Audrey Spalding
In 2010, no fewer than four different people tried to buy 2925 Union Blvd., the building pictured below. During an economic recession, such an interest in a vacant city-owned property is unusual. Yet all were turned down.

2925 Union Blvd. Photo by Thomas Duda.
2925 Union Blvd. Photo by Thomas Duda.

A week ago, the Saint Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), an agency that owns more than 9,000 city parcels, considered another offer to purchase 2925 Union. This time, however, the area alderman showed up to tell the commission what decisions he thought it should make.

Saint Louis aldermen have an incredible amount of influence over the sale (or not) of vacant city property. Aldermen are frequently asked to provide a "letter of support" when an individual tries to purchase LRA property. But if aldermen oppose the sale of a property, they do not have to do so in any sort of verifiable, public way. In some cases, the absence of an alderman's letter of support is all that is needed.

LRA commissioners take the absence of such a letter very seriously. City officials have been careful to say that the lack of such a letter doesn't necessarily kill a sale, but an alderman's input seems significant in practice.

As former Commissioner Howard Hayes said to a would-be buyer at the LRA's May 2010 meeting: "We put a lot of weight on that judgment."

Of course, the LRA doesn't have to consider the input of an area alderman. The agency's authority was established under state law, and the LRA law does not suggest that the agency consider the input of any political officials. Saint Louis government has implemented this practice by choice.

At the March 2011 meeting, Ward 1 Alderman Quincy Troupe spoke at length about offers to purchase vacant city property in his ward. Troupe, who spoke before anyone else at that day's LRA meeting, recommended that the agency take certain actions on offers to purchase property in his ward.

In the case of 2925 Union, Troupe recommended that the agency sell. And, later in the meeting, the commission voted to offer a sale.

This blog post isn't intended to protest the sale of 2925 Union. I am happy that it sold, especially if it will result in new development for the city. However, I question allowing aldermen to comment on, if not affect, the sale of LRA property. Nothing magical happens when aldermen are elected that enables them to foretell whether a proposed development project will be successful. If the LRA allows aldermen to have significant input on offers to purchase property, then the agency is awarding a great deal of power to the aldermen out of courtesy.

I wonder, what does it take to get the support of the alderman? A visionary redevelopment plan? Friendship? Money? The aldermen may all have pure motives, but the LRA's approval process seems to leave the door wide open for under-the-table deals.

Furthermore, some agencies similar to the LRA do not invite comment from elected officials on offers to purchase property. The Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, Mich., does not request approval of an offer by city councilmen. When I spoke to Genesee County Land Bank Executive Director Doug Weiland, he wondered if such a practice could get "political."

It certainly seems like it could.

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Audrey Spalding