When Progress and Preservation Collide
Successful cultures arise from a dynamic process that balances a healthy respect for the past with an optimistic regard for the future. In this sense, progress may be understood as successive series of creative destruction and new growth. Among the many benefits of growth is an expansion of the tax base. In this world, an excessive pining for the past and the preservation of its symbols stymies growth and our future prosperity. Today, Saint Louis is confronted with this very issue. Some preservationists are attempting to block the construction of a new medical facility in Saint Louis. Their reason: to preserve the decrepit symbol of a bygone era at the expense of the city and its taxpayers.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported the St. Louis Preservation Board’s denial of a demolition permit to Saint Louis University (SLU) to raze the vacant Pevely Dairy headquarters building at the corner of Chouteau Ave. and South Grand Blvd. (you probably recall the Pevely smokestack). SLU officials intend to build a surgical center at the site, but now claim that the historic building may scuttle their plans if the building is not leveled and removed.
Before moving on to more pressing matters, perhaps a brief review of the tax implications is in order. Saint Louis public records indicate that the two parcels in question (1001 South Grand Blvd. and 3626 Chouteau Ave.) generate approximately $93,000 in annual property tax revenues for the city. See here and here. The future tax status of the properties, however, is uncertain (I called SLU’s controller, Gregory Haney, but he declined to express his opinion or share his knowledge on the subject). If the properties fall under SLU’s non-profit status, then SLU may be tax-exempt (similar to SLU’s 200 North Grand property). On the other hand, if property ownership vests in a for-profit entity, similar to Tenet Health System’s ownership of property underlying Saint Louis University Hospital, then taxes will likely be assessed and collected.
In either case, the city still stands to gain revenues if the surgical center is developed. This would arise from earnings taxes on new jobs created at the facility (although we have advocated for the elimination of the earnings tax and for alternative payments in lieu of taxes from tax-exempt non-profits, this blog post deals with the facts and law as they currently exist). For the sake of example, at 1 percent on taxable earnings, 124 jobs at $75,000 annual salary generates $93,000 in revenues, which compensates for the loss of property tax revenues under the tax-exempt scenario, but provides additional incremental revenues to the city under the alternative scenario. In either case, both the economy and the tax base are increased, which is a good thing.
While the tax implications are interesting, perhaps the more fundamental question is why are preservationists so insistent on saving the aging Pevely headquarters building? The history of progress is replete with tear-downs and rebuilds. Progress necessarily implies creative destruction, replacing old with new. Sometimes you have to let go of the past if you are to embrace the future. The past is but a distant memory. Happiness, prosperity, and success are forward-looking concepts that reside, if at all, in the future. Saint Louis, embrace the future, not the past. The Preservation Board should reconsider its decision.