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St. Louis Hires Contractors To Be 'Stewards' Of Vacant Land

A vacant lot on Finney Avenue photographed on October 8, 2019. The Neighborhood Lot Maintenance pilot program aims to chip away at the issue of overgrown city-owned vacant land by hiring private contractors to maintain the land.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
A vacant lot on Finney Avenue. The Neighborhood Lot Maintenance pilot program aims to chip away at the issue of overgrown city-owned vacant land by hiring private contractors to maintain the land.

Thaddeus Gerdine maintains more than 60 vacant lots in the city of St. Louis. 

“They just seemed like no one was taking care of them,” said Gerdine, who keeps the grass trimmed and picks up trash.

His construction company, Triple T, is one of five small businesses participating in a city-run pilot program that pays private crews to maintain vacant lots. The program, which is wrapping up its first season, focuses on neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of vacant land. 

The city of St. Louis owns more than 8,000 vacant lots. Maintaining them can be a challenge. 

Employees from the Forestry Division mow vacant lots about six times per growing season, said Commissioner of Forestry Alan Jankowski. Much of the division’s 100-person staff consists of part-time seasonal workers.

Without consistent attention, overgrown lots can become a magnet for illegal dumping and crime. 

To fill the void, officials from the St. Louis Development Corporation, Land Reutilization Authority and Forestry Division have partnered with private contractors who maintain the lots.

Crews have tended to about 300 vacant properties this year, totaling 30 acres. The program targets eight neighborhoods with more than 30% vacant land, including the Ville, Hyde Park and Wells-Goodfellow.

Laura Ginn, SLDC program manager, describes it as “intense, intentional local maintenance.” 

“They're asked to be stewards of the space,” Ginn said. “Forestry tends to move through with brush hogs, but they’re not picking trash out of fence lines. That’s one of the things that makes it a bit more pricey than doing this maintenance internally.”

Private crews function as “eyes on the ground” and are responsible for reporting certain issues to the city, such as vacant buildings that need to be boarded up.

It can be time-consuming to tend to dozens of lots, said Gerdine, Triple T’s owner. 

“It’s not just running the lawn mower,” he said. “You’ve got to make it look presentable, like someone’s taking pride in it.” 

His crew of four employees hasn’t run into any major issues this season, he said, but they’ve had to contend with illegal dumping on the lots, including piles of wood from a demolished porch. 

To apply, companies must have an active business license, liability insurance and their own lawn care equipment.

Of the 17 companies that submitted bids to the program this year, six were awarded three-month contracts with the city. One dropped out of the process, leaving a total of five businesses.

The goal, Ginn said, is to support small-business owners who live in the city and are invested in communities with high vacancy.

“We’re looking for folks who are aware of the issue because they live with it,” she said. “That’s not a Ladue landscape company; that’s the opposite of the intention. We anticipate getting a better product out of a company that’s working where they live.”

The pilot program runs through the end of October, after which city officials will consider whether to expand it next year. 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.