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St. Louis officials discuss best practices for reducing vacancy and blighted buildings

This property on N. Grand Blvd has been in the city's land bank since 2001. It's one of more than 3,000 abandoned buildings the city is trying to find a use for or sell.
City of St. Louis | LRA website
This property on North Grand Boulevard has been in the city's land bank since 2001. It's one of more than 3,000 abandoned buildings the city is trying to find a use for or sell.

St. Louis’ strategy for combating blight and reducing the amount of abandoned property in the city is getting revamped. A team from the city spent much of last week discussing the issue during a Center for Community Progress event held at Harvard University.

St. Louis has been working to put abandoned property to use since 1971, when it created a land bank. According to city officials, the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) is the oldest of its kind in the country.

But with almost 18,000 vacant lots and nearly 7,000 abandoned buildings in the city, it continues to be a problem. St. Louis acquires the property through tax foreclosure; currently more than 11,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings are in the city’s LRA.

“We have some properties that have been in (the LRA) for a long time,” said Don Roe, director of urban planning for St. Louis. “And so that gives us a challenge ... we want to lower the rate of that inventory and then also do things that pick away at the older inventory.”

Roe said talking with the other six cities that participated in the urban blight conference reminded his team of some good ideas — like selling vacant lots to adjacent homeowners so that they can be put to use.

He said the next step toward revising St. Louis’ plan will be to talk with Kansas City in April. Kansas City also sent a team to the conference.

According to city spokesperson Maggie Crane, addressing urban blight is also part of St. Louis’ Strong Cities Strong Communities Initiative. Some of the federal resources from the initiative will be directed toward a study of vacancy in St. Louis by Kansas State University.

“One of the things we talked about quite a bit at this conference was data and understanding this process of abandonment, the condition of abandonment and the opportunity that is presented by what the condition is and what the location of the properties are,” explained Roe, adding that greater understanding can enable the city to target its resources where it can do the most good.

While the city is waiting for K State study findings to inform its detailed plan, Roe said his long-term goal as the city’s urban planner is to balance the density of St. Louis so that it has “neighborhoods that are vital (and) walkable” while “using vacant land as a positive.”

Roe said vacant land can be used as green space, such as community gardens, and for water retention so that MSD doesn’t struggle as much with run-off.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.