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Economy & Business

The troubled past and possible futures of 1303 Montgomery St.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2013 - At first glance, 1303 Montgomery St. hardly seems like the most promising of locales. Tagged with the generic moniker “Lot 6,” the vacant expanse of hardy grasses, frozen mud and broken concrete on the northwest corner of Montgomery and N. 13th was once the parking lot for an ill-fated pedestrian mall.

It has since reverted to a sad chunk of unwanted space gradually being reclaimed by nature and disuse. Responsible ownership has meant the parcel isn’t neglected and the weeds are kept at bay. But in an Old North St. Louis neighborhood slowly progressing toward redevelopment, Lot 6 still sits barren and idle, a 6,750-square foot reminder of a problem that plagues urban areas from coast to coast.

Yet when Josi Nielsen looks at Lot 6, she sees something quite different. The local real estate investor envisions a network of greenhouses constructed of locally made, environmentally friendly materials with a rotation of staggered weekly harvests to provide heirloom produce varieties for use in area dining establishments.

“I think this might actually happen,” she said. “Whether it is our idea or someone else that comes in and does it in a different way, I don’t know. But I think St. Louis can turn its glut of vacant land into something pretty spectacular.”

Destination of last resort

If something spectacular does indeed sprout at 1303 Montgomery, it may be thanks to the Sustainable Land Lab competition, a unique experiment spearheaded by Washington University and the City of St. Louis to find sustainable uses for vacant land in St. Louis.

Nielsen’s greenhouse proposal is one of 15 semifinalists and if the urban garden is chosen as one of the final four, her team will get $5,000 in seed money and a two-year lease on Lot 6 to put the idea into practice. Other plans for target lots in the neighborhood include a chess pocket park, a community-oriented retail enterprise in a mobile, green building and a sunflower field.

“We looked at St. Louis through the lens of our having so many vacant lots,” Nielsen said. “It’s a terrible thing, but we have this amazing stock here that if we can shift our perspective, this becomes a great advantage.”

Of course, at the moment, Lot 6 seems like anything but an advantage and Old North isn’t the only neighborhood facing an issue with vacant properties. According to Otis Williams, executive director for the St. Louis Development Corporation, more than 10,000 similar tracts are now owned by the Land Reutilization Authority, about a fifth of them with buildings still on them.

Even that’s not a complete count since it doesn’t include privately held properties. Instead, it just looks at those neglected parcels that have fallen back to the city’s LRA, often due to non-payment of taxes or fines. A true number of abandoned properties isn’t known.

But the diversity is interesting. Williams said almost anything might cross his desk. LRA now owns 8,004 empty lots, 2,374 buildings, 62 billboards and even an entire cemetery.

“We are a destination of last resort,” he said. “Generally, properties go through the foreclosure process and when there are no buyers, the courts deed them to us."

Williams said that typically means the city will get the least desirable parcels, those that generate no interest at auction.

The city, however, isn’t in the business of holding land. Ideally, it is in the business of getting rid of it and Williams said that about 300-500 lots are sold in a typical year. At the moment, the 10,440 lots owned by the city represents numbers that have inflated somewhat since the economic crisis. In good times, LRA may own as few as 9,000 tracts.

“In recent years, we have been getting properties that have gone through the foreclosure process and are reasonably good homes where people have just fallen on bad times,” said Williams.

The buyers are a mixed group of private developers, nonprofits and other parties. The city even runs a special discount program for neighbors who want to purchase empty lots next door to their own. Williams said Habitat for Humanity generally buys about 10 to 30 lots annually and last year the NorthSide Regeneration Project, a private developer, bought a whopping 1,200.

Location often makes a difference but other issues can crop up as well. Crumbling buildings are one. The city has an active demolition program knocking down some 180-200 dilapidated edifices every year.

“Almost every property that we own has been built on at least once, the city being only 61 square miles,” he said. “Generally, properties that come into our inventory have been built on and most often we have to deal with their previous use – lead, asbestos, petroleum, underground storage tanks, all those issues.”

Industrial properties, known as brownfields, often have such concerns but special tax credits can sometimes take the edge off for buyers who might be looking at remediation.

“Generally, it’s the owner that will do it, but occasionally, we will assemble a large number of properties to try and generate desire for developers to redevelop parcels and we will work with the state on that project,” said Williams. “We’ll often have a developer on the back end who is waiting to take it on once we’ve worked through the clean up.”

As for lands the city can’t sell immediately, it simply tries to keep the lawn cut and the windows boarded. Still that’s sometimes a challenge in and of itself.

Williams said that the city’s 10,000 lots are patrolled by a maintenance crew of just eight people.

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