St. Louis Set to Blight 395 Acres in City’s Fast Developing Central Corridor

The Grand Blight aerial_logo

The city is set to blight 395 acres, a total of 610 parcels, across the neighborhoods of Midtown, The Gate District & Tiffany. The blight designation, recommended to the Board of Aldermen for approval, would be a precursor to a plan by a redevelopment corporation affiliated with Saint Louis University.

Notably, the 395 acres encompass the Federal Mogul site, where Lawrence Group, a partner in the $550M SSM/SLU hospital project, has announced the $340M City Foundry project across from IKEA. On the other side of the big blue box, the next phase of Cortex development is expected to be announced soon. Also included is the vacant Armory, now owned by Green Street Development, which is pursuing its redevelopment as an event and concert venue, and even Humphrey’s bar which will be demolished and replaced.

The redevelopment area is massive, touching I-44 on the south, Laclede Avenue to the north, 39th Street and Vandeventer to the west, and Compton to the east.

[Document: Chapter 353 Blighting for St. Louis Midtown Redevelopment Area]

A blighting study has been completed by Development Strategies. Select findings were presented to the Planning Commission included:

  • 40% of the buildings were constructed over 100 years ago.
  • Nearly 50% of manufacturing/warehouse space is vacant.
  • Over 40% of parcels are vacant lots or have vacant buildings.
  • A functionally outmoded and inadequate street system, with dead-end and vacated streets and missing sidewalks.
  • 61% of the buildings are in “fair” or “poor” condition, requiring extensive rehabilitation.
  • There is extensive economic under-utilization of the Redevelopment Area, given its strategic location along Grand Blvd. between I-64 and I-44, the lack of development associated with MetroLink’s Grand station, and its proximity to Cortex and St. Louis University.
  • Extensive environmental contamination of Federal Mogul and other industrial uses.
  • The high vacancy rates for buildings and parcels foster crime, particularly property crimes.
  • Between 2011 and 2016, the taxable assessed value of commercial property in the Redevelopment Area has decreased by 32%, while the taxable assessed value for the City has increased by 0.6%.
  • When looked at on a parcel-by-parcel basis, 71% of the parcels in the Redevelopment Area include at least one blighting factor.

Screen Shot 2016-09-08 at 9.24.59 PM

We wrote the following when the city blighted 100 acres of north St. Louis for the future home of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency:

A building, a block, a neighborhood, is blighted in St. Louis on quite a regular basis. To some “blighting” is a simple economic tool. The designation provides access to various local, state, and federal economic development funding. “Blighting” is also more art than science. In common use, a “blighted” area is one that is underperforming economically (generally, not producing enough tax revenue). Just about anything can be “blighted” by citing deferred maintenance and repeating the word “obsolete”.

The state of Missouri defines a “blighted area”, as “an area which, by reason of the predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements, improper subdivision or obsolete platting, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use.”

Not only does the definition read as rather archaic, blight analysis updates, such as this one concluding last year that the 246-acre Cortex district is in fact still blighted, relies on statements such as: “According to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department statistics, crimes against property continues to be a problem in selective portions of the Redevelopment Area.”

So what does a “blight” designation do anyway? It provides the authority for the city to grant an entity redevelopment rights to an area. The designated developer can then be granted incentives such as tax abatement and the authority to condemn properties within the blighted area, forcing a sale. Basically, it gives an entity chosen by the city the power to dictate development, including on property not owned by that entity.

As we first examined the case for blighting 395 acres, we Tweeted, “Does there exist a consistent, fair argument at this point for not simply saving time and blighting all of St. Louis City?” It was a little tongue in cheek, but the question is better than first understood. In fact, according to the Show Me Institute, more than 1/3 of the state of Missouri is already blighted.

Using the definition of blight, it’s a rather easy argument to blight the entirety of the City of St. Louis. Crime? Yep. Defective or inadequate street layout? Sure, some people think so. Unsanitary, unsafe? Plenty of old sewers and other infrastructure out there. “Any combination of such factors…constitut(ing) an economic or social liability.” Uh-huh.

As we learned from the St. Louis City Economic Incentives Report, first revealed on this site, granting of tax abatement, Tax Increment Financing (TIF), and other incentives is extraordinarily widespread in the city. And there’s no true considering of the need or impact of those incentives. And there’s no effort to consider if the incentive was productive. That isn’t to conclude that all incentives are unnecessary, but rather to argue that we can’t know which are necessary within the current process. The most common criticism arising from the report is that incentives used most often in parts of the city with market demand.

The report has been underreported, in our opinion, but has been widely acknowledged and the need for reform touted by virtually everyone in a position to effect change. But when will it come? The issue is beginning to feel like Congressional approval ratings – everyone hates Congress but likes their congressman. It would be more than shocking to see any real debate about this particular blighting, despite its size.

Again, the most benign reading of the use of “blighting” is as a simple economic tool. In this respect, the tool has been used for the largest of the large entities in the city: the NGA, Washington University in St. Louis, and so on. It streamlines the process by empowering a developer. It’s also used on the micro level for individual sites redeveloped by small enterprises. Blighting studies, presenting findings, considering evidence, city approval to send to the Board of Alderman, the board vote…it’s an industry in itself. But why not save some time and money and simply blight St. Louis City?

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  • Mark Benton

    How did you make/get this map? Where did you get the data and shape files that mapped the shape file to the abatement locations?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Top map is crude MS Paint work. Second map is from the St. Louis City incentives report (link in story). Third map is from the blighting report.

  • baopuANDu

    A bit unrelated, perhaps, but does anyone know what is going on with 3901-3939 Forest Park Avenue across from IKEA?

    • STLrainbow

      is some activity going on there? I know its owned by cortex but not aware of any imminent plans. great corner though for something amazing.

      • baopuANDu

        None that I’ve seen as of late. Just curious. That, 3920 W. Pine, or 4400 Manchester are areas I’d love to own.

  • Greg Turner

    The orientation on that aerial map hurts my brain.

  • Dan

    Have we not learned anything from the wholesale slash and burn blighting tactics practiced in the not distant past?

  • Kasey Henton

    So the SLU takeover of South City that started under King Biondi continues unabated. Why am I not surprised. Having seen SLU actions up close over the years, this action is truly distressing.
    My parents grew up in part of this newly blighted area; I still have plenty of family there. Lots of life going on in that area. But SLU is probably the worst neighbor one can have. Eventually SLU is going to own all that property and kick out the people who live there now. And people will just shrug and express surprise when it happens.
    This area doesn’t need to be blighted. It’s doing just fine. There are other areas of the city that would benefit from blighting, but that’s never going to happen because this is St. Louis after all.

  • I wonder if Missouri’s blighting law isn’t ripe for a constitutional challenge on vagueness or overbreadth. Anyone know a landowner in that neighborhood who’d like to be a test case?

  • Riggle

    This is the SOUTHSIDE, not the central corridor

    • the southern border of the Central Corridor is Chouteau, so this is both. but I’d class the SLU Med Campus as much more Central Corridor related than South City related.

      • Riggle

        Well it’s in south city, not the central corridor…

        • Mike

          If you look at the map on how the city is divided, it goes by zip code….CWE…has 63130, 63112,63108, Down town is 63103,63101,63102 Central (east) is 63104 63118 South city is 63110, 63110,63117,63143,63119,63109,63116,63125,63123…This is what we use for real estate as well… So SLU is on the border of Down Town, Central (east)and CWE.. I consider My self living on the edge of down town… I live east of Grand and north of 44 next to Park Ave in the Gate District…We are considered Central East zip code 63104.

          • Riggle

            I think your neighbors would be a bit confused if you told them they don’t live on the South side

    • Daron

      The city’s planning department defines the central corridor as the area north of 44. Personally, I’d use Chouteau as the cut-off, but 44 is the official boundary.

  • John

    Rigged system of taxpayer handouts. TIF and tax abatement abuse will only continue if legislators and property owners are not held accountable.

  • David

    Daron. You have a VERY narrow view of SLU’s campus. Imagine the mid town area without there $2 billion of investment. A vast majority would argue it would be in far worse condition than what currently exists.

    Plus, SSM is committing $550 million to midtown for a replacement hospital and ambulatory care center. Most hospitals have pulled out of the city. Now, I ask you this . . . Do you think SSM would commit that sum of money if SLU’s medical campus did not exist? Absolutely not.

    • Daron

      Yes, the antiquated and failing to thrive core hospital complex is finally seeing new management and investment. Great. Finally SLU has caught on to the trend that hit most major university hospitals a decade ago. I have no idea why it took them so damn long, but hooray. If you see that as “SLU’s campus” then I don’t think you can call my view VERY narrow because that’s a couple blocks within a vast landscape of SLU owned desolation.

      The destruction and land banking in what used to be the Tiffany neighborhood and the Gate District is something much broader. SLU and the city of St. Louis have been functioning in a 1950s development mode for way too long. Systemic disinvestment in order to invest cheaper later is dumb. I’m sorry, but depriving, blaming, blighting, and then stealing is a shitty thing to do, and they should be called out on it again and again until it stops.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I agree…with both of you.

        • Alex P

          Was just thinking the same thing. Let’s set up a debate.
          But really, it seems to be a theme on here recently “thanks for the investment but we’re not a fan of how you went about it”

      • Larry Guinn

        I worked for the phone company and would visit many of the addresses in this area. One was at Doisy Hall, where in one of the engineer’s offices, there was a map of that region of the city showing every parcel and who owned it. This was about 20 years ago, and more than half of those properties were owned by Saint Louis University. I can’t imagine this neighborhood blighting isn’t part of a long term strategy to clear the area at the lowest possible cost.

        • Alex Ihnen

          I’m not a conspiracy theory fan, but it would seem that at the very, very least, benign neglect has produced blighted conditions in many areas.

  • Emily S

    How is “A functionally outmoded and inadequate street system, with dead-end and vacated streets and missing sidewalks” valid criteria for “blight” in St. Louis City? Aren’t dead-end streets and missing sidewalks pretty standard?

    • Don

      Ironically, the dead-end streets were created as a part of a supposed neighborhood improvement plan.

  • jord

    who cares when over 90% of the neighbors are a very small group of slum lords, check the records. The home owners values may drop for a time but when the development is complete you’d wish you lived in the area!

    • Daron

      I do live in the area. All I see are vacant lots with SLU fences around them.

      • matimal

        Does that mean you’re for or against the declaration?

  • Daron

    People live there. The park in the gate district is always in use. The only trouble is SLU. If you want to fix this area, make SLU a better neighbor and work on infill. The language of urban renewal is what messed up the neighborhood in the first place. I live less than a block from this “blighted area” and it’s obvious that a poorly planned medical campus is the problem.

  • Pat

    What does blighting a neighborhood to do residents? Do property values go down?

    • Alex Ihnen

      This is clearly a subject that deserves in-depth study, but the answer is likely, it depends. I’d expect that property values for vacant lots and maybe vacant buildings go up because it is assumed that development is coming and there will be access to a myriad of economic incentives. Just look at IKEA paying $31M for 21 acres. It was worth that much because it was blighted and incentives were available. So the incentives virtually subsidized a high sale price for the land owner. For residents who own their homes, I’d expect values to go down because of the power of a single development entity to dictate the future, and even perhaps seek to take property for redevelopment. This happened within the NorthSide footprint. Once the area was blighted and development rights given to Paul McKee, no one in their right mind would have bought a home in the area with the future out of their hands.