I've been investigating the rundown city-owned properties in St. Louis for years. The city has destroyed a lot of these derelict buildings, but many remain, especially on the city's northside.
A few months ago, I talked with Audrey Spalding, a researcher at the Show-Me-Institute, about her analysis of real estate owned by the Land Reutilization Authority, also known as the LRA. Spaulding spent months researching LRA board minutes and compiled databases of information showing the addresses for the properties, who bid on the land, how much they bid, and if any of the taxpayer-owned land was sold.
The findings were significant. In many cases, the LRA turned down individual buyers who appeared to be qualified. The excuse was often that the land was being held for a project, which means a bigger developer. But Spalding found that many of those "projects" never panned out, and that the taxpayer-owned land was still sitting there, vacant and costing the city a total of $1.8 million to maintain last year alone.
The LRA has success stories. No question about it. Many homes have been built on what used to be city-owned derelict property thanks to the agency and it's relationship with certain developers. However, it's undeniable the city has missed repeated opportunities to put some of these eyesores back in the hands of local residents who are clearly qualified to turn them around. When the property is in private hands, the city doesn't have to spend money maintaining it.
Our story focuses on two transactions, one involves the Barber family, which seems particularly troublesome. The Barbers wanted to buy a small, vacant building and turn it into a restaurant. They had the support of their Alderman and neighborhood association. The Barbers have a business plan and the finances to make it work, but the LRA turned them down, telling them it was set aside for another development. Now, years later, the land, and the building, are still vacant and owned by the city.
Tomorrow the city meets with the Barbers to discuss buying the same property. Otis Williams, the man who runs the LRA, says it's a case that appears to be a "slam dunk" as we look back at it now. I hope he's right. Folks like the Barbers should be part of the solution, not the rejects who are tossed aside for bigger developers who can't close the deal.