Friday, February 11, 2011

BLIGHT OUT! City twice declares downtown "blighted"

When will TIFs + blight = eminent domain for private developers? 
COLUMBIA, 2/10/11  (Beat Byte) --  For the second time in roughly eighteen months, City Hall has declared "blight" in downtown Columbia, erroneously using a term with serious implications for private landowners and a devious local past.     
"The Redevelopment Area on the whole is a 'blighted area,'" reads an ordinance introduced at Monday's meeting describing the Regency Hotel property at 1111 East Broadway and designed to grant Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to developers of "an upscale hotel" to replace it.  The wording mirrors a July 2009 ordinance that declared a downtown area near 10th and Locust Streets "blighted," approving a TIF project for the Odle family that ultimately fell apart.
Does blight make right? 
City leaders shouldn't throw the term "blight" around so wrecklessly -- and wrongly.   Letting this Pandora out of her box promises to adversely affect anyone who can't afford to fight City Hall and the big developers city leaders are slobbering over themselves to "incentivize." 
Twice in five decades, the City of Columbia has formed a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which used blight decrees and their ugly brethren, eminent domain, to effectively wipe out Columbia's private landowning black business community, also downtown.   

What's more, "blight" is hardly an apt description for a functioning, multi-story hotel that sports a "book online" website with a front page picture of the Regency designed to impress guests.  The term is being grossly misapplied under the law City Hall cites, Sections 99.800 to 99.865 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. 
"Blighted area," according to that section, "is an area which, by reason of the predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements, improper subdivision or obsolete platting, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use."
To be fair, shouldn't Regency guests be informed that they're staying in a hotel our city leaders believe is unsanitary, unsafe, a menace to public health, and a danger to life, property, and the morals of good Columbians?   
 Hip and vibrant District?

The blight declaration's Orwellian doublespeak comes attached to this description:  "Downtown Columbia is a hip and vibrant district," the staff report accompanying the ordinance declares.  "It is an exciting gathering place for all types of people."

But how can that be, if downtown currently harbors large areas that are a menace to the public, so deteriorated that they endanger life and property? 
As it did for the Tiger Hotel, another TIF project that hasn't succeeded, City Hall had the option of declaring the Regency Hotel the less severe "conservation area," which the law defines as an area that isn't yet blighted, but could get there.  
But both Council and staff chose the term blight, a powerful word that could have grave implications for private landowners, especially in the central city, when the eminent domain trumpets begin once again, and an ugly history repeats. 
Lawyers at Armstrong-Teasdale discuss the TIF law

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