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St. Louis board greenlights eminent domain use near NGA while protecting residents' homes

The Board of Aldermen meet on at city hall.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The Board of Aldermen meets in February. On Friday, the board passed legislation without opposition that would allow for eminent domain on vacant, unoccupied and other nuisance properties around the NGA's new headquarters in north St. Louis.

The St. Louis Board of Alderman passed a measure Friday that would allow the city to use eminent domain for developments around the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s new headquarters in north St. Louis.

The legislation, passed without opposition, aims to encourage redevelopment efforts in the Jeff-Vander-Lou, St. Louis Place and Carr Square neighborhoods while protecting residents from losing their homes. It includes a redevelopment plan and blighting study of about 821 acres surrounding the NGA campus and now heads to Mayor Tishaura Jones.

“While eminent domain can be scary, ultimately, this use of eminent domain protects existing residents and existing occupied businesses,” said the bill’s sponsor, Ward 14 Alderman Rasheen Aldridge.

Eminent domain is a process in which a government condemns and forces the sale of private property for projects that the public would benefit from.

Aldridge said the legislation lays out a narrow definition of which properties it can apply to: ones that are condemned, vacant, unoccupied, have repeated violations of ordinances or property maintenance code or have had multiple calls to the police for criminal activity.

These specific definitions became critical to protect existing residents, said Peter Hoffman, managing attorney of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Neighborhood Advocacy, which helped draft the Redevelopment Plan adopted by the legislation.

“We understand there’s a blight problem of vacant and abandoned property in our neighborhoods, and we want that addressed,” he said. “But we also don’t want to take people’s homes.”

The bill makes it easier for residents to apply for property tax abatement if they make at least $2,000 worth of upgrades to the structure of their homes. Hoffman added that the scale of this 821-acre redevelopment plan allows more residents to benefit from abatements.

To St. Louis Place resident Virigina Druhe, the bill places value on what longtime residents have already contributed to these areas.

“It says that the people in the neighborhoods and the investments we have made over the years are the priority,” she said. “Development should be forced in those areas where it’s been left dormant.”

Druhe, who has lived in the north St. Louis neighborhood since 1977, said she was involved in multiple community meetings that helped shape the legislation. The bill also mandates a community advisory panel review plans for projects over $1 million that seek incentives from the city.

“It gives us the opportunity to be well informed about what’s coming, and to speak up to both have dialogue with any developer, but also then to speak up publicly about whatever disadvantages we might see,” she said.

To Aldridge, it’s a way to ensure that projects align with the community’s values and that property doesn’t remain vacant or underused, he said.

“You have negligent developers that are honestly just land grabbing to make money, especially with NGA coming in,” he said. “The goal is to really put developers on notice how you need to do something to upgrade these buildings.”

Developer Paul McKee and his NorthSide Regeneration project, which owns hundreds of parcels in north St. Louis, were often cited by backers of the bill, but Aldridge said there are other bad actors who also have let their properties deteriorate.

“My community, the community I grew up in, for so long hasn’t had impactful development like the rest of the city,” he said.

St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Megan Green said the mechanisms in this bill can help address systemic disinvestment.

“If we really want to be intentional about our development, we have to make sure we hold bad actors accountable, while also pursuing development strategies that really [are] inclusive of the communities,” she said.

Green added this legislation can be a model for redevelopment in other parts of the city that are primed for growth, such as the West End and Academy neighborhoods.

“We need to be willing to use more tools and thoughtful ways like this to protect the residents that live in these communities and have lived there for a long time, as we are also progressing and redeveloping,” she said.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.