A terrible trio working to force redevelopment on central Columbia
COLUMBIA, 10/16/11 (Op-Ed) -- More and more, it looks like the City of Columbia will soon face an "end game" that looks like significant central city "redevelopment" following an updated but familiar playbook. More than 40 years old, the playbook combines taxpayer-funded incentives, blight declarations, eminent domain, and local government muscle on behalf of powerful special interests who smell a buck they can make at someone else's expense.
Look closely, and you can already see the pieces on the chess board -- and how they resemble the pieces from years past. Under present-day Missouri law, TIFs, blight, and eminent domain are a terrible trio in forced redevelopment.
Sticks and carrots
Start with the leadership. Then, it was the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) advocating "urban renewal." Now, it's an alphabet soup of organizations, from the DLC to the CID, advocating "downtown redevelopment." Urban renewal vs. downtown redevelopment? My, how history repeats.
Next, look at the carrots -- the incentives. Back in the sixties and seventies, the Federal government supplied urban renewal grants. Today, the incentives are so-called "Tax Increment Financing," or TIFs.
The sticks, however, are no different today: blight and eminent domain. Decades ago, City Hall and a few "upstanding" leaders declared blight on hundreds of acres around downtown, and used eminent domain to shoo out Black-owned businesses and shutter some white-owned slums. Paying less than 50 cents on the dollar, this rogue team of "civic leaders" then took the whole kit and caboodle, chopped it up, and sold it on the cheap to a bunch of rich white guys and public housing projects that only put lipstick on the ills of segregation.
Today, the law of TIFs in Missouri includes the same sticks, starting in Chapter 99 of the Revised Missouri Statutes (RSMo).
To get a TIF, the "redevelopment" land must fall into one of three categories, blight included. Under the RSMo sections devoted to redevelopment, the TIF law then gives municipalities and Land Clearance Authorities the right to condemn property via eminent domain.
The redevelopment corridor
Finally, take the redevelopment that's already happening. In one corner of the redevelopment corridor, folks like Les Wagner and Boone County Family Resources are stockpiling some of Columbia's most valuable central city land with tax dollars; taking it off the property tax roles and -- neighbors suspect -- banking it, not for the agency's clients, but for future redevelopment.
In other corners, giant parking garages rise that won't have any customers unless the downtown post office; public housing; and acres of flat surface parking are redeveloped into skyrise office and living space.
The major landowners around these garages -- Boone County; the City of Columbia; Waters, Odle, Wisconsin tugboat millionaire Ray Eckstein; and a few other prominent families have either lined up behind projects like Garagezilla or -- in Eckstein's case -- seem to be waiting for a bail out of some sort. He owns the increasingly-decrepit post office building -- got the land from the LCRA in the sixties.
Who makes out?
Finally, the presumptive beneficiaries: In both cases, well-healed landowners and City Hall. As a partnership, those groups are pushing so-called Ward gerrymandering plans far more likely to seat a City Council that would vote 5-2 or 6-1 for various central city redevelopment schemes.
Would high-rise offices and living space along Ash and Walnut Streets be good for downtown? Sure -- but not like this. Not with the economic and political distortions all the sticks and carrots create. If we thought two rounds of Land Clearance were bad a few decades ago, we ain't seen nothin' yet.