“Held for Future Development.” Who Controls the Future of Vacant Land in St. Louis?

You have to know something's amiss when the Show-Me-Institute, KMOV and nextSTL are all asking the same questions. Audrey Spalding of the Institute, and panelist at the upcoming Open/Closed conference has been investigating practices of the Land Reutilization Authority in the City of St. Louis. Her work raises incredibly important questions for the City of St. Louis.

The Institute's "video preview" of its policy study offers several broad claims: "(They-LRA) aren't selling many (properties) despite lots of offers to buy them." There's "no shortage of would-be buyers." These are big claims. Recently, KMOV reported on a family hoping to buy an LRA-owned building. They were turned down and are now being reconsidered as a result of KMOV's involvement. It's relatively easy to raise questions. It's much more difficult to understand the issue of vacant property in St. Louis. So what questions need to be asked? What more do we need to know?

How many potential buyers are there? Who are they? Do they seek to hold the property or rehab or build? Perhaps most importantly, which properties have attracted potential buyers? Presumably, there are multiple potential buyers for some lots while thousands receive no interest at all. If those lots which are in demand are corner lots or otherwise prominent, is a higher degree of scrutiny needed before selling that property to a developer? Is the LRA really turning down rehabbers who want to purchase properties such as 4642 Carrie or 4201 Fair? Thirty-seven LRA properties are currently listed for sale on the website created by 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French to highlight opportunities in his ward. How many have received offers?

With news that the City of St. Louis lost another 29,000 residents in the past decade, it's difficult to imagine that demand is high, or increasing for the vast majority of LRA property. The issue of vacant property is only getting worse in St. Louis. The 2010 Census revealed 33,945 vacant housing units in the city. While not the same as a vacant property count, the 19% housing unit vacancy rate is another measure of severity of the problem.

{what would it cost to renovate 4351 Cora and how many offers has LRA received for this property?}

The Institute uses several facts to attempt to paint LRA in a very negative light. The City owns more than 9,000 buildings and lots. It's a big number, but is it a lot? What percentage of all vacant property in St. Louis does this represent? The nearly $1M maintenance bill for these properties is meant to look big as well. Yet, $1M to maintain more than 9,000 properties equates to about $110 per year per property. Is it a lot? Is it too much?

To be sure, the LRA's purpose is to quickly return abandoned land to the tax roll, but we, as city residents, surely require some level of due diligence before property is sold. That is why, according to the Institute, the LRA cited insufficent funds in 25% of offers rejected. Whether or not every single one of these were accurate and justified, this action is an important and necessary responsibility of LRA. In total, 24% of offers on LRA property was accepted. That seems like a not incredibly low figure.

Otis Williams, deputy director of development at the St. Louis Development Corporation, the city entity that oversees LRA offered KMOV what the Institute frames as a "revealing comment". He stated, "When we sell it, it is a real estate transaction, at that point, and they own it. Unless they don't pay the taxes, or we pursue them in court through right of re-entry…once you sell it, you're pretty much lost control." Is this some sort of damning statement? I don't think so. This is an important role served by LRA.

The process of the city acquiring a derelict property can take years. If that property is then sold to someone who cannot or does not follow through with development or rehabilitation plans, it can take another several years for the city to again take possession. This is a damaging and costly process for those living near the property and for the city. We can all agree that the city should sell to the "right" buyer. There is, however, much anecdotal evidence that this process is failing at some level.

{who is the "right" buyer for properties like 4127 Lexington?}

A comment left of the Institute's website stated that a potential buyer was told they couldn't begin paperwork to purchase a building because there was already an offer on that particularly property. My own anecdotal experience includes being told that although there are two vacant LRA lots on my block in Forest Park Southeast, that the local development corporation has plans for them and they won't be sold to an individual. I was first told this in 2003. The lots remain vacant today. One mid-block lot lacks a sidewalk, the only part of my block without one. Both lots would be incredibly attractive for new residential on an otherwise healthy and fully occupied block.

Anecdotes aside, I believe the base problem is a lack of demand for land in the City of St. Louis. Perhaps multiple individuals have inquired about the vacant lots on my block. If I were serious about building a new home in St. Louis I would very aggressively pursue purchasing the mid-block lot. I'm not. Several anecdotes when considering 9,000+ properties does not a failure or conspiracy make.

Mayor Slay did offer a short response to the Institute's work, presented in the video in white letters on black as a stark rebuttal. His statement: "This is a document that is more polemic than study and it relies on a great many assumptions." From what I've seen, he is absolutely right. Yet, no matter how inarticulately framed, the issue must be addressed. I'd say it is a document that asks many leading questions. These questions deserve to be answered and the Land Reutilization Authority and City of St. Louis deserve a free and open opportunity to answer.

I hope that an LRA representative will agree to participate in the upcoming vacant property conference. Like it or not, LRA must be part of the solution in St. Louis. In fact, we need LRA's and the City's perspective in order to move forward. Many voices important to the future of our city have agreed to share their views and experiences. This in an open offer for the LRA and City to join the community discussion at Open/Closed March 18-19.