Botanical Garden Wants to Grow Into Neighbor's Property

To most people, a botanical garden is a beautiful greenhouse of trees and flowers for all to see and publicly enjoy. But to the locals of a quaint St. Louis area neighborhood known as “McRee Town,” the Missouri Botanical Garden became a source of conflict and stress.

More than 300 historic buildings encompassed McRee Town, just outside downtown St. Louis. The property owners put special significance on their little township, who saw it as a haven for certain folks who wouldn’t have been able to afford a decent place to live anywhere else.

Beginning in 2000, the Missouri Botanical Gardens saw the low-income status of the locals as their opportunity to stake their claim in the prime real-estate area and labeled it “blighted” in order to get their unfair share of the pie.

Renamed for its grandiose redevelopment project, McRee Town became “Botanical Heights,” headed by McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation (MRTC) and the Botanical Gardens.

But to one outraged citizen who refused to get along with the City’s eminent domain attempts, Botanical Heights was merely the bulldozing of trees to make way for…more trees. The plan was to put single-family homes in place of the property, priced between $130,000 and $350,000, as well as an expansion of the Gardens.[1]

In 1973, William Peppes planted baby locust trees all around his property and nursed them proudly for 30 years. But after federal approval in 2000 for HB 3405, $2 million worth of HUD funding was pumped into McRee Town[2], allowing eminent domain to be used as MRTC built new single-family homes.

The Missouri Botanical Gardens mission statement is clear, as they claim to possess “knowledge of plants and the environment, in order to preserve and enrich life.” [3]  But they certainly weren’t following their mission in 2003, when bulldozers plowed their way through the neighborhood with little regard for the history, nor for the care and passion Peppes had put into his property and mature locust trees. The hypocritical redevelopment continued even as Peppes and a few other neighbors refused to back down from the government’s threats of eminent domain.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” proclaimed Peppes. “I nurtured those trees for more than 30 years. They were marked ‘Private Property.’ But it didn’t matter. Just like that, they were gone.” [4]

Peppes’ family has owned the property since 1952 and to him, the plot of land was more than just a place to call home—it was a precious family heirloom.

“My family has owned this land for 54 years,” said Peppes. “It’s not for sale.”[5]

Peppes was so determined to hang on to his property in McRee that he even defeated MTRC’s attempt to kick him off his lot. In July of 2004 the City offered him a measly $8,500 to move out and start his life completely anew someplace else.

By November of 2004, the City grew impatient with Peppes’ refusal to move out of the only home he had ever known.  MTRC attempted to sue the steadfast property owner, but they soon learned that they were dealing with a citizen who simply wouldn’t let the government trample all over him and his rights.

Peppes had intended to do some of his own redevelopment all along, which included plans for a small bar and some renewal to parts of his home that would provide shelter for some low-income renters. He also pointed to the fact that the City’s own ordinance had been completely ignored, one that allowed private property owners to do their own redevelopment.

By June of 2005, Peppes had been so vocal in his fight to keep his own property—and to do with it as he pleased—that MTRC was forced to withdraw its eminent domain threat.

Peppes turned around and sued MTRC for $25,000 worth of property damage for bulldozing his precious locust trees—and won. To boot, he added another $15,000 claim to the suit to order MTRC to pay his legal fees.[6]

William Peppes’ dedication and passion prevailed in the end—he still lives on his property, and plans to re-plant the trees and even a garden space he wants the public to enjoy. His story should be inspiring to all who are fighting eminent domain abuse. This wonderful example shows that when hard-working citizens stands up to the government and to big-business developers, they can win.

[1] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[2] Community Development Grant, HB 3405.

[3] Miss. Botanical Gardens ‘About’ Page, Retrieved August 15, 2006.

[4] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[5] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[6] Ibid.

Other Sources:

City of St. Louis, Development Activity: McRee Town Phase II,, April 22, 2005.

Shelley Smithson, “The Greening of McRee Town,” Riverfront Times, August 10, 2003.