by Michael R. Allen
The western half of St. Louis Place suffered some of the most severe building loss of any city neighborhood within the last 50 years. While many houses and businesses survive, there are a few blocks there that provoke comments akin to Camilo Jose Vergara’s chilling statement in The New American Ghetto: “There is so much empty land that in some places the city seems to have ceased to exist.”
The extreme appearance of parts of St. Louis Place is jarring to people not accustomed to seeing urban decay in their daily lives. The preponderance of vacant land is frightening even to optimists. However, most struggling north side neighborhoods don’t look like that. From Hyde Park to the Ville, the more common pattern of north side decay comes in rampant abandonment of buildings, substandard conditions of many occupied units, gradual and scattered building loss and flimsy, quick-to-decay new construction. Even more important to consider is that most of north St. Louis has a population density greater than St. Louis Place.
How practical is the proposed Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit to most of north St. Louis? Not very much, it seems. The latest version of that tax credit act that will be considered in the state legislature’s upcoming veto session mandates developments of at least fifty acres. Fifty acres has proven difficult to assemble in even St. Louis Place. In areas with greater population density, use of the tax credit would be almost impossible and even less desirable than it is on the near north side. Take the Blairmont approach to a densely-populated distressed neighborhood in north St. Louis and the acquisition phase would be cultural annihilation.
North St. Louis is a large place with many different types of neighborhoods. There is no denying north city faces unique challenges, and that it’s high time that state government aid in the rebuilding of half of the state’s oldest big city. However, the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act is really only practical for the near north side where developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. wants to use it. In areas where vacant buildings and substandard housing are more common than frontier-like expanses of vacant land, land assemblage isn’t the most pressing development concern or the most appropriate strategy for renewal. We still have the chance to prevent the Ville or Wells-Goodfellow from looking like the southwest corner of St. Louis Place. We have the chance to use incentives to improve neighborhoods for current residents, not for potential developers. Surely a better incentive for renewal for north St. Louis could be devised.