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Economy & Business

Vacant lots: when temporary change becomes transformational

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2013 - In Old North, Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, Lot 6’s owner, is happy to take a reporter on a walking tour of the area’s vacant spaces – despite a stinging wind and frigid temperatures. (Lot 6 is part of the Sustainable Land Lab competition, an experiment spearheaded by Washington University to find sustainable uses for vacant land in St. Louis.)

“I might be somewhat unusual but when I see an empty building or lot, I see opportunity,” he said, staring out at 1303 Montgomery where Josi Nielsen sees an urban garden someday. “I see something that could easily be transformed into something really positive for the neighborhood. We’ve just seen so many examples of buildings where others have given up and we have been able to transform them into a positive use.”

In fact, those examples surround Lot 6. Across Montgomery to the south is a handsome redeveloped apartment building. On the other side of N. 13th Street, a grocery co-op and community garden sit while to the north rests the Northside Workshop, a community arts space.

“That’s a good example of what can happen with empty lots,” said Thomas of the co-op. “It’s right next to a building that had been basically sitting empty for years and was converted to a neighborhood grocery store.”

Still, if 1303 Montgomery is surrounded by examples of a hopeful future, it is also hemmed in by reminders of a bleaker present. To the west, Lot 6 is bordered by more vacant land while Lot 5, another Land Lab site, lays unused on the southwest corner of Montgomery and N. 13th. Despite an ongoing redevelopment push that kicked into high gear a few years back, Old North remains riddled with vacant properties, some with crumbling buildings, that pockmark the neighborhood. Big picture groups like Thomas’ are often necessary to make things happen since individual buyers frequently lack the heft to overcome the inherent challenges.

“In some cases, there were interested buyers but those buyers couldn’t get any financing because the bank or lender would come out and look and see what was around it,” he said. “It’s hard to invest or get outside investment in property when it is surrounded by a bunch of other collapsing, vacant buildings.”

That’s why Thomas’ organization is working on the larger environment, sometimes revamping dilapidated buildings that others had given up for dead. The idea is to bring economic development and a stable residential presence back to the gritty 249-acre area presently anchored by St. Louis icon Crown Candy Kitchen, which – even on a cold day like this one – still has a line out the door for its famous shakes and malts.

The overall milieu is vital. Years ago, Crown may have been popular – but the neighborhood it inhabited wasn’t.

“When all this was just a decaying empty shell of a collection of buildings, we would have people who would get in their car and fly out of here as quickly as possible after they got their ice cream,” he said. “Now, they are more likely to walk down the street and see what else is here.”

That’s because of more shops opening in the area as well as better use of vacant space. The vacant lot across from Crown Candy doesn’t look vacant at all. It’s been nicely paved with benches and a handsome sidewalk.

That’s the idea with the Land Lab as well. It’s not necessarily to find a permanent use for a lot but rather to find a creative temporary application for it so it can be an asset to the community as the area gets back on its feet. Eventually, however, a commercial entity would likely take over such spots.

“As neighborhoods like this continue to grow and develop, there may be a demand for construction or longer-term uses, but in the meantime, you’d like to see something nice here,” Thomas said.

Dinner in a box

Some of those ideas can be pretty imaginative. For instance, Nielsen isn’t the only one vying for the use of Lot 6. Jim Fetterman, a landscape architect, envisions not greenhouses but cargo containers on the tract.

Dine-in cargo containers, that is.

“The idea is to create a restaurant opportunity,” said Fetterman, whose idea – entitled Bistro Box – would use the repurposed shipping vessels as a mini restaurant. “What you see are a lot of food trucks running around and I think that they have a lot of potential and yet they don’t have a lot of financing that could put them in the business or give them a storefront.”

If chosen, Lot 6 could become a small incubator for an aspiring restaurateur who would be put through a yearlong mentoring program in which he or she is advised by chefs while building a customer base. With luck, the new entrepreneur might have a big enough following to open his or her own establishment, perhaps right in the neighborhood. As Crown proves, a good eatery can be a magnet for more development and a trendsetter for an area.

Whatever the answer is, it will likely involve revenue production. It’s something Fetterman’s competitor Nielsen mentions as well.

“There’s no long-term sustainability relying on grant money,” she said. “It’s got to be economically viable. Farming is easy. Doing it in a decentralized, small site context will be the challenge, to figure out how that works.”

Private owners, public problem

In the end, whether it’s farming or dining, it will work only by getting everyone on the same page, something that isn’t always easy. Dealing with city-owned lots is one thing but there are a multitude of private owners as well.

“That’s one of the challenges the city has, private owners who are absentee and don’t really care,” Thomas said. “There are some ways the city, sometimes in combination with neighborhood groups, can apply some pressure on them. If you as a property owner aren’t doing a responsible job of taking care of the property, there ought to be some fines as an incentive to make that happen.”

Over time, fines can add up, leading to a lien and an eventual auction. Yet Thomas said property owners all have different motivations. His group often tries to work with those in the area to keep the grass cut or find new uses for the land.

“Sometimes, they are empty because the owner inherited it, never had any plans for it and haven’t gone out of their way to sell it,” Thomas said. “Or maybe they’ve tried to sell it in the past and they didn’t have any luck and are waiting for better economic times or for the neighborhood to reach a point where there is demand for lots to be bought and developed.”

Even when one is dealing with residential or former retail slots rather than brownfields, low-level environmental difficulties may be present through lead paint or other avenues of contamination, such as exhaust.

“Our city is old enough that with lead-based gas in cars, a lot of the pollution settled in on the soil,” Thomas said.

Winning teams for the Land Lab will be announced in April.

Fetterman hopes to be among them. He said the problem of vacant land is a widespread one.

“We think we’re bad with 10,000 lots,” he said. “We’re horrified by that but Philadelphia has 20,000 and Lord knows how many empty lots there are in Detroit. It’s a huge problem all across the country, not just in St. Louis.”

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