch Washington Avenue until McGowan came to town and revealed the neighborhood's hidden potential for residential lofts. But the potential was so deeply buried that it took McGowan months to persuade others of the redevelopment opportunities. His toughest roadblock: convincing the bank to loan him $1 million to get that first loft project off the ground.