Urban Tree Farm Announced as Part of All-of-the-Above Approach to Vacancy

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For a city with approximately 20% of its land empty, there will never be a single solution to vacancy. Some vacant lots are owned by the city via the Land Reutilization Authority and other entities. Some of those are marketed, some are held for some hoped for future development. A lot of vacant land is in private hands.

The city’s highest profile efforts to address the issue are big, think NFL stadium and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. The successful effort to retain the NGA will consume 99 acres on the near north side. The majority of that land is vacant.

Yet it will clearly require more than 100-acre projects to revitalize the city. Now the city and Fresh Coast Capital has announced an effort to repurpose 42 LRA-owned parcels as an urban tree farm. The site of the project is centered on Burd, Clara, Terry and St. Edward (red brick) streets in north city. The last is being made available to Fresh Coast Capital for just $1.

Tree farm

In 2016, Fresh Coast will plant approximately 27,000 trees and have more than 60 acres under management. Its projects are meant to address contaminated soil and manage storm water runoff. After about 15 years, trees such as hybrid poplars will be harvested for commercial purposes.

About the City of St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority:
The City of St. Louis has the oldest land bank in the United States. The Land Reutilization Authority was established in 1971 to take over properties that private landowners no longer wanted or had abandoned. When a property owner fails to pay taxes for five years, the City’s Collector of Revenue may sue and foreclose. There are at least five public tax foreclosure sales per year. Any properties not sold at the foreclosure sale are transferred into the LRA inventory to be maintained, marketed and sold.

Conceptual images from Fresh Coast Capital:

Fresh-Coast-Design-Concepts_mixed-page-002

Fresh-Coast-Design-Concepts_mixed-page-001

Fresh-Coast-Design-Concepts_mixed-page-3_3Fresh-Coast-Design-Concepts_mixed-page-3_2Fresh-Coast-Design-Concepts_mixed-page-3_1

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  • Mathew Chandler

    I wonder how many parking tickets each of those vehicles will have after not moving for 10 years.

    • Alex Ihnen

      My concern is the clear gentrification this will bring. We start with what appears to be a young black man riding a bicycle, then an Asian woman, then a white man.

      • gmichaud

        Alex, I know this part of the city pretty well. Honestly this project has zero chances of causing gentrification, in fact I would say the area could use a little gentrification.
        Pine Lawn and the City once had a symbiotic relationship that included this area.
        There was once a vibrant commercial district along MLK, just south of this site. (Friendly Temple area)

        • Alex Ihnen

          Sorry. It was a joke.

  • gmichaud

    In thinking about this in some ways it is only a step above a parking in terms of urban involvement. Locking up 60 acres in the city for 15 years, doesn’t show much faith in the future of the city.
    I have a friend who has a tree farm near Augusta, he started 40 years ago supplying his own retail nursery on the Rock Road, the eventually began selling to other retail outlets eventually getting out of the retail business altogether. There are a number of other tree farms out in that area and I can only assume they dot the area. It is a far more economically engaged approach.
    A vegetable operation would be more urban yet. It would of course require more management and other inputs, however with the interest in local food it should be a success. (All it really does it copy the market gardens of St. Louis circa 1876).
    It would be a far more dynamic urban solution than growing trees for timber.
    A market garden concept would also be far more likely to generate numerous spin offs and economic development than a static proposal for timber.
    (Water and soil technical issues are not an excuse since in growing vegetables a good soil program is needed anyway)
    By the way Kansas City is leasing their project for 15 years. Am I reading right that the city is giving away the land for a dollar? Is it more of the great St. Louis negotiating skills on display? Not sure why Kansas City would do a lease and St. Louis gives the land away for a dollar.

    • John R

      This is actually a rather small scale project; I believe involving under 5 acres and about 1,500 tree plantings. The 60 acres mentioned in the post is Fresh Coast’s managed projects across the country. As such, I have no problems with what is more or less a pilot project but do hope that it can become part of a larger effort in the surrounding blocks of the Wells-Goodfellow community focused on job training, urban ag production and environmental stewardship. Maybe a few low-cost, environmentally friendly new homes, too,

      An example of a large scale commercial urban tree farm is the Hantz Farms project in Detroit, which involves nearly 200 acres:
      http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2015/04/hantz_woodlands_to_plant_5000.html

      That project may be suitable for Detroit, which is double in size that Saint Louis City so it has a lot more vacant land that probably won’t be utilized anytime soon, but like you I’d be reluctant to commit a large amount of city-owned land to such an enterprise here in small-sized Saint Louis City unless there were clear and proven community and financial
      benefits.

      • gmichaud

        I come up with more like 10 acres, but either way, it is still a large area to the people that live in the surrounding neighborhoods.
        The truth is the first 7 to 10 years the land is in no way going to look like the perspective drawings shown in the post. And after 15 years, then what? Fields with stumps in the ground?
        The one thing the perspectives do show, especially the first one, is the potential of carving public space out of the project, although the curve would have to be made out of masonry (since the trees are going away) with maybe a fountain and so on to make it attractive. Permanent public space(s) would help counter the fact the project is not really a community asset, except for perhaps a few years.
        But back to the negotiations: how is it Kansas City negotiates a 15 year lease with this company and St Louis gives away the land for a dollar? Does anyone know anything about this? Once the city gives the land away, it loses any leverage to represent the interests of the community. Look at McKee, didn’t the city have to pay him around 11 million for land they gave him?
        Seems to me there should be a serious concern as to what this deal contains and if the public interest is being maintained.
        What other tax breaks is this company getting?

        • John R

          I’m just going off previous reporting that the 42 lots comprise about 3 acres but I could easily see the LRA lots that will be utilized for this are within a 10 acre area…. I agree that the details of the plan could be the difference between a good and poor outcome for the project and have no idea of whether the land deal is for a sale or a lease and what kind of maintenance and other responsibilities may be involved in the agreement.

          Another thing to keep in mind is MSD will be engaging in a rather large greening program involving many parcels it has acquired in the Wells-Goodfellow and Baden neighborhoods as part of its larger EPA settlement. MSD is tight-lipped about the specific plans until the EPA approves the greening plan,

          • gmichaud

            Just a mention about MSD, I guess instead of building a proper sewer, storm water runoff system they have decided to turn poor neighborhoods into drainage ditches.
            MSD should be worried about the public, not EPA, but it indicates clearly their lack of concern about the public, they seem to answer to no one, who does MSD answer to? Anybody know?
            I still don’t understand how the same institution that brought the St. Louis region into these mistake ridden, costly errors over decades, including refusal to act when the feds were helping pay for storm water mitigation, are now the same people who get to cash in on the 5 billion dollar error and get to try to correct the problems.
            The first point is that if they need to tear down buildings to make their plan work then it shows beyond a doubt they are still a bankrupt organization. For god sakes, the purpose of a sewer system is to drain water, if they have to tear down buildings to accomplish their goals then what? Are this new drainage ditches permanently banned from building to meet the drainage goals of MSD?
            I find it hard to believe there is silence on this issue, including the blogs, the MSM I understand, they are in the pockets of the insiders, but how is making more of St. Louis uninhabitable a solution? How is that question being looked at? I see nothing.
            If it was not clear before that MSD doesn’t know what they are doing, it ought to be clear now with one of their solutions is to turn building sites into drainage ditches.

  • Benjamin West

    What consideration is given to risk of arson for such farms? The fire risk in north city is likely higher than what one would see courtesy natural causes (drought, dryness) in rural settings. Plus, is it our drinking water that irrigates these fields in dry times?

    • Adam

      Why would the fire risk be any greater for a tree farm than for, say, any one of the city’s many parks? Live trees don’t burn easily. They also reduce ground temperatures and help mitigate storm-water runoff. I don’t think we’re in danger of severe drought any time in the near future.

      • Benjamin West

        The city’s parks department prunes and thins the wooded areas in the parks; that’s their job. I would hope any prospective farm operators do the same, but I’m unsure if they would be under any particular requirement to do so. Hard to sell lumber/pulp for profit if you’re paying for lots groundskeeping. As for weather conditions, do bear mind this state is seeing gradually drier weather, compounded by urban heat island effects. From the maps shown, these wooded area look like they’ll be sitting closer to residences than similar areas in the city parks.

        But don’t get me wrong. I’d be very happy to see all benefits of the tree farms, e.g. the soil rehabilitation, carbon sequestration, reduced runoff. It’s just that a fire event could undo years/decades of accumulated benefit, literally sending it into the air. Hence question about precautions, or at least the city being mindful.

    • Steve Kluth

      Fire risk should be minimal. Most trees can handle minor droughts. Most forest fires get started when the brush, leaves, and other dry debris below ignites (from lightning, people being careless, or the occasional spontaneous combustion when heat builds up in debris). I assume the company will at least keep the grounds relatively debris free especially during dry weather to reduce their own risk. As long as that happens, dry trees wouldn’t be at any more risk here than they would in other parts of the region.

  • Tysalpha

    This is a wonderful idea–and in a small way it will help act as a carbon sink (the little ice age of the 1500s-1600s is now explained as a result of the death of Native Americans due to exposure to European diseases after first contact–and the resulting extreme forest growth on lands the Native Americans formerly had cultivated and cleared.

  • Tim E

    Which brings up another question. Did the large greenhouse, growing operation for north city ever get off the ground? I believe it was proposed or backed Schnucks

  • Tim E

    The renderings of concept site 1 look great but I think Imran and Matimal have great points. Concept site 2 looks a lot more dense and therefore financially viable and sustainable. A 15 year business plan got the first part right, find cheap land. Now the hard part, plant and grow trees hoping that you can actually turn revenue in 15 years. Wall Street Journal had a good article recently on the economics of large commercial rooftop gardens are slowly changing to big green houses outside of the city to be viable.
    .
    The other thoughts, you use to see a lot of fast growing tree farms along the Columbia River outside and downriver of Portland. Haven’t noticed them as much as I used to or maybe the novelty worn off

  • Imran

    Wonder if these will be irrigated or will the design and symmetry be lost in a year to summer drought.

  • David Hoffman

    Brilliant!

  • matimal

    How will they keep it from becoming a dumping ground?

    • John R

      Fresh Coast Capital presumably will be hiring local folks for the landscaping and maintenance, Ideally, this will be a well-coordinated effort with other stakeholders to make the most of it for the surrounding community.

  • Ice_Burned

    When I used to community garden in the city, I noticed there was an absence of insects and critters, nothing disturbed my plants. I presumed the surroundings were so urbanized the plant eating bugs and critters had left long ago. Anyone have that experience? Maybe the city is a good place for trees that are at risk elsewhere from insects or maybe even blight, just making a conjecture here. They cut down all those ash trees under the arch as a “precaution”, as far as I know the ash borer beetle had not actually arrived. Anyone know more about this topic?

    • tony

      I believe they were found in some cases in the county, but I don’t think any were actually found on the Arch grounds – just a precaution as part of the larger renovation, as you mentioned. Best I could find at the moment:
      http://mdc.mo.gov/newsroom/mdc-emerald-ash-borer-now-confirmed-st-louis-county

    • gmichaud

      I live in South City and definitely have squash bugs and tomato hornworm, although the only hornworm I saw was full of parasite wasps so I let it alone. Trees I don’t know, although my young redbud up and died this spring. I’m strictly organic, can’t stand chemicals. Anyway I’m sure bugs will show up sooner or later, especially since winters are not severe any longer.
      I had a French Tarragon overwinter, blew me away.