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Blight: A Mixed Bag

The declaration is good for developers, but questions linger for homeowners amid Grant Ave. Parkway study

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Last August, Springfield City Council approved a $75,000 blight study for the $26 million Grant Avenue Parkway project area.

The study will extend about a quarter mile east and west of Grant Avenue, with a focus on the northern two-thirds of the corridor, from Fassnight Park north to College Street, according to Matt Schaefer, senior planner in the city’s Department of Economic Vitality.

Mention of blight piques the interest of developers, as the declaration opens doors for potential tax incentives, but it can be a source of worry for homeowners, Schaefer acknowledged.

The blight definition generally applies to an area with a predominance of unsanitary or unsafe conditions that can endanger life or property, he said.

For those whose home is located in an area that demonstrates these conditions, the prospect of a blight declaration can be unsettling. But according to Schaefer, a blight study is a frank evaluation based on established criteria.

“Some property owners could be perhaps offended by that, especially if they’re a homeowner that takes pride in their property,” he said.

And it happens. A homeowner can maintain a pristine home for years – maybe even multiple generations – and suddenly get swept up in a blight declaration.

“When we’re doing a blight study for a broad area, we’re not saying by blighting the entire area every single property is blighted, per se,” Schaefer said, “just a predominance.”

Blight as opportunity
Some tax abatement programs can be used only within an area of declared blight, according to Schaefer. Two common examples are a Chapter 99 redevelopment plan and a Chapter 353 tax abatement.

The city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority board is vested with powers that allow the city to encourage private sector redevelopment in blighted areas, according to the LCRA website.

Under Chapter 99, the LCRA is permitted to acquire or dispose of land, construct or rehabilitate buildings, perform blight removal activities and acquire property through eminent domain.

Chapter 99 allows real property tax abatement on up to 100% of the assessed value of new construction or rehabilitation for 10 years, according to the LCRA website.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development also provides for a Chapter 353 tax abatement. According to DED materials, the abatement can be used by cities to encourage the redevelopment of blighted areas with up to 25 years of real property tax abatement. For the first 10 years, the property is eligible for 100% abatement on improvements and the assessed value of the land is frozen; for the latter 15 years, taxes may be abated a flat 50%.

Schaefer noted the city may choose not to approve an abatement for the entire 25 years.

“The intent there is to not provide more incentives than are necessary to make improvements,” he said. “We need to be good stewards of public funds.”

Homeowner incentives
The abatements permitted for blighted areas do not apply to deferred maintenance on single-family residences, Schaefer said, but homeowners would benefit from investment in the area.

“With the public investment that’s being made on Grant Avenue, and also the private investment that will be made, it will just generally lift up the area,” he said.

A danger is that long-term residents could be displaced by rising property values.

“We don’t want to price them out,” he said. “We have to be sensitive to that.”

PGAV Planners LLC, the St. Louis-based consultant hired to conduct the blight study, is examining ways to help private homeowners, according to Schaefer. These could include grant or low-interest loan programs to assist with residential upgrades. The question, Schaefer said, is how to fund that kind of program. PGAV is investigating.

“We want to benefit everyone – benefit the neighbors as well as the properties along Grant Avenue,” he said.

Real estate agent Candace Faith Frugé recently purchased a home in the 600 block of South Grant Avenue and has bought or is in the process of buying three other homes adjoining it to the corner.

Frugé is excited by the bike trail incorporated into the parkway project, as it will connect north and south Springfield.

“We just didn’t really have a safe way for anybody other than an experienced cyclist to get from downtown to the south side,” she said.

Frugé plans an intentional community on her corner. There will be no smoking and no garden or lawn chemicals, and residents will share the yield of the garden.

Although a permaculture concept is planned, the community will look clean.

“I don’t want something wild with weeds everywhere,” she said. “I think we can create a balance between a manicured lawn and hippies living in a bus.”

Frugé said she likes being part of the West Central Neighborhood Association, which she describes as a movement of people who care about the betterment and support of their urban neighborhood. But she noted some of her neighbors are concerned about the parkway project and what they might expect from the city.

“Some of them are scared they’re going to run them out of town, or some think they’re going to take their properties,” she said. “What they say is there is no plan to.”

Schaefer agreed that there is no plan to take people’s homes.

“In the city of Springfield, we don’t pursue eminent domain,” he said. “That’s a very rare instance. … I don’t recall it being used.”

Caron Settle Parnell, president of the West Central Neighborhood Association, said she suspects most residents are unaware of the blight study, but they are very aware of the plans for Grant Avenue Parkway.

“The majority of our neighborhood is very excited about it,” she said. “West Central is a great place to live, and we want other people to see that.”

Parnell suggested a blight declaration could open homeowners to funding through the city’s Restore SGF program, which offers grants for investment in historic neighborhoods, including rehabbing of older homes, according to the program’s website.

Developer Brad Thessing has used available tax abatements for commercial projects, particularly on the north side.

To him, a blight declaration signals that a property’s productive life is over.

“That’s kind of how I refer to it,” Thessing said. “Its useful life just ran its course.”

On the plus side, the development that a blight declaration allows should increase property values, he said.

“It will bring amenities to the area that maybe people want,” he said.

Schaefer said he is seeing a lot of interest in the Grant Avenue Parkway corridor.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in doing some redevelopment projects along Grant Avenue, especially now that there’s going to be a $26 million investment along that corridor,” he said. “Those public improvements will definitely add value to that area.”

Council will be presented with the study report and recommendations in about a month.

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