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St. Louis central corridor

The future site of Ikea in St. Louis, the area behind the grain elevator pictured at the bottom of the frame, as seen as seen from 1,700 feet in the air on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Photo By David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis officials are trying a new tool in their efforts to boost city neighborhoods: data.

And that could mean a big shift in the way they dole out community development money.

The city on Tuesday unveiled a new “market value analysis” of city real estate — a pile of housing statistics and maps — that it says will help better target public money, and draw private investment, to neighborhood redevelopment.

It’s a shift from the old ward-based way of determining how to spend development dollars and move from just using experience, intuition and hunches to decide how to use the city’s limited resources, said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay.

“This is an opportunity to use data to make the city better,” he said. “It’s a powerful tool.”

The project was paid for by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is pushing City Hall to clean up its community development funding. It’s essentially a map of residential real estate conditions across the city.

HUD consultants measured 10 data points — everything from home prices to amount of vacant land — to create a snapshot of the city’s housing market. Instead of the typical ward- or neighborhood-level analysis, the new methodology slices the city into 360 sections, sorted into nine types of areas. These, study author Ira Goldstein said, are “the puzzle pieces that make up a city.”

It’s designed to be the sort of fine-grained analysis that you can feel on a city street but that can get lost from 30,000 feet, said James Heard, director of HUD’s St. Louis field office. And he hopes it’ll help the city get more bang out of limited federal bucks and make a more sophisticated case to draw private money to redevelopment projects.

“Dollars are shrinking all the way around. It behooves all of us to bring in new partners,” Heard said. “We feel like this can help do that.”

Rainford, Heard and other officials involved insist this is not an attempt at “urban triage,” a way to focus investment in some neighborhoods while letting others wither.

Some corners of St. Louis still have hard feelings over the so-called “Team Four” plan of the early 1970s, which studied that approach. And a similar effort to “right-size” Detroit was scuttled a few years ago amid sharp resident opposition. No, Rainford said, this is a bid to figure out how to best invest public money in all sorts of neighborhoods around the city.

“Different places need different kinds of catalysts,” he said. “A school could be what’s needed in one place, and new housing in another.”

The effort has certainly caught the attention of aldermen and neighborhood development types, who filled a conference room Tuesday for a two-hour talk on the project. They heard about City Hall’s intentions, learned how such data have been used in other cities from New Orleans to Philadelphia and got a walk-through of the numbers. Then came the big reveal: the map. St. Louis in 360 chunks, ranging from dark blue to bright yellow.

In broad outlines, it holds no surprises for people familiar with the contours of city real estate. Neighborhoods south of I-44 and west of Kingshighway bear the purple shades that reflect mid-market home prices and high homeownership. A belt of yellow between Martin Luther King Drive and Natural Bridge Avenue reflects low home prices and high vacancy. Orange swaths of far north city denote high homeownership, but also a high foreclosure rate. Lafayette Square and the Central West End are pricey blue.

It brings new detail to the basics of what people already know, said Sal Martinez, executive director at Community Renewal and Development Inc., in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood north of midtown. But the map also brings some new detail.

“That map gives you a real windshield analysis of what reality is in the city,” he said. “It’s a real drill-down approach to redevelopment. I think it’s a tool we can use.”

It also reflects the reality that — in many parts of the city — strong, stable blocks sit side-by-side with weaker ones. There’s an opportunity to better link those places, said Goldstein, who leads a Philadelphia-based community development firm, to “build from strength” and bolster blocks that are less successful by connecting them better to their neighbors.

Though Goldstein noted that his drives along miles of city streets suggested that connection may not have always been a priority here.

Many streets are dead-ends created by countless so-called “Schoemehl pot” concrete barriers installed for safety reasons in the 1980s by then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl. “I’ve never seen that anywhere. You have these big flower pots at the end of the street,” Goldstein said. “You might want to rethink that.”

The data are helpful, said Stephen Acree, executive director of RISE, a nonprofit group that helps community development corporations with housing projects. But the real difference will come in how it’s used. The city needs a comprehensive, citywide strategy to neighborhood development, he said. This could help create one.

“I hope it helps align everyone, instead of this guessing game,” Acree said. “Sometimes it can feel like everyone’s out there doing their own thing.”

That’s part of the idea, said Rainford and city Planning Director Don Roe. St. Louis’ next five-year blueprint for community development is due to HUD in November, and officials hope this process will help influence that.

They also hope that aldermen, neighborhood groups and others will take the data and maps — which will be online later this week — and blend them with their own neighborhood knowledge to decide smart priorities.

“This will not replace experience in the neighborhood,” Rainford said. “This will supplement it.”

As long as it replaces the city’s old, sometimes opaque, ways of doling out development funds, that’s OK with Harold Crumpton. As executive director of the Greater Ville Neighborhood Preservation Commission, he has spent lots of time and money applying for city funds for projects but not winning them.

A more objective, data-driven process could make things a lot more efficient, Crumpton said. He just hopes it indeed translates into more investment on his north side turf — where empty buildings abound but quality apartments get snapped up quick — and other places like it.

“If it’s more of the old way of doing things, north St. Louis is going to be in very bad shape,” he said. “I don’t want to see that happen.”

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