Hell No, We Won't Go!

A south St. Louis neighborhood raises a ruckus over plans to demolish homes for a shopping center

"He was saying, 'You don't need me, you don't need me,'" Sheahan recalls.

By the second meeting, a week or so later, factions had formed between the holdouts and the sellouts.

Five owners, including Smith, hired Denlow. Signs broadcasting in bright red letters, "NO TIF," and "NO BLIGHT," went up in their yards at the southern end of South Grand, and Denlow began negotiating for the highest possible price.

Relocate?  The Smiths  aren't interested.
Jennifer Silverberg
Relocate? The Smiths aren't interested.

The city assessor's records list fair-market value of between $50,000 and $80,000 for the brick homes, but some of them have sold in recent years for more than $100,000, property records show.

Howard Thompson, who says his offer from Desco "wouldn't make good toilet paper," hired St. Louis attorney Michael A. Wolff. Thompson refuses to sell and is circulating petitions protesting the redevelopment that he intends to present to city officials at the December 1 hearing.

There are at least seven "quick nickels," as Thompson calls them, who during the past two months signed option-contracts with Desco, and, according to Sheahan, can expect to walk away with $150,000 to $175,000 once Desco exercises its buying rights. That could come as early as next month, residents believe, though Desco wouldn't confirm a date.

The firm insists there's no way to build the shopping center without acquiring and removing the existing properties.

Real estate lawyers claim the project is an outright abuse of Missouri and constitutional eminent domain statutes. They maintain the city is interpreting "blight" and "public use" too broadly -- that private property owners will lose their life savings while developers and large corporations line their pockets.

"This is a nice old St. Louis neighborhood," Wolff says. "You don't see anything in those residences that's in line with a 'blighted' area."

"To the city, if it's profitable, it's blighted," Denlow says.

The mayor's office disagrees.

"It used to be that nobody called, nobody had proposals, nobody wanted to develop in the city," argues mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford. "You've got to do TIFs in the city to jump-start development. Will there be a tipping point when we don't have to offer these? Absolutely. Are we getting close to that point? Absolutely. Are we at that point? No."

But Board of Aldermen President Jim Shrewsbury worries that tax-increment financing has spiraled out of control. "It's becoming a standard practice, and I think that's very dangerous, because what it's doing, it's threatening general revenue." He adds, "The purpose of a TIF is to make or break a project. It's not simply something that is offered to everyone."

Urban studies experts agree.

"When everybody gets a TIF, nobody gets any benefit," observes Saint Louis University public policy studies professor Todd Swanstrom. "The tax burden is shifted onto middle-class and working-class taxpayers from the retailers. It's not good public policy."

"I think the city has gone TIF-crazy," says Joseph Heathcott, American Studies professor at SLU. He points to the struggling St. Louis Marketplace on Manchester Road -- the city's first project to use tax increment financing -- as an example of the risk and burden levied on taxpayers' backs. "If more projects like that end up failing, we are going to be paying for decades."

All the while, health, parks and police departments, and schools, get short-changed in the short term, say critics of TIF.

Many of Carondelet's "quick nickels" are disgusted with the way the city has handled the Loughborough project and are now shopping for moderately priced homes in the county.

"We've been here twenty years. We go out in the city. We go to the opera. We defend the city to every person we know," Sheahan explains. "It ticks us off that after spending all this time and money they could care less."

Rainford says he's saddened by this sentiment, but he defends the project. "I think this is four steps forward, to one step backward."

To Dennis Smith, who's constructed and installed nearly everything in and around his home, including built-in aquariums, an expansive deck and a jungle gym, the "community betterment" argument leaves him cold.

In the Smiths' front hallway, several stacks of boxes stand sentry. The Smiths figure they probably won't have a choice but to leave, so best to start packing 27 years' worth of belongings now.

"How can you blight an area," asks Smith, "if you've got nice-looking homes here?"

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