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MSD to tear down houses

MSD has already begun demolition on some homes in the 5500 block of Greer Avenue in St. Louis on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. MSD will be taking down 11 vacant homes in the area, including three on Greer. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

The sewer district needed more green space to absorb rainfall.

The city wanted to pare its portfolio of thousands of abandoned homes.

A program over a year in the making is finally chipping away at both goals.

On Thursday, officials will highlight the demolition of 11 condemned buildings in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood — the first group of an estimated 1,000 derelict structures whose removal could be funded by the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

MSD has earmarked up to $13.5 million to tear down buildings with the goal of creating about 50 acres of surfaces that can absorb stormwater. The sewer district plans to fund about 200 demolitions by the end of this year. That represents a significant acceleration in the pace of city demolitions: In 2016, the city took down just 377 buildings.

MSD happens to need to target the watershed that encompasses the city’s north side, where much of the region’s poverty and blight is concentrated.

“We’re looking for benefits beyond just the environmental requirements we have,” MSD Executive Director Brian Hoelscher said.

St. Louis, for its part, is angling to make the green space MSD leaves behind something more than a few vacant lots. It already creates hundreds of those every year by tearing down dilapidated properties, a number that makes only a tiny dent in the roughly 7,000 still lingering in the wake of suburbanization and disinvestment.

It is partnering with the Missouri Department of Conservation to help fund vegetative plantings, such as buckwheat and coreopsis, on the lots that can help beautify neighborhoods, said Rebecca Weaver, who coordinates the city’s Urban Vitality and Ecology Initiative with the state conservation department.

The city is talking to other organizations to help pay to maintain and plant the lots MSD leaves behind. Weaver noted that the Missouri Botanical Garden has worked on a similar MSD buyout and greening program in Baden.

“We’re still figuring that out,” she said of funding beyond the conservation department’s initial commitment. “But there are people who have a passion for what we’re doing here.”

The group is still finalizing the next clusters of houses to be razed, but Hoelscher said they had a “stock of sites that we know are acceptable.”

Originally announced more than a year ago, MSD, the city and the Conservation Department have spent months mapping and identifying the best areas to target.

MSD is under a court order to cut sewer overflows, so it has to reduce rooftops and pavement in areas where rain overwhelms its system. The city wants to target problem properties that neighbors want to see gone. Both want to find clusters of abandoned buildings to maximize the impact.

“It’s also a pilot for us to think about how we do demolitions in perpetuity,” said Patrick Brown, who worked on the project as chief resilience officer in Mayor Francis Slay’s office and was recently tapped as chief of staff for the outgoing administration.

Going forward, a committee made up of a representative from MSD, the Conservation Department, the city’s planning department and the mayor’s office will decide where to spend the $13.5 million pot of MSD money. The city will maintain the properties and work with other organizations to turn them into more than empty lots.

“I don’t think it will take that long to identify all of the buildings,” Brown said.

The program is a small part of a $4.7 billion infrastructure campaign MSD launched in 2012 to update aging pipes and other infrastructure due to a lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

As part of the agreement, MSD received approval to spend $100 million on “green-infrastructure,” the idea being that rain gardens and green space absorb rainwater that would otherwise require bigger pipes in the ground. MSD spokesman Lance LeComb said it was part of an effort to find ways the spending could benefit the region beyond new sewer pipes.

“If that’s all we did with the $4.7 billion, that would be somewhat disappointing,” he said.

Brown said he hoped the program signaled more of a willingness from the city to forge “productive and collaborative relationships” with other entities. That has been somewhat of a weak spot in the past, he said, but it’s a necessity for an urban area struggling to adapt to a population half the size it was built for.

“This is just the beginning of us pulling in partners here,” he said.

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