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With nearly 7,000 vacant buildings in St. Louis, the $1 million the city spends annually on demolitions does little more than chip away at decades of white flight and neglect.

It can afford to knock down about 200 or so buildings each year in a long, slow effort to pare its housing stock more befitting a city of 320,000 people, rather than the 850,000 of 65 years ago. A bond issue that included more money for demolitions failed in August, and the recession erased years of progress.

“Prior to (the recession) we had actually seen it going down, and we were making some headway on it,” St. Louis Building Commissioner Frank Oswald said in an interview.

But in coming years, St. Louis may be able to count on some help from a source that sees other benefits to removing some of the urban asphalt and rooftops that once served a much larger, denser city.

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District wants to spend $13.5 million of its own money to tear down vacant properties. Grassy lots would let stormwater slowly percolate into the ground instead of rushing into the combined sewer system that serves much of St. Louis.

While it could take several years to spend down the money, even the longest spending scenario would amount to a near doubling of St. Louis’ demolition budget. And areas where MSD sees the most benefit in terms of runoff and watersheds also are the areas – primarily in north St. Louis – where the city’s vacant properties are concentrated.

Those areas are part of the Bissell watershed, where the Environmental Protection Agency has told MSD to better manage stormwater.

“Our biggest gain on this is mid- and north city,” MSD Executive Director Brian Hoelscher told the Post-Dispatch. “Those also happen to be the areas where the city has the most opportunity on city-owned buildings.”

St. Louis’ Land Reutilization Authority, which takes title to abandoned properties through tax sales, owned about 3,100 buildings as of the beginning of the year. MSD will work with the city to target dollars on properties that provide the greatest social benefit to neighborhoods, such as reducing crime or eliminating safety hazards.

“We’ve got those initial conversations scheduled,” Oswald said. “It’s a great thing. We’re just really appreciative and thrilled with it.”

MSD’s demolition spending would be a small part of its $4.7 billion capital spending plan to reduce sewer discharges into area waterways. Part of a 2012 court-ordered agreement with the EPA, MSD’s 20-year program included provisions to spend about $100 million on so-called “green” infrastructure.

In St. Louis, stormwater flows through the same pipes as waste, so heavy rain can overwhelm the system and lead to huge discharges of untreated sewage into the Mississippi River and other waterways. Rather than only building bigger pipes to handle more water, MSD and the EPA agreed to try to reduce a portion of the stormwater running into the system with rain gardens and green space that absorb it.

Demolishing vacant buildings frees up space for engineered solutions like rain gardens, which slowly absorb and filter water using plant roots. But even just the vacant lots are proving an effective approach because water filters through debris and into the space created by the former structure’s basement, Hoelscher said.

MSD has studied the effect during a $3 million, five-year pilot project where it spent about half of the pilot’s budget to demolish some 220 city-owned buildings.

“It worked well in the pilot program,” Hoelscher said. “It allowed the city to address a lot of their planning issues at the same time.”

Still, the demolition approach is fairly “cutting edge” Hoelscher said, and EPA will have to sign off.

“Traditionally, it’s not been seen as an optimal investment in terms of holding stormwater back,” Hoelscher said. But “if it didn’t make sense from an engineering standpoint, we would not be able to submit it.”

MSD has the data to back up its demolition idea, and Hoelscher said he expects the EPA to listen. It could still be about three months before the sewer district hears from the federal agency whether demolitions are an acceptable stormwater reduction approach.

In the meantime, St. Louis is already gearing up to make sure it uses any new funds wisely. Planning director Don Roe expects to begin working on a city demolition plan early next year to make sure it maximizes its resources.

The Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing blight and dealing with vacant properties, is helping the city better plan demolitions, Roe said. And AmeriCorps will help the city gather more data on vacant and dangerous buildings in the coming year.

Roe hopes to see projects similar to what MSD is doing in the Baden neighborhood, where it bought dozens of properties that frequently flooded or had sewer backups. The sewer district is turning that multi-block area into a stormwater collector. But it is working with other organizations to try to make it more park-like so it acts as an amenity to the surrounding neighborhood.

Or the district could demolish single vacants near otherwise stable neighborhoods.

“I think it’s going to make a tremendous dent,” Roe said of the potential MSD money. “We’re achieving an environmental mission that will make our city stronger in the long term.”

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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