Land Grab

Why does the city undercut would-be developers? Don't ask.

Even among those plugged into City Hall, the LRA's practice of competitive bidding flies well under the radar.

"No, I didn't know they did that," says Board of Alderman President Jim Shrewsbury. "It could be there's a logical reason."

For aldermen determined to clean up their wards, the LRA's bidding at the sheriff's sale is a sound public policy. In the Ninth Ward, which encompasses parts of Soulard, Benton Park and Tower Grove East, alderman Ken Ortmann freely admits that he tips off the LRA on properties he'd like them to acquire. Those properties, he says, have played a key part in cleaning up downtrodden parts of his ward.

"I call it insurance for the neighborhood," says Ortmann. "At the sheriff's sale, you have every Tom, Dick and Harry trying to buy these properties. Many of them will buy something for $20,000 and the next day turn around and try to sell it for $40,000. Of course, it's America and anyone can bid on them. But what we're trying to do is protect what we've already done in the neighborhood. Who is going to benefit? The neighborhood is. The community is."

Ortmann maintains that when the LRA acquires land and buildings from the sale, it ensures that the developer builds a quality home and requires that the property be owner-occupied, which increases the tax base and stabilizes the neighborhood.

But for Jack Ulrich, a resident of the Twentieth Ward, the LRA properties have done little more than blight his neighborhood of Gravois Park. In 2002, Ulrich lost to the LRA in a bid to purchase the vacant house next door. Then for two years Ulrich watched as the house went untouched, attracting vagrants and drug dealers.

A carpenter by trade, Ulrich inquired about purchasing the house directly from the LRA but fell short of the financial rank the agency asks of its developers. Finally Ulrich convinced a friend to purchase the house. It's currently being refurbished but is one of only a few LRA properties that Ulrich says he's seen transformed.

Sputtering though his neighborhood in a rusting Volkswagen pickup, Ulrich points out a half-dozen houses that the LRA has acquired in recent years by outbidding investors at the land-tax sale. In each case the LRA property is the worst house on the block, with weeds growing waste-high, trees sprouting through porches and roofs caving in.

At one dilapidated home on Nebraska Avenue, Ulrich pulls over and surveys the crumbling building in much the same way that a marine biologist might diagnose a beached whale in the throes of death.

"I think we're going to lose this one," he says dryly. "It's going to fall down."

It's a double-edged sword, confirms Craig Schmid, Ulrich's alderman, who like Ortmann earmarks property in his ward that he wants the LRA to acquire.

"For developers, vacant buildings are opportunities, and you have to have them to attract new building and renovations," Schmid says. "At the same time, I understand that it's difficult to live next door to a vacant property."

As for the dreams of the little man who's been toppled by the LRA?

"We all have those dreams," counters Schmid. "Problem is that I can think of many wonderful dreams that have turned into nightmares. The owner runs out of money or falls into a bad situation, and the house sits idle and becomes an even bigger eyesore than before. That's what we want to avoid."

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