Report: St. Louis Leads the Way in Central City Development

{new residential and commercial construction in Lafayette Square}

The headline purposefully contradicts that written by Tim Logan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Report: Despite improvement, St. Louis still lags many cities in central city development“. Here’s why mine is just as good and more importantly why the report actually fails to tell us anything at all.

Tim’s premise, the “nut” of a new report from the US EPA that tracks building permits in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, is that compared to other cities, our central city is not “re-growing nearly as fast”. The study seeks to compare the share of new construction permits issued by central cities and core suburban communities to those issued by suburban and exurban communities.

Even based on the incomplete and therefore misleading data in the study, St. Louis could be said to be “leading the way.” Of the 28 cities listed in the study, 17 saw a slower rate of increase in “central city and core suburban community” building permits issued. In St. Louis, compared to the period between 2003-2008, the year 2008 saw a 40% increase in “central city and core suburban community” building permits issued compared to suburban and exurban communities. Even more impressive, comparing 1990-1995 to 2008, the percent increase jumps to a whopping 87.5%, a rate higher than all but Miami and Baltimore. Clearly those two cities have experienced growth for different reasons over the past two decades and understanding their growth would require more information. So that’s the simple explanation as to why St. Louis can be considered to be leading the way in urban renewal. Pretty straightforward, I think.

But my explanation of the numbers is as meaningless as one that would purport to show St. Louis lagging other cities in central city development. The crux of the issue is the report’s definition and determination of “central city and core suburban community”. The study establishes the following methodology:

County-level summary files provided totals for suburban counties. However, since many urban core counties include both developed and undeveloped land, it was important to reach below the county level. Therefore, the “permit issuing place” files were organized by region to assemble permit data for each individual jurisdiction within urban core counties. Two kinds of jurisdictions were of particular importance: central cities and urban core suburbs. The latter group is important since many larger metropolitan regions do have suburban communities that are essentially built out. Therefore, increased construction activity in these places primarily consists of redevelopment. Two criteria were used to identify such communities: 1) the land area of the jurisdiction did not significantly increase between the 1990 and 2000 Censuses; and 2) the community was within 5 miles of the central city or within a clear regional boundary, such as a beltway interstate, separating expanding suburbs from hemmed-in urban core suburbs.

That would seem to define at least the area inside the I-270 belt as the “central city and core suburban community” of St. Louis. It doesn’t. By definition, the “central city and core suburban community” is only St. Louis City. If you’re reading this, you understand the fallacy of this definition. For comparison, the comparative area for Chicago is considered everything inside I-294, Boston: inside I-95, Atlanta: inside I-285.

The fractured St. Louis political boundaries prevent us from better understanding our metropolitan area, as does the study’s apparent unwillingness to tackle the Byzantine municipalities of St. Louis County. If the numbers do not exist, how can we expect businesses, developers and homeowners to better understand real opportunities and challenges in St. Louis? How are we to create benchmarks for success?

Whether or not St. Louis City, County and all the municipalities contained therein ever “merge” into a single political entity, we must work together to standardize reporting information: crime, taxes, housing permits and more. Beyond the blatant and nefarious, and highly harmful, crime statistics reporting each year, we cannot develop an informed base of knowledge about our region. It seems that this recurring issue deserves a name. What about the StUPID effect: St. Louis Usable Pertinent Information Deficit.


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