5/27/2007

Chances are dimming for redevelopment in Frenchtown: St Louis MO Post-Dispatch, 5/22/07

A year after the City Council took initial steps to redevelop part of the historic Frenchtown area, the chances of the project ever being built have faded.

New Melle-based developer Tim Griffey says he's "back-burnered" his idea for new homes, shops, restaurants and offices on 15 acres along and near the northern end of North Second Street.

"As far as I know, it's on hold indefinitely," said the city's economic development director, Nadine Boon. "A long indefinitely."

Griffey said a slowdown in the housing industry had added to the challenge of assembling property at the site. "With the issues there, we thought it wouldn't be a good idea to continue to invest money" now, he said.

One issue is on the use of eminent domain condemnation authority. The restriction imposed by the council keeps it from being used in negotiations to buy existing businesses in a redevelopment area. Griffey has acquired only two properties, both vacant.

Adding to the plan's uncertain future was the April 3 defeat of its main City Hall supporter, former Councilman Rory Riddler.

Riddler's successor as the area's councilman, Richard Veit, says he'll oppose using eminent domain to force the sale of any property in the redevelopment area — even vacant buildings.

"I think any developer who wants the city to assist them in accumulating land is going to have a problem," Veit said.

Riddler got campaign donations from Griffey, Griffey's company and his attorney, while some businesses opposing the Griffey redevelopment plan and eminent domain donated to Veit's campaign.

Veit says he's interested in "microdevelopment" — working with individual developers one building at a time — instead of far-reaching plans covering a large area. "Small scale that builds and grows is the way to go," he said.

As an example, he cited developer Tim Short's ongoing work to renovate an old building at Olive Street and North Second. The city development department says Short plans a mixture of commercial and residential space.

Last May, the council approved legislation declaring the 15-acre site blighted, authorizing the city to eventually issue property tax breaks to get redevelopment going.

Supporters, including a group called Frenchtown Citizens Promoting Redevelopment, or CPR, said the measure was needed to end a decades-long economic spiral.

Opponents, including businesses in the targeted area, persuaded the council to include restrictions that in effect exempted them from eminent domain pressure. They argued that it was unfair to force property owners to sell so a redevelopment company could make a profit.

The policy, expanded later to apply to future development projects citywide, still allows the use of eminent domain to obtain buildings declared public nuisances or beyond repair.

Eminent domain also can be used to take business property lacking a business license for at least a year and any property with assessed valuation declining by at least 50 percent over two years.

Boon has urged the newly elected council to loosen the restrictions to bring them closer to those in state law. "This particular ordinance is a deterrent to developers," she said.

She said some other sites in the city also will be difficult to redevelop under the measure, including a stretch of First Capitol Drive southwest of West Clay Street.

Veit, however, says the restrictions aren't tough enough.

"I'm sure (Nadine) truly believes that's good for economic development," Veit said. "But on the council, I represent more values than just economic development."

A leader in the CPR group, Maureen Rogers-Bouxsein, said she hopes that some other developer eventually steps forward in Frenchtown if Griffey gets out.

Doug Medley, a transmission shop owner in the redevelopment area who opposed last year's council measure, said he prefers that the council repeal it.

He said property values of thriving businesses could be hurt just by the "blighted" description for the area even if the legislation were never used.


St Louis MO Post-Dispatch: http://www.stltoday.com