The on-going revitalization of the Greater Ville neighborhood in north St. Louis is a strong argument in support of the utility of eminent domain — and is illustrative of the power’s occasional necessity.
Two of the approximately 40 times the City has used eminent domain in the last five years were on a block of boarded up buildings and vacant lots in the Greater Ville. More than 70 percent of the block had already been abandoned to the City by default. One of the remaining privately owned properties belonged to an out-of-state owner who could not be located. The other, to 12+ separate heirs who could not all agree on a price or even whether or not to sell. In these two cases, the use of eminent domain allowed an entire neighborhood’s good to be realized after a carefully structured judicial process had set fair values on the properties.
Besides the Greater Ville nabe, new developments in Old North St. Louis, Gaslight Square, the Gate District, Botanical Heights, and Salisbury Place would simply not have been possible without the availability or use of eminent domain.
Given some of the more lurid recent news coverage, you’d think that governments were gobbling up private property every day. Whatever the case elsewhere, the use of eminent domain is extremely rare in the City. Of the tens of thousands of property transactions here over the past five years, only 40 or so cases ended up in the condemnation process. And some of those cases ended up being settled before a court outcome was determined.
In general, the eminent domain process is unpredictable, time consuming, and expensive. That is as it should be. It should always be difficult for government to take private property. But, it should never be impossible.
In some last-resort cases eliminating an otherwise intractable neighborhood problem, fostering neighborhood development, and completing site assembly at a fair price for a compelling development project — eminent domain is an essential tool.