A Side Yard in the City: St. Louis, Vacant Land and Shrinking Cities in the News

"Blotting" is the latest urban vacant land trend to be discovered by The Atlantic Cities, billed as "the latest DIY solution for shrinking cities". The failure of the recent explosion in urban issues media is the misguided premise of presenting such discussion as news, the need to have the "latest" idea, a "breaking" innovation, new, original, creative… while ignoring the history of our cities. Allowing city development and history to devolve into a three minute slideshow or a "how to fix" guide fails to 

"Blotting" is an awful, non-descriptive term. "Urban homesteading", "city side yards", "parcel-melding" or something else needs to be used. We'll use "urban homesteading" as it clearly conveys the juxtaposition of the competing forces at play; the traditional urban lot, often largely consumed by a building structure, and "homestead", a dwelling and its adjacent land (added land in this case), not traditionally associated with the urban setting.

This use of "urban homesteading" is especially relevant in St. Louis where the 25' x 126' 6" lot dominates. This lot size typically allows a three foot gangway on either side of the home. Adding a vacant parcel as a side yard provides a homestead wholly unlike what has been available in St. Louis. The 25/126 lot is unpopular for single family home construction and not typically large enough for commercial development, even on corner lots. This lot size has impeded land assembly for development.

The city has tried to give away side lots for $1. They've experimented with offering only particularly narrow lots for sale, and only to adjacent owner-occupants and only if said lot was not next to another vacant lot. A person or group can also apply for a "garden lease". For $1 a year, a garden can occupy a city owned lot until there is a buyer. In short, St. Louis has been experimenting with vacant land management for decades. In fact, St. Louis was one of the first cities in the nation to understand the need to have an entity capable of dealing with vacant and abandoned property, forming the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) in 1971.

The land giveaway met with more failure than success. Many lots can't be given away. Some homeowners purchased lots and proceeded to not pay property tax or maintain the property and the multi-year process of repossessing the parcel began again. The restrictions of sales of side lots has been met with charges of land banking and failure to effectively return land to private ownership – after all, that is the LRA mission.

The LRA has many tasks, but likely the most important (and overlooked) is its ability to provide clear title to abandoned property. The vast majority of the nearly 10,000 parcels in the current LRA inventory arrive there after having been abandoned by the owner. "Abandonment" is typically manifest in a three-year lack of property tax payment. Property is then subject to public auction, where anyone can offer a bid. Parcels that receive no bid, no interest, are then transferred to the LRA, where anyone can again offer to purchase.

One area where the LRA's policy has failed to deal with a shrinking city is its long time refusal to consider the sale of side lots wider than 25' (many are 27' or 30'), as well as its refusal to sell side lots under 25' to non-owner occupants. This meant that a developer or owner of a rental property was not allowed to add a vacant side lot as part of a renovation or simply as an added amenity. Often these lots attracted trash, weeds turned into trees and the unkempt lot become an eyesore or even a magnet for criminal activity. Sometimes neighbors voluntarily maintained a lot they didn't own. 

{vacant lots turned side yards dot the revitalizing Forest Park Southeast neighborhood (top center and top left), where more attractive vacant lots for development remain common}

The LRA has also been accused of land-banking large numbers of parcels and not listing them for public sale (often at the request of a city Alderman) in an effort to assemble land for large developments to the detriment of more organic, lot by lot development. In reality this effort has resulted in some productive development, but is generally very unpopular. This policy is changing and all property is becoming available for public search on the LRA website. While demand for many of the thousands of city-owned parcels simply doesn't exist, the LRA has been under pressure to accept more bids.

Following nextSTL's Open/Closed conference on vacant property in March, 2011, news coverage and pressure from the Show-Me Institute, the LRA sought to modify its published limitations on parcel sales. The 25' limit is gone, as is the restriction to sell only to owner-occupants. This is already resulting in some success, such as 4210 Chouteau, a property now owned by a developer who owns an adjacent rental property. Once the 27' lot was available to purchase, it received bids from both the home owner to the east and the developer to the west. Ultimately, the LRA judged the developer better able to maintain the lot and return it to productive use.

Lots in St. Louis are priced by front frontage x standardized side lot price by neighborhood. 4210 Chouteau was priced at $46.90 per front foot, or $46.90 x 27 = $1,266.30. Each of the city's 79 neighborhood have their own pricing assigned to Assessor tracts. How the price is determined isn't immediately clear, but the acknowledgment that demand pricing is necessary is smart practice.

The story of urban homesteading, or "blotting" is happening, has been happening, in St. Louis. But the new urban news doesn't know. Maybe it's a hard story to tell. Maybe putting Cleveland and Detroit in the story provides all the bonafides needed to have urban news credibility. Somehow St. Louis seems to be left out of the national urban narrative. Perhaps  we do a poor job of telling our own story: Hyde Park South, Dick Gregory Place, Botanical Grove, modern infill, revitalizing commercial districts, complete streets, Habitat for Humanity homes, the Jefferson Arms, National Park revitalization, historic tax credits… St. Louis is an urban laboratory. What will American cities not named New York, Los Angeles or Miami look like in 2050? How will our cities treat our accumulated built environment? It can be something far from a satisfying experience, and yet St. Louis is the place where all of this is happening now, whether anyone else notices or not.

LRA - St. Louis
{map by Audrey Spalding showing all LRA properties across the City of St. Louis that received offers 2003-2010}