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St. Louis takes new look at old problem: What to do with vacant land and abandoned buildings

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
A vacant building next to a vacant lot, both owned by LRA in the 4200 block of St. Louis Ave.

The Land Reutilization Authority owns more than 11,000 parcels in the city of St. Louis.

It’s a land mass roughly the size of Forest Park.

St. Louis has the distinction of having the oldest land bank in the country, created by a Missouri state statute in 1971. It was a response to St. Louis’ quickly shrinking population after reaching a height of 856,000 people in 1950.

LRA takes control of properties when owners fail to pay taxes for three years and if the land does not sell in public tax foreclosure sales for at least a year.

"If there’s no buyer, we’re the repository for that real estate. Then the purpose is to get it back on the tax rolls or to be of some viable public service." said Otis Williams, the executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, which acts as an umbrella organization for LRA.

The last Wednesday of each month the LRA’s three-member commission holds a public meeting. (The mayor, the comptroller, and the school board all appoint a commission member.) They often vote on dozens of offers for LRA land. Still, the agency remains the largest land owner in the city.

Now the city is putting renewed focus on what to do with all the vacant land LRA controls.

"Being first doesn’t always make you best. So we have a lot of improvements we can make to help LRA do their job more efficiently," said Patrick Brown, a deputy chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay.

Brown is heading up a new Vacant Land and Blight Task Force that includes both public and private stakeholders. The group has been meeting for a few months.

The movement really started more than a year ago when St. Louis was asked to take part in a week-long training session at Harvard by the Center for Community Progress, a national think tank on vacant land issues. That was followed by six months of direct technical assistance from the center through a scholarship program.

"It’s been very helpful," Williams said. "They’ve offered lots of ideas on ways to improve."

That may include going to Jefferson City to ask for statutory changes. Because the Missouri legislature created the LRA, any changes must be approved by lawmakers. Williams admits it’s a hurdle but said St. Louis officials are working with Missouri’s other land bank in Kansas City to review what changes to seek.

Another issue is revenue.

Neither the city nor the state provides any direct funding to LRA. Instead, Williams said federal Community Development Block Grants pay for an eight-member maintenance crew. SLDC shares a nine-member real estate staff with the agency. Any revenue is from the land LRA sells.

"I’ve been here 18 years, and we’ve never run a profit," he said.

Now the LRA is beginning to look at more creative ways to deal with its vacant land. Here are a few programs unveiled over the last six months by the agency:



Mow to Own

Oftentimes residents have been mowing vacant lots next to their own property for years. In May, Mayor Francis Slay announced those residents can now buy the vacant lot for $125 and some sweat equity.

The lots must be less than 30 feet across and owned by the LRA for at least three years. Residents pay the $125 title transfer fee, property taxes on the parcels and maintain it for two years before the lien is lifted.

Brown said LRA has already received 100 applications.

"It’s really taken off," he said.

As many as 4,000 LRA parcels are eligible, meaning the program could take a big bite out of the city’s $1.3 million annual cost for mowing vacant land.

Urban Tree Farm

Fresh Coast Capital is redeveloping large tracts of vacant and blighted land in several Midwest cities, creating tree farms, urban agriculture and green infrastructure projects.

In St. Louis, the company is working with the LRA to turn 42 vacant lots in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood into an urban tree farm. Fresh Coast is leasing the last for $1 and won’t pay property taxes, but LRA will get a 2 percent share of the revenue when the wood is sold in 10 to 12 years.

During the announcement in March, Mayor Slay said the initiative would breathe new life into the vacant properties.

"What this is going to do is unload these properties from our responsibility, so that saves us some money," he said. "It’s going to help beautify the neighborhood and employ some people in the neighborhood."

Project Clear

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District is working with the city to demolish about 1,600 abandoned buildings over the next two decades.

It’s part of a settlement between MSD, the Environmental Protection Agency and Missouri Coalition for the Environment to reduce sewers overflows, basement backups and wastewater runoff into streams and rivers.

MSD expects to spend more than $13 million on the effort. Mayor Slay said at a December announcement that it would more than double the city’s budget for demolishing vacant buildings.

"They are eyesores," Slay said. "They affect property values. They detract from the fabric of our communities. And they attract crime."

As part of a 5-year pilot program begun in 2011, MSD already has demolished 221 LRA-owned buildings. 

Parcel Survey

LRA is working with AmeriCorps volunteers to gather data on all 130,000 parcels within the city.

The volunteers began earlier this spring in far north St. Louis, recording information about each parcel using the Loveland App, first begun in Detroit.

"They have a list of questions about the appearance of buildings, the structural integrity of buildings, whether they’re vacant, whether they’re occupied and the same for lots. Are they maintained? Do they have trees growing on them?" Brown explained.

He said all of the data will give the LRA a better sense of its stock and the ability to come up with better strategies for land use.

"We’ll know in the 4th Ward or in the 20th Ward we have x number of vacant parcels adjacent to one another," he said. "This is now an opportunity for a larger development or there’s one vacant land on a well-maintained street. The best thing for us to do is get that one parcel in the middle of the block into someone else’s hands."

The AmeriCorps teams are working on the project through June. If they don’t get to every parcel, the city plans to ask for residential volunteers to help in order to complete the project this summer.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.