Towards an Ecology of Innovation: Reimagining the Land Reutilization Authority

by RJ Koscielniak

They were discarded like lepers, and then collected for bureaucratic internment. They make up an archipelago of crumbling concrete, contaminated plain, and overgrown fields; many have been forgotten, while some have passed on from a famine of purpose. As the city population leaned at the edge, abandoned buildings became grave markers — lots devolved into cemetery stillness. In this unfortunate tale of urban decline, the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority emerged to play the role of Charon — carrying those lost souls of the built environment away from the world of the living. St. Louis vacancy — then and now – rivals Detroit; total population decline has found easy parallel with Cleveland. As a city, we have escaped very little of the Rust Belt strife – factories scheduled fewer and fewer shifts, schools graduated less students, and work became history. Yet, while the pulse of the city slowed, many lepers lived silently on.

The LRA-owned house at 3244 Iowa Street in Benton Park West.

In its current iteration, no one wants to manage the Land Reutilization Authority, it functions as a symptom of inconsolable civic grief – the mark of a city consigned to an unenviable fate, a place wholly dumped to its own disastrous designs. Decisions spanning the spectrum of society contributed to the collapse, pervasive prejudice and fear, an orthodox us vs. them worldview that was exhibited in every wasted opportunity to recognize similarity between residents. LRA is, therefore, an agent of memory, a parcel-by-parcel chronicle of unwanted and undesired people and property. Until now, LRA has been purgatory while we wait out doubts of urban investment, a social balm until creeping economic development can mete out salvation for eroded husks of industrial, commercial, and residential space. Yet, with the right guts and guile, LRA can be a generator of community change. It has the potential to be an activator of expansive urban progress.

Reimagining its charge as an agency for the common good remains the linchpin to repurposing LRA. Traditional patience for and reliance on savvy real estate development has exhibited inconsistent results, corollary is an honor system of community engagement and grassroots contribution that has proven careless of and unjust to the needs of residents. The agency has often been divorced from community development, marshaled as a tool for groups and projects that exhibit the civic transparency of the Mississippi River. As an unfortunate symptom of our contemporary urban reality, LRA oscillates between failed-project pariah and easy-deal opportunist. However, the agency can find a new reason for existence, and revitalize St. Louis, by changing the standard and tone of future redevelopment — while beginning to realize the transformative potential of its holdings.

Our problems require that we introduce the beginnings of an Ecology of Innovation in St. Louis, an ecosystem of organizations, ideas and action that supports the generation, activation, acceleration, and funding of local socially-beneficial creativity and innovation. We can begin immediately by replicating initiatives in New York City that connect artists and craftsmen with empty storefronts, using these spaces as workshops and neighborhood-defining galleries. Then, reaching beyond that traditional terminus of innovation, we can start leasing empty buildings to young lawyers, rookie nurses and doctors, and budding carpenters, electricians and tradesmen — those individuals and groups that are driven by entrepreneurship and commitment to place. The agency can also incorporate larger farming and growing strategies, creating pilot plots for agriculture, bioremediation studies, and biodiesel production. Ultimately, LRA has a chance to be one of the most important players in the Ecology of Innovation — by providing the space for ingenuity to live and work after leaving the confines of an established acceleration entity. With low rents and moderate renovation of structurally sound buildings, LRA can facilitate ambition and innovation in city neighborhoods. By providing real opportunities for the next makers and menders to take a powerful step in developing their own capacity, LRA can change St. Louis into a city that takes risks on cultivating individuals and communities.

LRA-owned building at 4202 Lee Avenue in the O’Fallon neighborhood.

The process will not be easy, and it cannot be expedited, but it could well create a city that is a leader in community-based social innovation. Every step we take requires more steps; it means we will need new leaders, new ideas, and energy to succeed at each point in the idea ecosystem. While members of the creative and stochastic milieus could enter into these spaces on the weight of their credentials, a system of talented business and innovation accelerators needs be formed to support entrepreneurs before they can enter into their own space. A lasting Ecology of Innovation is far from being fully realized, but it is a long-term possibility for vindicating the potential of empty urban space and ambitious individuals. In the meantime, LRA can encourage renovation and construction that embraces green building strategy and techniques, while also taking an honest appraisal of which structures have the physical integrity to become serviceable under new direction. Ultimately, the Land Reutilization Authority can re-imagine its role in St. Louis by creating a model that advocates for community development over economic growth, one that celebrates the capacities, skills and abilities of city residents. By remaking itself as an organ of social innovation, LRA can abandon its post as Charon of the urban past, and become a champion of local innovation and interdependence.

RJ Koscielniak believes that good ideas can save communities. He is a graduate student at Washington University, where he concentrates on vacant land use, urban ecology, and social innovation. He is on the leadership staff at Flood Wall Creative and Whats Up Magazine, and attempts to generate and activate new subjectivities at various local organizations. He can be contacted at rj@floodwallcreative.com. Also, he thinks you should support City to River (www.citytoriver.org).

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  • http://www.stl-style.com Jeff

    Damn, RJ. Who can argue with that? Beautiful post. I hope the LRA is reading…

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  • Douglas Duckworth

    “By remaking itself as an organ of social innovation, LRA can abandon its post as Charon of the urban past, and become a champion of local innovation and interdependence.”

    Bureaucracies do not remake themselves. Change will require action at the state level — dissolving its incorporation placing it under the direct control of the City. Actually, quite a large amount of this should happen with the entire SLDC.

  • scott

    streets are not safe…who wants to live in fear?…..i love saint louis …..but it seems like most of the lra owned propertys are in the dreaded north side …..i think the cops need to step thier game up….

    this blog is great ….you all are going to turn saint louis around
    thanks for all you do

  • Justin

    I want to make this a reality!!

  • stljoie

    This is what Soulard looked like when the city wanted to bulldoze it….now one of the most expensive neighborhoods to live in!!!

  • RJ Koscielniak

    I think this IS possible, it’s really a question of generating interest and mobilizing the creative and constructive communities in St. Louis. Yes, bureacracy is difficult to transform, but only if we continue to look at these agencies as abodes of red tape – if we expand our definition of social good, we’ll be surprised to see what we can achieve. Over the next couple of months, there will be plenty of opportunities to put something like this into action.

  • Pat

    I dont think the LRA has any incentive to market parcels and properties.

    How are they paid I wonder..

    The city’s goal and city departments should be to get properties back on the tax roll– paying taxes.

    maybe if the LRA staff benefited somehow by the sale of abandoned properties, they might have more incentive to market.

    Possibly they could get a percentage of the new tax income generated by the additional tax revenue..

  • Karen Simmons

    Scott hit the nail on the head! Safety and QUALITY OF LIFE. After all is said and done, after we finish emotionalizing the situation, the bottom line is what’s the quality of life like? Is the area safe, what is the school district like, what type of culture does the neighborhood have, is there fabric at all to make up a neighborhood!

    The road leads us back to QUALITY OF LIFE. Sometimes, though well intended, St. Louis does more to stall much needed development rather than spur it on. Washington Ave., Locust, South St. Louis, Manchester/Forest Park East, have all proved the fact folks will embrace change and development. I subscribe to the belief, there’s so much to be done no need in choosing one process over the other, to the failure of all necessary steps towards a forward march. Large development, small development, block by block, brick by brick, acre by acre, there’s room for them ALL.

    Answers come easy if we ask the right questions. Why did people abandon the city in the first place, SAFETY AND QUALITY OF LIFE. Dare I say SCHOOLS. Well, if you don’t have a tax base, you don’t have these benefits. I’ll take old bricks, new bricks, energy efficient, homes as long as we stay with the urban grid.

    Could it be that not focusing on the why has caused us to create the monster otherwise known as LRA.

  • Karen Simmons

    I must add, some of the photos do show promise, but photos ALONE DO NOT TELL THE ENTIRE STORY. I just noticed the address of one of the beautiful, diamonds in the rough. A jewel indeed, but I can’t say the same about the surrounding environs…I live north, am African American and would not dare move there in the community’s present state, 4202 Lee is not where I want to be!

    Until we deal with truth, even changing the name or make of LRA would only give way to the same beast of a different color unless we deal with the holistic reasons of urban decay. WHY did folks jump ship? Then who moved, where did they move, what will it take to bring them back…QUALITY of life, SAFETY. The census figures from 1880 forward tells the historic story of St. Louis and paints a telling picture! The question WHY is the tie that binds! We can no longer stick our heads in the sand on this issue.

  • Matt

    The LRA indeed has no incentive for turning these properties into actual tax-revenue-generating properties. I have always felt, since moving here, that this should be the number one goal of an actual “engaged” mayor. The LRA should be an entity that actually develops these parcels, regardless of what part of the city they sit, and put them to use to revitalize and improve city streets/neighborhoods. Just waiting on a speculator or developer to buy them only leaves them to continually rot. We have seen neighborhoods arise from the same state to become “hot” neighborhoods. If the LRA were to play a larger role in development, they might actually be seen as progressive.

  • Sisyphus

    Karen:

    Just from casually reading the Post Dispatch, I know there have been a few fatal shootings on Lee Avenue recently. I haven’t been to the area myself, but you say you are a North Side resident and that you wouldn’t want to live there. I have no reason to doubt your impression of the neighborhood, and indeed, from the news, it certainly seems like it is a dangerous place these days. And even if it is not a dangerous place, so long as it is widely perceived as such, my guess is that it has little hope of attracting the type of investment and attention necessary to make it a better, safer place in the near future.

    I’m no expert, but it seems neighborhood revitalization, or re-investment, is a real chicken-and-egg problem. On one hand, in order to jump start revitalization, would-be homeowners, renters, and entrepreneurs must be satisfied that a neighborhood is safe enough to live in, work in, and invest their hard-earned money in. On the other hand, if everyone needs assurance that a neighborhood is a safe bet before they will move there or invest in it, no progress will be made because everyone will be waiting for everyone else to make the first move.

    Perhaps the property on Lee Avenue has little hope in the short term of being rehabbed and put back on the tax rolls. But then again, at least one intrepid entrepreneur has recently set up shop close by, near the corner of Lee and Newstead: http://www.thenorthsider.com/2010/07/entrepreneur-bringing-flames-to-newstead/.

    Here’s to hoping that Mr. Miggins will be successful with Flames BBQ Place, and that his success will encourage others to take a risk on the neighborhood.

  • Karen

    The journey of a million miles begins with a single step. This is a step in the right direction for FLAME. I read the article and applauded. WOW, the chicken and the egg problem is the same conversation I have had with neighbors, friends, associates and African Americans who fled the city for a better QUALITY OF LIFE! Again, it is the WHY DID THEY leave we all have to explore! Which many rarely honestly talk about. Far too many keep their heads in the sand on this issue!

    You’ve further spoken truth as you point out the realities of investing hard earned money in an area with potential over the long haul. Not everybody is willing to take that risk! There’s nothing wrong with ROI. Great things are happening in that area, which is in some aspects ironically a relatively “stable” area. Almost an oxymoron. I can remember when folks relocating to Lee, Kossuth, Margaretta, Bessie and other surrounding blocks, were considered to be “walking in tall cotton.” Change is the one thing constant in life, we, however, have the power to dictate whether or not it is positive or negative change.

    My soapbox remains, we have to increase the population of the city of St. Louis in a diverse fashion. I support small development, large development, rehabbing, brick by brick and block by block revitalization. Hence, my huge support of “NSR” North Side Regeneration. That’s what it is going to take to get 300,000 folks to repopulate our city! It’s not going to happen just by loving and hugging bricks. I love them passionately as well, I live in one of these diamonds in the rough! It’s short sighted and prolongs the ability to SAVE MORE of these jewels as we fight over the who and symantics versus coming to grips with the what that must be done. Anybody know a man by the name of Judge Dierker and his most recent ruling. Anybody heard of folks inability to see the forest for looking at the trees.

    I’m simply amazed at how folks are meeting, celebrating and supporting the revitalization of the Arch Grounds which will come with a price tag of $300 to $400 million, of dare I say tax, government and some private funding. Yet North Side developent was fought over, despised, maligned, nit picked and almost dead on arrival more because of the who and how versus the far reaching benefits for our future. It yet lives!

    In looking at the word PRESERVE, I often wonder do folks really want progress or do folks want to keep the current status quo for those who live on the North Side? Truly understanding the WHY will give life to the WHAT that desparetly needs to happen on the North Side sooner rather than later.

  • Karen

    Short version. If we all played our cards right, LRA couldn’t keep an abundant supply of houses!