Broken Approval Process Slows Development
Several disjointed developments in the Cortex and Grove areas of St. Louis nicely encapsulate the confusing involvement of elected officials, appointed boards, and city bureaucrats in city permits and approvals, including both large decisions that should involve elected officials and relatively mundane matters that would best be left to city employees to approve. The Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Business-Journal have both covered the issues closely. To wit:
- The new Alderwoman for both areas, Tina Pihl (Ward 17) has been more hesitant to grant tax subsidies for projects in her ward. This is a beneficial policy change from her predecessor, and the new Alderwoman deserves credit for this.
- The quickest way to get tax subsidies in Ward 17 appears to be to agree to make a donation to the city’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This is a terrible policy that reeks of impropriety. “You get your tax deal after my favorite fund gets its money,” is an awful way to run government, and Alderwoman Pihl deserves criticism for this.
- The St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) board has approved substantial increases in tax subsidies for certain projects in Ward 17 without approval from the Board of Alderman, and against the wishes of the alderwoman. The LCRA took a subsidy package that had been approved by the elected Board of Alderman, changed it significantly, and then approved the larger package of tax subsidies. The LCRA board is completely out of line here and seems to continue to function primarily as a shill for corporate welfare interests. Alderwoman Pihl is correct here in her request that the proposal should go back to the Board of Aldermen, as our game of policy tennis continues.
- Finally, there are complaints that the alderwoman is moving too slowly in approving various things for her ward and slowing development. Time is money for everyone but the government. The key part here is that some of these projects being held back are over minor issues, such as simple variances, that if the necessary legal conditions are met, should be able to be approved by city departments without the local Alderperson weighing in. From the article:
But for Lengyel — he isn’t seeking tax abatement for the three houses — it was never clear what she wanted. He still has never spoken to Pihl
If a project meets the zoning regulations for the area (or requires only modest variances), and the developer is not asking for any tax subsidies, then why shouldn’t city staff make the approval decision (presumably giving the go-ahead)? Why should the local alderman be involved in the process at all, except in rare instances? In most other Missouri cities, minor permitting issues do not involve elected officials at all. For zoning changes or variances, elected officials would usually just be involved at the end of the process, which makes everything move faster.
The delay in approvals for generally routine matters (which is bad) is being caused by a new alderwoman who wants to be more cautious about tax giveaways (which is good). But the real problem here is the tradition and assumption within the City of St. Louis’s government that a ward’s alderperson is entitled to approve or halt any project, no matter how large, small, unique, or routine the proposal may be. Many of these smaller projects should never go to the alderperson for approval in the first place, and eliminating this unnecessary step is a would benefit the City of St. Louis.