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.