What the Next Mayor Could Do

by Michael R. Allen

Next week, while the author of this post is safely ensconced on a job site in Oklahoma, St. Louisans will select a Democratic candidate for Mayor. Given tradition and barring mercurial rises in Green Party prospects, the Democrat will go on to win the general election in April.

While the aldermen still hold extraordinary power in our system, the mayor has a fair share. Incumbent Francis Slay has honed that power deftly, more so than most of his recent predecessors. Until the city gets a modern charter, whoever is mayor will have to muster powers of persuasion as much as actual powers of office to get things done.

The mayor has power over matters related to historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization. Here’s what the next mayor should do to make the best use of those powers:

Diversion of demolition funds controlled by the Building Division and Land Reutilization into a building stabilization fund. Tearing a vacant house down sometimes costs a lot more than brick repairs and plastic guttering. The next mayor should make sure that demolition and stabilization are equal options – a move that actually might save the city money.

Appointment of more young people to public boards and commissions. Everyone talks about the energy of young people, but the only energy that counts in the system is energy with power. Take off the Vanguard Cabinet’s training wheels before everyone hits 40.

Direct the Community Development Agency to end aldermanic allocation of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. St. Louis gets CDBG funds to fight blight, not to let aldermen play Santa Claus. Since 1984, the city has split up CDBG funds by ward, letting aldermen appropriate it to programs that may not always meet program guidelines. Meanwhile vacancy spreads across the city from The Ville to Gravois Park. Let’s get it right.

Withhold support from projects that include excess parking. Mayor Slay has used his informal powers to goad CVS away from a horrible Lindell Boulevard drug store plan. The next mayor should keep up that level of action, and refuse to sign redevelopment bills for projects that include excess parking. The mayor should push for setting a parking maximum ordinance. Right now, we have parking minimums.

End the requirement that a citizen have a letter of aldermanic support to buy a city-owned building, and get city-owned parcels listed in the MLS. The Land Reutilization Authority requires such a letter. This makes the transaction less like a real estate transaction and more like a political deal. Likewise, LRA does not list its properties in the Multiple Listing Service or any other conventional real estate database. The next mayor needs to fix these problems so more property gets back on the city tax rolls.

Veto spot zoning and moratorium bills. Business licensing and building codes should apply predictably across the city. Yet aldermen are constantly interfering with city codes by pushing legislation tailored to serve local interests. That makes the city an unfriendly environment for small businesses. The next mayor should veto bills that tack on special changes — including street and alley closures.

Support citywide preservation review of demolition permits. This is related to the previous item. The current preservation ordinance that allows aldermen to exempt wards was pushed by Mayor Clarence Harmon in 1999. The next mayor should close up the loopholes. Many aldermen have voluntarily placed previously excluded wards (14, 21) under review anyway.

Use the city’s website to publish useful information. The votes of the Board of Aldermen, Board of Estimate & Apportionment and other bodies are nearly impossible to find unless people like fishing through PDFs. The next mayor should push to make this information accessible. Likewise, many city departments don’t even list the names of officers and their contact information. That needs to be online.

Implement the Sustainability Plan. Parts of the Sustainability Plan apply to city agencies, including recommendations that city-funded demolitions utilize materials recycling methods that minimize waste. Will the next mayor direct the Building Division to change its practices, or will the plan sit on a shelf only to be waved in the face of private parties trying to do business in the city?

Oppose use of city incentives for creating jobs below the standards of the minimum wage ordinance. Sorry, but a Dollar General is not enough of a reason for the city to issue tax increment financing or tax abatement. Instead of using these tools to let developers (who often don’t live or even work in the city) to gain wealth, the next mayor should only use these tools if they create wealth for city residents.

Make sure public buildings have preservation protections. City Hall is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places. What? While the building is a City Landmark, it doesn’t have National status. City Hall and other buildings owned by the city should get local and national designations to guide future stewardship and celebrate our awesome civic architecture.

I could go on, but the mayor’s term will only be four years. Until 2023, when we get a more reasonably-sized Board of Aldermen, mayors will have an uphill battle on policy reform. I just hope that whoever wins on Tuesday follows the tactical lead of the incumbent in making the mayor a force that can cut through the aldermanic system.

Feel free to fire away in the comments section…

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  • Guester

    What about getting rid of parking minimums instead of adding parking maximums?

  • Anonymous

    Great stuff! My hopes:

    - launch a city blog, which could serve as a centralized news source

    - appoint a city CIO (chief information/technology officer) to begin modernizing city tech systems and introduce open data policies

    - lower the barrier to entry for new businesses

    - put a laser focus on getting vacant property occupied, perhaps by drawing special flexibility zones for new uses

  • Matt Frederick

    I very much agree with these two points:

    1. Appointment of more young people to public boards and commissions.

    and

    2. Oppose use of city incentives for creating jobs below the standards of the minimum wage ordinance.

    I think that these two points are related. “Box” retail is something that neither “young people” nor people concerned about creating jobs with a living wage find desirable. As much as I believe that the so-called “Vanguard Cabinet” is a good thing, it’s always seemed to me that the permissible policy scope of the “Vanguard Cabinet” is, by design, cabined. “Creative Class” micro-initiatives are well and good, but such micro-initiatives are insufficient toward effectuating the goal of a livable and sustainable city. It will require more than a “Vanguard Cabinet,” whatever the extent that it is empowered, to achieve the goal of a livable and sustainable city. It will require more than the “appointment of more young people to public boards and commissions.” In addition to these laudable points, it will require making common cause with constituencies that, at the moment, are not aligned. It will require coalition building. It will require politics.

  • http://twitter.com/stlcolleen Colleen Kirby

    Allen for Mayor ;) But truly, agreed 100%. Have considered each of these points in some form or fashion as well but of course you articulate them outstandingly. Let’s hold them to it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elliott.stevens.75 Elliott Stevens

    “End the requirement that a citizen have a letter of aldermanic
    support to buy a city-owned building, and get city-owned parcels listed
    in the MLS.”

    HERE! HERE!….HERE!!!! I have personal experience with the Alderman / good ol’ boys and girls club on this one. I tried to buy a LRA-owned house in Tower Grove South in 2011 which I intended to owner-occupy. In spite of following EVERY LRA rule and requirement to the letter, Alderwoman Jennifer Florida used her political influence to break the deal up (LRA had phoned me and stated we are ready to close the deal with you) and steer the property to one of her inner-circle investor buddies. Note that this was FEBUARY 2011 and the house STILL HAS NOT BEEN TOUCHED and remains vacant and in disrepair as of MARCH 2013!!!! If she had been prevented from involving herself in this deal, the house would be now be finished and my family and I would be living there. CROOKED ALL DAY LONG!!!!

  • Lyda

    Michael… Thank you for your insightful comments. I agree with most of them. Look forward to talking with you more, and figuring out how I can help implement. Thx Lyda

  • http://www.facebook.com/michaela.burwelltaylor Michaela Burwell-Taylor

    Excellent write up! Demolition fund turns into stabilization fund – so simple, yet genius.

  • Downtown2007

    How about creating a form based zoning code?

  • dempster holland

    In 2003, I was the attorney for a downtown apartment building which
    we wished to change into condominiums. Everything worked except
    for the city’s requirement of one parking space for each unit. We pointed
    out that there were plrenty of unused spaces within one block, but that
    would not satisfy the city unless we had a written contract with the
    parking companies, which we could not get. So we did not convert to
    condominiums. I wonder what other projects have faced this problem