Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Vacancy and the Opportunity for Realizing Growth in Our Urban Core


A 50-year trend of suburban outmigration has led to large population losses and the degradation of our urban core. By most traditional measures, the resulting vacant properties are a liability. There are ongoing costs to maintain the inventory of vacant properties and they are blight on our neighborhoods. Nevertheless, St. Louis has found creative ways to convert these abandoned sites into community assets.

Today with rising gas prices and increased interest in sustainability, people are rethinking the potential of older areas for reuse. Development sites in established areas of the St. Louis region are becoming harder to find and more expensive.

Meanwhile, locations in outlying areas are becoming less attractive due to high transportation costs for workers. These trends help position vacant sites in the urban core for reuse.

While the purchase price for vacant land and buildings is often low, they usually come with hidden extra costs for development. Remnants from the past create challenges for today, including buried rubble, non-engineered fill, environmental contamination, and deteriorated infrastructure. For the reuse of these abandoned properties to take place, the right tools and programs need to be in place to attract the necessary public and private investment.

Our History of Successfully Reusing Vacant Land

St. Louis actually has a long history of leveraging abandoned assets for future growth. In the 1990s, St. Louis planners used abandoned rail lines and tunnels to create alignments for the new Metrolink system. Today, Great Rivers Greenway is again using abandoned rail lines and bridges to expand our region’s cycling and hiking network.

Less than twenty years ago, downtown’s Washington Avenue loft district was an area of mostly vacant buildings. Property values were extremely low. Historic loft buildings could be purchased for $.50 per square foot. That’s $50,000 for a 100,000 square foot, ten story building. Today, the area is revitalized, new businesses have opened, the street is full people, and property values have recovered. The once abandoned area has gone through a complete transformation - all in the span of less than one generation.

How did the revitalization of Washington Avenue succeed? The area was planned and targeted for revitalization by the City of St. Louis, perceptions of downtown changed along with a growing national trend supporting urban areas, and the Missouri state historic tax credit was created, making redevelopment of these buildings financially feasible.

A key player throughout all of this has been the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), created in 1971 by state statute as one of the nation’s first land trust for abandoned property. The LRA has played a vital role in the past and will continue to play one into the future as it works with community groups, businesses, and other partners to return vacant properties back to productive use.

What to do?

Looking forward, are there ways to convert the vacant property into an asset? How can we leverage vacant land and buildings in St. Louis into a source of future growth and renewal?

Here are just a few examples of what’s happening:

In stable neighborhoods we can sell or lease for property as side lots or market to developers for infill redevelopment.

Larger, contiguous sites can be used for community gardens, urban agriculture, parks and playground areas. (See Gateway Greening.)

Assembled with other sites, vacant land can be used for industrial (Martin Luther King Business Park) office, retail, and housing developments (Habitat Build) .

Vacant land can be used to create jobs by salvaging the brick and architectural elements or remediating the lots and using the proceeds from the sale to offset costs.

Vacant land can be used to repair the environment. (See the Green Infrastructure Pilot Program, a creative partnership between MSD and LRA designed to reduce the negative impact of sewer overflows: Green Infrastructure Pilot Program.)

Vacant infrastructure can be used to connect communities. (See The Trestle; and the St. Vincent Greenway.)

In some cases, vacant properties need to be held for future use until the market improves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The challenge of vacancy has been with us for decades and will take a long time to be resolved. However, creating a regional strategy to address the challenge is one way to raise awareness and begin reimagining vacancy as an opportunity to revitalize our urban core. Here are a few ideas for further discussion.

Engage leaders to develop regional goals and strategies around the issue of vacancy: Through current sustainability and other local planning efforts, such as the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (Regional Plan for Sustainable Development), identify potential programs, strategies, and goals to make the reuse of abandoned and vacant sites a regional priority.

Formalize the planning and resource development structure: Reinforce these planning efforts by creating a bi-state, regional leadership group charged with developing resources and advancing strategies for prioritizing the reuse of vacant, underutilized, and abandoned sites.

Strengthen efforts through partnerships and collaboration: Create partnerships with educational and community institutions, including the St. Louis Public Schools, local universities, and our growing biotech sector, to match vacant land and building stock with training programs, research, and facility expansion.

Engage and empower neighborhoods, residents, and community organizations: To strengthen support for these efforts, engage community residents, organizations, and elected officials early and often in this long-term effort.

9 comments:

Scott Jones said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I see in St. Louis City is that we don't have a plan for our largely vacant areas. The regional sustainability plan is a great idea, but the City itself needs to have a plan for the north side and portions of the south side that are largely vacant and underutilized. The current administration has done much for Downtown, but the next step needs to be a long-range plan for our distressed areas. If this administration and Board of Aldermen are not bold enough to do this, we should be looking for new leadership.

GMichaud said...

It seems that vacant land is being treated as an isolated problem. What is missing in this discussion is the role of city building, of transit and creating movement systems.
The vacant land is an opportunity to create public spaces (squares, plazas and so on) to create and enhance the connectivity of the city.
Instead the emphasis is on using vacant space as an add on to the already bankrupt planning process of St. Louis.
And let's call it sustainable, that makes everything okay.

GMichaud said...

Another point, the idea of regionalism has harmed the city. East West Gateway Council has been a disaster. It has removed oversight and responsibility for the integration of transit and city planning from city governance.
Thus you have vacant land being consolidated by Paul McKee on the Northside, there is an opportunity for a 21st century transit system, instead McKee apparently has carte blanche to do as he wishes. The only detail we have about is plans are suburban and auto orientated. That is not sustainable development.
Another example is the vacant land surrounding the Grand Ave Metro station. SLU had planned another suburban development (not sure what happened to it). Like the Doisy Center across the street it would be unfriendly to pedestrians and transit. This is not sustainable development.
How can the regional authority stay silent on this?
While you offer some good ideas, the fact is it is still more of the fragmentary planning that has seen St. Louis City lose well over half its population in 60 years.
Please, please tell me I am wrong, I see no evidence that I am, nor do I see any benefit from regionalism.

GMichaud said...

One final observation, when considering Paul McKee and the Northside, there is the history of urban planning to consider. As you know there have been many major planning proposals, including the layout of whole cities throughout history, going back to ancient times.
Let's look at one urban planning vision. Baron Haussmann and his remaking of Paris. It required the demolition of much of medieval Paris. Haussmann controlled outcomes to every building on the various streets. They were strictly regulated. His vision has resulted in Paris being considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world today.
In contrast to the demolition of an existing city, North St. Louis is largely vacant lots. One would imagine that would make a vision of a future city easier.
However there is nothing resembling a vision presented by the developer, city government, East West Gateway or other regional and local authorities.
It is a missed opportunity to be sure. A visionary concept would give something for the public to debate and consider.
Instead nothingness is the vision. It is basically saying "whatever" and "who cares" to the future of St. Louis.
What's more an overall vision would more than likely help spur development. Instead I read a couple of days ago McKee has gathered residential developers for 79 lots. It is not a vision, but a fractional approach.
In short, while it is fine for residents to reuse lots for community gardens or for industrial uses found for vacant lots, or even for McKee to try to squeeze profit out of his proposals, in the end it is not the correct approach, nor is it sustainable.
City planning and transit are clearly major solutions to a future of global warming and scarce oil.
Yet, even with major federal grants, the real problems are not addressed.

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Unknown said...


Paul mckee does present a detailed
plan, setting forth residential and commercial uses, and, I assume,
some plazas etc. Actual develop-
ments await investors and specific
buildings.

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