By Sam Levin
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What they haven't avoided are frustration, misunderstanding and an atmosphere of racial suspicion that has led residents to doubt their intentions. Government inertia also has been a factor; a change of aldermen in the spring of 2001 stalled the initiative.
When this effort first started, Parrie May represented the city's 1st Ward. Last year, Irene Smith defeated May and returned to the seat she had held before being appointed a municipal judge. A graduate of St. Louis University and the University of Missouri School of Law, Smith gained national notoriety last year when she appeared to take a bathroom break on the floor of the aldermanic chambers instead of giving up a filibuster against a redistricting bill.
Smith returned as alderman about a year after Union West Florissant Housing Solutions began its development effort. She says she was cautious about the developer because its plans hadn't been put into writing. Smith denies blocking the Union West Florissant's efforts but freely admits she withheld aldermanic approval for the sale of 87 properties in the area owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority, which takes over vacant lots and abandoned buildings for delinquent taxes.
The nonprofit wants the properties to build new homes or add side yards for current homeowners. The real estate represents a tiny fraction of LRA's inventory of nearly 10,000 properties. Although LRA's charter says it has the authority to sell lots to developers, it's LRA policy to wait until the alderman who represents the ward gives his or her blessing.
Irene Smith wasn't quick to give her blessing. Although she was happy that somebody was investing in her ward, she wanted to make sure everyone involved was on the same page. "I got sworn in on April 17; I was over at the LRA on the 18th. I didn't ask them to deny the request to purchase the additional land, but I asked them to defer until I had an opportunity to meet with the developers and the residents to get up to speed with what the issues were."
That was eighteen months and many meetings ago -- and the LRA lots and buildings still haven't been sold.
What's the holdup?
Smith says current neighborhood residents were promised home-improvement grants by Union West Florissant Housing Solutions and had participated in training sessions to qualify. "Then there was this lull, there was nothing being done. They were getting citations from the city about their property," Smith says. "In addition to that, certain Realtors started contacting them about purchasing their homes. So then some of the residents began to feel that maybe it was a forced buyout."
So Smith kept the LRA lots from being sold and held out for more guarantees about the home-improvement forgivable-loan program.
In the midst of this logjam, the donor group hired Harold Whitfield, a Kirkwood-based attorney who has worked for the Bi-State Development Agency and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Whitfield knew Smith and state Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe [D-St. Louis].
By that point, the donor group was beginning to get frustrated.
"There was certainly frustration in terms of working with an alderperson in the city and not necessarily Irene Smith in particular, just the whole process," Whitfield says. "I think we had an assumption that we were coming in to spend this money; you've got all this vacant land available and we thought our proposal was reasonable and that we shouldn't run into any kind of stumbling blocks such as we ran into."
Whitfield was also a longtime friend of Jim Hentschell, the West County architect who was working as project manager for the donor group. Hentschell was baffled by Smith's decision to block the sale of the LRA lots.
"We sat down with her; we went over everything we were doing," Hentschell says. "The basic response from Irene was 'I don't like what you've done. You haven't dealt with me. I want you to deal with me. I want you to be part of the neighborhood, I don't want somebody coming in and talking tough and doing nothing.'
"And we said, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' We made big proposals to her: Harold would do this, Harold would do that, Harold and I would meet with Charles Quincy Troupe and dance the dance," Hentschell says. "Finally, on the lots we were supposed to get from LRA, Irene Smith said, 'No. I'm not going to give them to you. You haven't satisfied me yet.'
"I said, 'Wait -- this is the LRA, the people who are trying to get rid of thousands of lots? You're telling me you're blocking them?' We were getting thwarted," Hentschell says.
Because the sale of the LRA lots appeared to have stopped at the ward level, the donor group appealed to Mayor Francis Slay for help. Smith's strong opposition to the redistricting plan made her persona non grata in Room 200. Several representatives from the donor group met with deputy mayor Barb Geisman, who supervises the St. Louis Development Corporation, which includes the LRA.
The meeting did not go well. Representatives for the nonprofit say Geisman made them wait 35 minutes before the meeting started, then all but told them she couldn't help. The meeting "almost stopped the whole project," Hentschell says. The message the group received from Geisman was this: If an alderman wants to block the sale of LRA lots in his or her ward, that's just the way it is.
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