“An Unspoken Bond”? City Aldermen and Land Patronage
Recently, Show-Me Institute Executive Director Brenda Talent wrote in an op-ed that “To better serve the public interest, the LRA should stop trying to pick winners and losers in the market for vacant land.” This made me wonder — why does the Saint Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) accept some bids while rejecting others, and what are the costs to taxpayers of its current approach to landholding?
The two high-rises pictured above both entered the LRA’s inventory in the 1990s, vacant, awaiting redevelopment. Only one stands today.
At left is a picture of the Continental Building, located at 3615 Olive St. in the city’s Grand Center neighborhood. A 1978 National Register nomination notes, “Built in 1929 with William B. Ittner as architect, the Continental is the most sophisticated statement of art deco in St. Louis.” At right is a picture of the Regency Nursing Inn, which stood at 4560 West Pine Blvd. Built between 1964 and 1966 at a cost of $2.3 million, the convalescent home and medical office building opened for business in 1966. A leasing guide for the 15-story reinforced concrete building stated, “Because of the imposing character and dignity of the REGENCY, pride of tenancy as well as functional interior design will delight the most discerning.”
Although the Continental Building was “sophisticated” and the Regency Building merely “functional,” both ultimately fell into disuse and were subject to vandalism. The LRA assumed ownership of both buildings in the mid-1990s through the tax foreclosure process authorized by the 1971 Municipal Land Reutilization Law. Today, both properties are back in private hands after sales by the LRA, but only the Continental Building still stands. The Regency Building was demolished in 1998 at the behest of the LRA, at a cost of $263,940.
So, what gives? Does the LRA have a preference for art deco over mid-century modern? Or is there another explanation for the LRA’s decision to save one high-rise and demolish the other?
During the June 25, 1997, meeting of the LRA, the agency rejected a $10,000 offer by Roberts West Pine Development and Associates to purchase the Regency Building for rehabilitation as condominiums, deciding instead — in an executive session — to sell the property for $1 to West Pine Court LLC. Minutes from the meeting indicate that West Pine Court LLC had the support of the alderman, whereas Roberts West Pine Development did not.
Today, the site is home to low-rise, brick-faced townhouse condominiums, funded in part by the city’s first residential tax increment financing (TIF) project. To date, the developer has received more than $400,000 from this subsidy.
The Continental Building, too, stood vacant prior to its rehabilitation in 2001 by Owen Development. The residential conversion project received $5.8 million in state historic preservation tax credits and additional funds from the federal historic preservation tax credit. Minutes of the Jan. 26, 2000, meeting of the LRA reveal that the developer had “the enthusiastic support of the alderman” for the proposed rehabilitation of the building as apartments.
The LRA has wide statutory latitude to do anything it pleases, including rejecting high bidders and accepting low bids from the politically favored. As former Commissioner Howard Hayes said during the Oct. 25, 2000, LRA meeting, the agency has “an unspoken bond with 28 aldermen, because they speak for the people of St. Louis, they have been duly elected.”
Does the LRA’s “unspoken bond” entail listening to aldermen while harming taxpayers?
Consider the timeline of what happened here:
- The LRA rejects a $10,000 bid for the Regency Building, a mid-century modern skyscraper.
- The LRA accepts a $1 bid from a developer who simultaneously requested a TIF from the city.
- The LRA demolishes the building at a cost of $263,940.
- The LRA retains the art deco Continental Building in its inventory, pending its transfer to a developer for rehabilitation.
- As of 2010, taxpayers are out at least $400,000 on the West Pine townhouses and more than $5 million on the Continental Building.
At a bare minimum, the LRA should subject its parcels to competitive bidding. The fact that the LRA can raise costs to taxpayers with zero oversight and no accountability is reason enough for today’s Missouri policymakers to revisit and rethink the powers of this ill-conceived agency. In the 21st century, aldermen should not have the powers of land patronage.