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St. Louis Mayor Is Wrong on Eminent Domain

October 15, 2005 Big Box, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy 3 Comments

The following was a message from The Mayor’s Desk today:

Ban Would Harm the City

A group of outstate legislators has proposed a ban on eminent domain for all but the most basic public purposes.

I agree that the state’s laws regarding eminent domain should be changed. The changes should make the process fairer for property owners and return eminent domain to its original purpose of re-development, rather than the development of virgin land. That’s why I’ve been working with the Governor’s Committee on Eminent Domain and with state legislators to make adjustments to state law that will continue to allow eminent domain to be used appropriately in places like the City of St. Louis, while preventing the types of abuses that have made headlines over the past several months.

Why should the City keep the tool of eminent domain?

The City of St. Louis has plenty of abandoned and deteriorating buildings and lots that are privately owned. These abandoned properties wreak havoc with our economy, havoc with quality of life in our neighborhoods, and havoc with our City budget. The City spends millions of dollars each year demolishing some vacant buildings and boarding up others, cutting weeds on vacant lots, attempting to keep vandals from committing various crimes on these properties, and citing properties for code violations — the same properties, again and again and again. We must be able to acquire these properties to assemble sites and put them back into productive use. We cannot afford to let them continue as economic and social liabilities.

In addition, the City needs new retail, business and residential development. And economic development these days means sites of 10-15 acres, not the 25-foot lots in which most of our City was originally developed.

A significant portion of the massive amounts of redevelopment activity that we have seen in here in the past four years would not have been possible without the use of eminent domain.

The City uses eminent domain sparingly, mostly to address problem properties and to clear up the titles of abandoned properties. We use it to assemble small lots into useful sites. Very rarely, we use it to acquire a non-problem property that is critical to a large development in an area plagued by problems.

Keep in mind:

Eminent domain is usually expensive. Property owners are often compensated with amounts far in excess of the value of their properties.
It is time consuming. It often takes years for the court process to be concluded.
And it is unpredictable.

As a result, eminent domain is only used in the City when it’s the only way to complete site assembly at a semi-reasonable price. And in most eminent domain cases, generous settlements are achieved prior to the court outcome.

Here’s the bottom line on eminent domain for the City: Any ban that failed to preserve the sorts of uses the City requires would stop our revitalization in its tracks.

Wow, we’d better not oppose eminent domain or we’ll be responsible for halting the revitalization of the city! What a threat! Politician’s and their yes men (and women) love to make controversial issues like this into a black in white issue (so to speak). They make it all cut and dry and then attempt to paint the opposition as being the ones stifling progress. Classic, very classic.

Everyone knows the mere threat of eminent domain is enough to scare most people away. The city blights an area and property owners see the writing on the wall. So they sell out rather than spend their life savings on a lawyer in an attempt to save their home or business.

The Mayor does have a valid point about properties that are a vacant and a continuing nuisance. But the city already can’t handle the vacant buildings and lots it owns through tax foreclosure so to acquire more through eminent domain seems to be a stretch of already limited funds. Yes, keeping eminent domain for long vacant or properties with a long history of building violations makes sense. Everything else is questionable.

The Mayor would love for you to believe this is about vacant buildings and protecting the public safety from crimes. In truth this is about giving private property to big money developers for shopping, research centers, biomed complexes or QuikTrip gas stations.

But the part that really got me was this sentence:

In addition, the City needs new retail, business and residential development. And economic development these days means sites of 10-15 acres, not the 25-foot lots in which most of our City was originally developed

If only they went after 10-15 acres. The sprawl center known as Loughborough Commons is 30 acres and took nice occupied homes. The new SLU research tower is only on 9 acres but that is for a single building, a major waste of land that forced the relocation of longtime city business Peerless Restaurant Supply. But the grand daddy of all is the current attempt to grab 173 acres for a biomed center (article) at the request of a collaboration of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Fighting any one of these would be a formidable task but put them together and any property owner might as well bend over. Add to the mix ribbon cutting happy elected officials and you can kiss your personal property goodbye.

Urban hating developers and elected officials want to convince everyone that 25ft wide lots are obsolete. Nothing can be done unless you have 10-173 acres. Never mind that civilizations have existed for centuries without such massive sites. Major cities where land is valuable and urban density is even more valuable just don’t advocate for such massive projects. Sure, Lowe’s isn’t going to build on a 25ft wide lot but in a city with all the vacant lots owned by the city you’d think this administration could find a way to bring investment without needing to take people’s homes and businesses. Pity all those vacant lots aren’t near highway interchanges or the big cats. You’d think the city would be more practical about these matters!

But, this is the same city that told a property owner he couldn’t tear down the Century Building for parking, acquired the property, and then proceeded to raze the building for parking. Maybe this is just par for the course.

– Steve


Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. cyr says:

    So the mayor would support an initiative to claim The Avalon theater? ‘Cuz the community could use someone to cut the weeds there and put up a movie theater. Or how about the abandoned apartment complex down the block from me that the owner is simply sitting on -the one that I used pictures of to serve as an example of a post apocalyptic wasteland in video I just made?

    Why does eminent domain never affect these people?


  2. Matt B says:

    Cyr, it has been used for that purpose. But you won’t hear about it because it doesn’t fit the nice David v. Goliath scenario that makes for an easy to understand, tug on the heart strings story to lead the 10:00 news.

    One example is the Melba Theatre building on S. Grand. That place rotted for years and only after the owner was threatened with eminent domain did he accept a reasonable offer. It is now being prep’d for some real development. Where were the protesters standing up for the original owners property rights? Where were the news stories about how this building was saved by the threat of eminent domain?

    My problem with the anti-eminent domain movement is that urbanists and liberals are looking at this as a black and white issue when it really is not. I mean what other issue has urbanists joining forces with the Missouri Home Builders Association, as was suggested at a recent anti-Eminent Domain meeting.

    Consiously or sub-consciously anti-Eminent Domain urbanists are really against the proposed projects, not eminent domain. But eminent domain in most cases is their last best hope to stop the project usually through negative publicity. Is Maplewood Commons a good project because they didn’t have to use eminent domain and voters supported the project, and is the Melba is a bad project because they had to resort to eminent domain threats to get a new owner?

    If they use eminent domain to get a developer rehab the Avalon or the ramshackle apartment building you mention are you going to line up to protest? I bet you don’t.

    If they use eminent domain to demolish the Avalon or the apartment building are you going to line up to protest? Probably.

    If you don’t like a project, fight the project not the tool.

    [REPLY – Good points. I think we can draw a line to limit the use of eminent domain so that it can be used when a run down property needs redevelopment but not when a big-box developer wants to take homes to create sprawl in the city.

    Our elected officials see dollar signs and can’t be trusted with eminent domain as a tool. Therefore, we must limit it to reasonable levels. – Steve]

  3. Michael says:

    Mayor sez: “Any ban that failed to preserve the sorts of uses the City requires would stop our revitalization in its tracks.”

    So an eminent domain ban will stop redevelopment and suing two of your own most active, pro-urban citizens while putting a political hit out on one of downtown’s most creative developers will encourage development?


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