Wednesday, March 30, 2011

But, but, but, bt, bt....

Our 2001 Dodge Stratus is on the 4-year plan, namely, we need to keep it running until we're off the tuition train. And that train has at least another 4 years to go.

So it's time for our annual renewal of license plates, this time involving a safety and emissions test. The check engine light has been on for some time, but the car is running strong and there's no visible exhaust coming out of the tail pipe. So it burns a little oil.

Anyway, our mechanic is having a problem getting it to pass the emission test. And today, I'm afraid the updated situation won't be much better. My hunch is that there's some issue with the catalytic converter. Apparently, a car can't pass an emission test with the check engine light on. Or maybe it's a transmission problem.

I have no idea how much it costs to replace a catalytic converter, but from what I've heard, it ain't cheap. And if that's indeed the issue, then I guess we're faced with the lousy choice of sinking a lot of money into an old car, or junking it? And if it's something major with the transmission, well, we know that's a fortune.

I thought there was some limit on how much the state could force you to pay to repair a car under the emission testing requirements? Maybe not.

So, from the sound of this, if indeed we're faced with a choice of repairing the car or junking it, we're in a way dealing with a case of eminent domain - unfortunately with no compensation.

The state may indeed be forcing our otherwise strong running car off the road, with no compensation to us, all for the benefit of the public welfare. Correct? I'll update the post as the situation unfolds...

Monday, March 28, 2011

"The Top 100"

The recent "Open/Closed" conference has lots of people talking about the future of St. Louis and the challenges presented by vacancy and abandonment. In St. Louis, a lot of the vacant land and building inventory is held by the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA).

LRA acquires these properties at the end of a long process which ultimately leads to a tax foreclosure sale held on the courthouse steps. By the time LRA gets them, the private market has fully rejected any interest in the properties. As you might expect, most of these suffer from serious deferred maintenance.

Out of the 10,000 or so total properties held in the LRA inventory, fewer than 15 percent of them still have buildings. These 1,000 or so buildings are in varying degrees of condition - generally ranging from bad to worse. Still, some are in better shape than others. And while it's true that many of the buildings in the LRA inventory need to be demolished, the best of them are definitely rehab-able. Call them: "The Top 100".

Would it be possible to start a campaign around these "Top 100" LRA properties? A campaign built on sustainable development, job training, and neighborhood revitalization? Put a value on "The Top 100" LRA buildings of say $10,000 apiece, and if the city were to donate these buildings to the initiative, that puts the city's contribution to the program at $1,000,000 (100 X $10,000).

Identify a foundation purposed with sustainability, community and economic development, and job training, and approach them with a proposal to match the city's contribution to the initiative. Then open up the program to individuals and organizations seeking partnerships and collaboration. YouthBuild and Ranken Tech come to mind as groups looking to train people in the construction trades.

Out of the initiative, a new narrative involving vacancy is possible, one of creative partnerships, community reinvestment, wealth building, and job creation. Is this the sort of possibility that might follow on the path of Open/Closed?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bee Sanctuary, Greenbelt, or Art Space?

These are some of the possibilites suggested for repurposing abandoned real estate in St. Louis at the Open/Closed Conference held this past weekend at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park.

Other ideas included the rebuilding of depleted neighborhoods one parcel at a time. If you look at things this way, the vacant areas of some neighborhoods resemble the St. Louis of 1876 as depicted in Compton Dry's Pictorial St. Louis when the city was first being constructed.

The most likely result will include some combination of all of the above. Indeed there are distressed neighborhoods being rebuilt a parcel at a time and artists are finding their way into abandoned buildings. Such was the start of the revitalization of Washington Avenue's loft district long before the arrival of major tax incentives for the area.

Another opportunity is to begin the unglamorous slog of remediating abandoned properties one lot at a time. Often when you see a vacant lot in a distressed neighborhood, what you don't see are the remains of the former building, now buried under one or two feet of soil.

For years, demolition practices involved simply collapsing unwanted buildings into their basements. At the time, it was the cheapest way to deal with the vacant, abandoned building. Unfortunately, the expedient practice of yesterday leaves us with a legacy of difficult to reuse sites today.

The remains of old buildings under the ground leave behind unbuildable sites today. To build on these usually requires that the old building be excavated and hauled away. As you can imagine, depending on the subsurface conditions, this is a high cost endeavor and from a practical standpoint, renders many redevelopments financially infeasible. With massive buried remains, the land currently has a negative value, especially in weaker market areas.

A dramatic example of this situation is the Pruitt-Igoe site in north St. Louis, whose epic failure and subsequent implosion of dozens of public housing highrise buildings leaves us a vast hole of vacancy on the near north side. Much the same situation exists, albeit on a much smaller scale, for many of the vacant lots in St. Louis.

If the money could be found, especially in the form of a charitable or patient equity investment, the opportunity exists to remediate these sites today. It's a laborious, unglamorous chore, but if we were to create a program to systematically remediate these properties now, we would be creating usable development sites for the future.

How to do it? It's not that complicated. It requires a team of workers (brings jobs), with heavy excavating equipment (brings more jobs), working in concert with neighborhood groups, civic organizations, and planners (yes, more jobs), to phase a mass remediation initiative as the leading edge of a sustainable effort to revitalize currently abandoned properties.

A crew of 6-12 workers, with two or three large excavating tractors and dump trucks, could make major progress at reasonable cost. The more workers and equipment, the faster the process happens. The end result is clean, developable land in the heart of the region. That means more jobs.

To do this, we need to build a list of supporters and seek out those investors of charitable dollars or patient equity. This is doable. Yes, a lot of work, but it's definitely doable.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cherokee Street Blues

Cherokee Street is one of the storied streets of St. Louis. Over the years it has maintained its focus as one of the city's neighborhood commercial corridors. It runs from the old Lemp Brewery on the east to Gravois on the west. In between, it's a narrow commercial strip, lined with historic buildings, shops, and apartments.

Over the past ten years or so, it has become one of the city's emerging creative areas. Today it is an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants, small business creative entrepreneurs, and residents. Mostly, it's a group of passionate, dedicated people working together to make the area a better place to live and work.

The greater part of Cherokee Street is shared between the 9th and 20th wards, all of which may change after the next aldermanic ward redistricting. The reason for the change is population losses in the city. The 2010 census showed about an 8% loss in city population, heaviest in the north, but generally pretty even throughout. The net result in terms of ward redistricting will likely be a pulling south of ward boundaries.

So why call this post "Cherokee Street Blues"? Because the blues are about suffering, and we all know there is a lot of pain in St. Louis. The process of ward redistricting is no different. For many, it will cause lots of pain and indigestion.

Since the census was released, there's been a lot of pain expressed about the city's loss of people. Maybe "St. Louis Blues" is another song waiting to be rewritten. A rap version maybe? Whether it's ragtime, blues, or rap, St. Louis is a place of creativity, art, and - yes - pain; and, even though people here don't like it: change.

Most of the city's historic population losses have happened north. In fact, Cherokee Street's 20th ward was formerly part of North City, around the intersection of Kingsighway and West Florissant roads. The ward was moved to south city in the last redistricting of aldermanic wards, and was designated an "opportunity ward" for the election of an African American alderman.

The old northside 20th ward seat had long been held by an African American alderman, and in order to move the ward south, without violating the Voting Rights Act, the city needed to draw a new ward boundary where an African American candidate stood a good chance of being elected. The new southside 20th ward was created, and, since 2000, a white alderman has been elected in the strongly black ward - twice.

In the meantime, north city continues to lose population. According to the 2010 census, since 2000, some northside wards have lost over 20% of their populations. There's no doubt that the next aldermanic ward redistricting will create more pain. Loss of wards in north city creates much concern, as does potential loss of African American elected officials. The new census is foreshadowing of more St. Louis change. As city and regional residents, our challenge is how we move forward.

The first things cited when it comes to city population loss are high crime and lousy schools. There are lots of other reasons, but those two are almost always at the top of the list. Families with school age children move out and people living in high crime neighborhoods leave. In some parts of St. Louis city, population losses have created huge vacancy.

On March 19th, NextSTL is presenting "Open/Closed", a conference on vacant land in St. Louis. The conference will bring together a variety of community leaders and regular St. Louisans to discuss the challenges and opportunties of vacancy in St. Louis.

Thinking back on the challenges causing vacancy, add jobs to the top of the list. With abundant vacant land, shouldn't St. Louis be able to create affordable, attractive site locations for new employment?

What about education? Building on St. Louis' standing as one of the top bio-tech centers in the country, are there ways to connect local institutions, such as our strong universities and biotech companies, with young people in St. Louis to leverage underutilized urban land into opportunities in the emerging fields of green urban agriculture and the green economy? These are some of the ideas which will be explored at the Open/Closed conference.

Heading back down to Cherokee Street, the creative energy will continue. It too shows population losses, but the built environment of the area remains largely intact. Its population losses are not immediately evident, and are more a result of a reduction in household size and number. Old four-family flats might now house one family and a studio or home office. Raw numbers of population loss make headlines, but they do not tell the whole story. As in so much of St. Louis, there are interesting nuances below the surface.

The blues can be slow with lots of pain, or upbeat and filled with hope - like when Chuck Berry and an electric guitar transformed the blues into rock and roll. So whether it's a new version of the St. Louis Blues or the still unwritten Cherokee Street Blues, the way the songs come out will be based on the way we work together. We have the resources. It's up to us to make the best good with them.