There is nothing more discouraging — or damaging — to a neighborhood than an abandoned building.
At the beginning of this year, there were 5,504 vacant structures in the City of St. Louis. As daunting as the number sounds, we are making progress for the first time in decades.
Ron Smith, the City’s operations manager, has been tracking the issue and his analysis (which was on my desk this week) is interesting. During the 90s, he found more buildings were being abandoned than were being torn down or reused. So, the number of derelict buildings increased.
Because of a focused effort, we have turned that around. The current roster lists the smallest number of vacant buildings in at least seven years. Even LRA’s inventory of vacant buildings abandoned by their owners has dropped by more than 10 percent.
Ron and the Building Division’s Frank Oswald credit three programs for the improvement.The City’s Problem Properties Initiative — which involves vigorous prosecution of building code violations by the City Counselor and swift administration by Problem Properties Court — has sent a strong message to owners to either repair their buildings or sell them to people who will fix them. Strict code enforcement has kept a lot of buildings off the vacant property list.The development agencies — CDA, SLDC, LRA — overseen by Rodney Crim and Barb Geisman have been doing a great job at identifying troubled areas ripe for redevelopment, and targeting scarce demo and rehab dollars into those places. And as the most stressed neighborhoods have improved, adjacent properties have recovered enough value to discourage their abandonment.The Building Division’s Door-to-Door Inspection program, in which a third of each ward is inspected every year, means that all property is now inspected for exterior property maintenance once every three years. Owners who find their properties out of compliance get notices and citations. The overall effect of this program (aside from some very predictable grumbling) is that basic preventative maintenance is getting done and fewer buildings are ending up on the vacant properties list.
To Ron and Frank’s analysis, I would add the new pride that City residents are feeling about their unique neighborhoods and their growing confidence in the City’s direction. And, I know that people from throughout the region are fascinated by the creative re-uses being found for our wonderful stock of buildings. As those feelings spread, I expect our vacant building inventory to shrink even further.