It's Time for Wash U to Sit Down With University City and Talk About Money

Whether it's Payments in Lieu of Taxes or another agreement, U City needs its biggest resident's help

Mar 21, 2024 at 5:00 am
The Washington University campus is a beauty.
The Washington University campus is a beauty. FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN

I love Washington University. I grew up in University City. When I was a boy, we used to play football behind Francis Field. I took a music theory class there one summer when I was a teen. I've attended innumerable Thurtene Carnivals, innumerable readings and lectures and concerts at Graham Chapel. I met my wife, Phoebe, in Holmes Lounge. I did graduate work there. I love that it looks like a university and not a mall.

When I studied there, my buddies considered me somewhat exotic because I am actually from University City. Sometimes the university doesn't feel like a neighbor. Sometimes it feels like we are all just carbon-based lifeforms who share a ZIP code.

click to enlarge Author John Samuel Tieman. - COURTESY PHOTO
Author John Samuel Tieman.

Washington University owns about 200 properties in University City. They are our largest landowner. They use our streets, parks, police, fire protection and other services. Yet the university pays not a nickel in property taxes. They're a nonprofit. That tax burden falls upon those who live here.

Let me be clear. For all our sophistication, we're just a small Missouri town. Because Wash U is exempted from property taxes, the city loses millions of dollars that would go to schools, infrastructure, services, payroll, and so forth. The university will pay nothing for the city services it uses, while the homeowner will bear that burden.

University City has studied this problem. There are any number of avenues into the future. Legislation at the state level could force Wash U to pay more. I'm certainly not opposed to that.

However, I'm not a person who thinks that much gets done by being adversarial and angry. I prefer to advocate for a vision. I want Washington University to become more like Yale, Brown, Heidelberg. I want our neighbor to become a full community partner.

These other universities have taken on a variety of cooperative projects and agreements. To name just two, there's the PILOT program, “payment in lieu of taxes." There are also programs wherein the university takes over, for example, the upkeep of a park. And there are many other options.

In fairness, Wash U is involved in the community. Take, for example, the Public Art project sponsored by the Municipal Arts and Letters Commission. University students create art that they then display around the city. Now in its fourth decade, this is the oldest cooperative program between a university and its neighboring municipality in the United States. It brought U. City its “Rain Man” and many other sculptures. Students get an audience for their work. This laudable impulse toward cooperation; this is what needs to expand.

Wash U owns the land on Vernon Avenue, land upon which the new firehouse sits. They rent it to U. City for $1 a year. Wash U did initiate a small payment-in-kind program, a program that didn't go very far. There are a number of other reimbursement initiatives. Again, this impulse toward cooperation is laudable. But, taken as a whole, these efforts come nowhere near to replacing the lost tax revenue we experience annually.

I'm a retired teacher. Some time ago, at an international conference, a Japanese educator spoke of his school. He spoke of plans for five years into the future, ten, twenty. I suddenly realized that this guy was talking about plans for fifty years into the future. It's not very American to think like that, but that doesn't make it a bad idea. U. City has a comprehensive plan through which we envision our town decades into our future. Washington University could join us in this vision.

“Town and gown” need not be adversarial. It can describe neighbors. U. City is already embedded in Wash U, and Washington University is already embedded in University City. You can't walk down a street here and not run into someone who graduated from the place, works there, is an adjunct professor of something or another. We will always be joined, well, not exactly “at the hip” but at about Forest Park Parkway.

Washington University has a history of visionaries. Edward Doisy and Arthur Holly Compton both won the Nobel Prize. Pulitzer Prize winner Howard Nemerov lived on Yale Avenue. So let this little essay be both a challenge and an invitation.

Instead of medicine or physics or poetry, let's envision a neighborhood. Let the prize be a place we all lovingly call home.

John Samuel Tieman is a widely published poet and essayist. He is an unopposed candidate for the City Council in University City.

Subscribe to Riverfront Times newsletters.

Follow us: Apple NewsGoogle News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Or sign up for our RSS Feed