ST. LOUIS — The two men watching as backhoes toppled four brick homes in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood probably represented more net worth than has ever set foot in that block of St. Louis.
Tech billionaire Jack Dorsey, a St. Louis native and co-founder and CEO of both Square Inc. and Twitter, along with Detroit native Bill Pulte, whose grandfather founded national homebuilder Pulte Homes, were paying for the demolitions — $500,000 for a pilot program to completely clear more than 130 lots in a four-block area of the northwest St. Louis neighborhood hard hit by abandonment and vacancy.
“St. Louis is a lot easier to solve,” said Pulte, who several years ago launched the Blight Authority, a similar initiative in the Detroit area. “This problem can be solved. This problem can be solved in less than 15 years.... This is just about willpower at the government and private sector level.”
The new nonprofit he and Dorsey are funding, the St. Louis Blight Authority, aims to complement city efforts to tackle vacancy and demolish abandoned buildings, a key initiative for Mayor Lyda Krewson. This initial pilot phase will knock down 30 structures — 18 funded privately and 12 by the city — and then fund debris removal and beautification. Dorsey and Pulte hope to inspire other philanthropists to contribute to the effort and perhaps expand it to other city neighborhoods.
“We need to make sure we’re not just celebrating this one moment but we’re actually following through,” Dorsey said. “What I was inspired by in Bill’s model was the fact that he was able to do this in Detroit and he gave the land back to the community and the community made the decision. I hope that we follow a similar model in St. Louis as well.”
They emphasized that once the land is cleared, it’s up to the community to decide whether it is developed, turned into community gardens or used another way.
Some neighborhood residents, already wearing red “St. Louis Blight Authority” shirts, cheered the announcement.
“It all means nothing if the community’s not involved,” said Antonio Jackson, 29. “It won’t stop all the crime, but the crime rate will go down. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
The effort is a drop in the bucket of a massive vacancy problem decades in the making as residents left in waves for the suburbs and the city’s population hemorrhaged to 300,000 from 850,000. It’s left with 7,000 vacant buildings — many beyond repair — and over 12,000 vacant lots.
These days, it’s not unusual to see demolition crews knocking down an abandoned building in Wells-Goodfellow, the neighborhood estimated to have the most vacant buildings in the city. For years, there was little to no money for demolition, but the city hopes to demolish some 700 buildings this year, up from around 350 last year. It also has a new property tax that it can soon start to use to secure and stabilize abandoned buildings as they await rehabilitation.
“City government cannot do it alone,” Steve Conway, Krewson’s chief of staff, said at a press conference Friday announcing the philanthropic donation. “It is so important we have partners in the private sector.”
Pulte said he estimates it will cost about $70 million to tear down the rest of the abandoned buildings in St. Louis and that he thinks the public and private sector combined can up the annual demolition pace to 2,000 structures. He added that he spoke to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson Friday morning, “and he’s very impressed with what we’re doing and very excited to be partnering with us.” It wasn’t immediately clear what HUD’s involvement would be.
For Dorsey, who is funding the majority of the effort, he said simply he hopes to inspire others to help in his hometown.
“I’ve always looked for ways to give back to the city that gave so much to me,” he said. “We’ve been able to do that a little bit with Square.”
The San Francisco-based mobile payments company currently has offices in the Central West End Cortex tech district. Over 500 people work there now, Dorsey said, and the company is looking to expand here.
Asked about comments late last year that he was interested in adding Square jobs downtown, he said only that “we’re looking to build in St. Louis.”
Jim McKelvey, Dorsey’s co-founder at Square who now serves as a board member and is also a native St. Louisan, last year acquired the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headquarters building at 900 North Tucker Boulevard and is renovating it for new tenants.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story indicated that most vacant buildings in the city were beyond repair. It's not clear how many vacant structures are actually salvageable.