By Ray Downs
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By RFT Staff
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The McCoys -- Ron is a sheet-metal worker and Dawn runs her own painting company -- did the smart thing and turned to Tracy Gilroy for help and legal advice. Gilroy, a past president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, has been dealing for 17 years with eminent-domain issues, representing homeowners like the McCoys. She has seen developers scare homeowners into accepting low bids, intimating that if they don't accept the offer, it could go down or, worse yet, they'll end up in court and get whatever value the county assessor's office has on the books. Gilroy's advice: "The people who should be afraid of court are the developers, not the homeowners."
Gilroy says that if matters end up in court, the issue boils down to "fair market value," and that has nothing to do with the county's property assessment -- in the McCoys' case, a paltry $53,700. "Fair market value includes, under the law of eminent domain, the highest and best use of your property," Gilroy says. "And the highest and best use of this neighborhood and each individual property there is obviously not residential." The market value, she says, is what the property is worth for a big-box commercial development. After all, it isn't the home the developer wants; it's the ground beneath it.
For the McCoys -- who, in the last few years, have added rooms, redone the kitchen and built a workshop for Ron in the back yard -- the eventual buyout and destruction of their home, and their neighborhood, makes them angry and sad at the same time. "My husband and I had no intentions of moving," says Dawn McCoy. "They're missing the point that we don't want to leave. We're being forced to leave. We didn't ask for this. We're being forced to leave so they can make money off of us.
"It's kinda like this: I know I'm in a centrally located area and eventually someone's gonna buy me out -- there's no doubt in my mind," she adds. "We're sitting right on a goldmine. I'm at a point now where I know it's going to happen, so I just want them to be fair."
For the McCoys, no matter what price they end up getting for their home, the project represents something far less. "I know it's good for the city, but you kinda feel like you've been sold out by your own city," she says.
Marty Corcoran, meanwhile, is pleased as punch about the new development. He says he feels bad about the homeowners' being uprooted, but he sees no other option for the city to improve its financial condition and provide better services.
He is sold on the idea that the anchor stores -- the Costco, a membership club similar to Sam's; and the Home Depot Expo, an upscale interior-decoration place -- aren't the kind that will pack up and leave on a moment's notice, as a Wal-Mart or a Sam's Club might. And he has done the math to know that the development will be a boon for the city when it opens in the summer of 2003. Projections indicate that consumers will spend about $130 million at the stores in the first year, generating about $3.7 million in incremental taxes (sales, property and utility). After five years, total sales will jump above $200 million annually and taxing districts will get nearly $6 million a year.
For the city (and other local taxing districts), this means about $1.8 million a year during the first year and about $2.8 million a year after five years.
For Corcoran, who has seen neighboring Richmond Heights join the ranks of wealthy cities because of the St. Louis Galleria and watched Brentwood reap the benefits of Brentwood Square, the Pace development means Maplewood's time has come. The project represents no less than an opportunity to revitalize the city and provide better services to its residents.
So what's wrong with this picture?
The developer and the stores profit from a great location, Maplewood gets more money and even the homeowners may come out ahead. It all looks good if one is concerned simply about Maplewood.
Step back from it all, and there's plenty wrong. First, we have come to the point at which malls and retail projects occupy the status a new highway or public school once did -- a high enough public purpose to justify the government's use of its power of eminent domain to force the buyout of homes. Second, perfectly good neighborhoods -- no blight, no vacant lots -- are being uprooted to make way for big-box stores. Last, it is simply unfair for large, profitable corporations such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Home Depot to get public subsidies that are not made available to small businesses. If Bobby's Restaurant, a successful anchor at the heart of Maplewood's struggling downtown, asked for a public subsidy to expand and provide better parking, the city wouldn't go for it.
The public-subsidy game is reserved for developers of large retail projects -- or stadiums -- and erasing neighborhoods and ignoring small businesses is now considered an acceptable price for it. It's a developer's market, all right.