News that the flying saucer–shaped Del Taco might be demolished has the Saint Louis community of architectural preservationists up in arms. There’s a Facebook group with 11,000 fans and growing. There’s a petition to save the building. Even the mayor has been tweeting passively pro–Del Taco tweets.
At the Del Taco with Show-Me Institute intern Bruce Stahl. Photo by Josh Smith.
At the Show-Me Institute, we first heard of Del Taco’s uncertain fate at last week’s Land Clearance for Reclamation Authority (LCRA) meeting. At the meeting, the agency declared the property blighted.
Blighting sounds bad, doesn’t it? The word calls to mind disease, destruction, and decay. Yet as anyone who has visited or driven by this Del Taco can attest, there’s a functioning business on the property. You can still get your burrito and fries at 1:00 a.m. at the Del Taco.
So, why would a city agency vote to find this building blighted?
The sad fact is, blighting in city of Saint Louis and throughout Missouri frequently has very little to do with the actual condition of a property, and everything to do with awarding tax subsidy. Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City highlights one of my favorite examples of a contorted blight finding: Officials blighted a thriving shopping mall because it didn’t have a Nordstrom’s.
In Columbia, city officials almost blighted a functioning downtown hotel in order to award the building tax increment financing (TIF). At the last minute, perhaps after realizing how strikingly apparent it was that the hotel was not diseased, destroyed, or decaying, the council used a different portion of TIF law to award the subsidy. After all, it’s really just about the money, isn’t it?
Missouri law limits forms of property tax subsidy to properties that are blighted — most notably property tax abatement and tax increment financing (TIF). So the first step for anyone hoping to get tax subsidy for their development in the city of Saint Louis is to get city officials to declare the property blighted.
This isn’t the first time that Del Taco has been blighted.
In 2008, the Saint Louis Board of Aldermen blighted the property in order to enact a TIF agreement. Under TIF law, “blight” is defined as:
[…] an area which, by reason of the predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements, improper subdivision or obsolete platting, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use;
Well, for the sake of everyone who has eaten at Del Taco since the city blighted the property, I hope that the restaurant wasn’t blighted because it was a “menace to the public health,” or was “unsanitary.”
If you look at the blight definition closely, it becomes clear that certain definitions could be interpreted to include just about any property. For example, what property doesn’t have “deterioration of site improvements”? Paint fades and wood ages. And, I wonder, what qualifies as “inadequate street layout”? I find the phrase “social liability” troubling. Who decides what is a “social liability”? Would a bar qualify? How about low-income housing? And what could possibly be considered a menace to “public morals”?
In case you’re wondering, the Board of Aldermen’s TIF ordinance didn’t specify which conditions rendered the saucer-shaped building blighted.
At last week’s LCRA meeting, the agency voted to declare the Del Taco property blighted again. Apparently, the city’s earlier TIF agreement didn’t fix the problem.
If pretty much any property can be blighted under state law in order to award tax subsidy, why do only certain properties receive tax breaks? I’m going to state the obvious: If the definition of “blight” is so broad that it can be applied (and re-applied) to pretty much any property in order to award tax breaks, the application is arbitrary.
TIF and tax abatement is not being applied to the worst buildings in an area, as illustrated by the cases of Del Taco and the Regency Hotel. Instead, those tax breaks are awarded to particular properties and areas that catch a politician’s eye.
The East-West Gateway Council of Governments has studied TIF and tax abatement, and concluded that using TIF where there really wasn’t any blight didn’t make much sense. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Maggie Hales, East-West Gateway deputy executive director, reported on the study to the St. Charles County Council during a work session Monday. Hales told council members the three-year study covered eight counties in two states. She said that overall, TIFs have a negative effect on communities and there are racial and economic disparities when and where they’re used.
“The TIF statute was originally designed to alleviate blight,” Hales said after the work session. “In areas where there isn’t any blight, I don’t know as a policy matter it’s a good investment of public tax dollars. […]”
Instead of blighting and re-blighting properties like Del Taco, here’s a better idea: Lower property taxes for everyone. Take politicians out of the process entirely.