Whether you’re driving down St. Joseph Avenue or across the Belt Highway, you’re bound to see abandoned buildings around the city.
City Councilman Madison Davis emphasized that the city sees these buildings as a priority. Nevertheless, finding a quick solution poses some challenges.
“I think the main thing is trying to encourage property owners to have a part in it as well,” Davis said. “We have codes and ordinances on the books and I think the main thing is enforcing those where we have it currently. Additionally, it’s those conversations with those property owners, and if you don’t have a willing property owner or someone that wants to do something with their property, that puts you in a tough position right out the gate.”
The city has created the Land Bank Program and the Urban Homestead Program to help acquire vacant structures and gain control of private development.
Land Bank has acquired 12 properties and the Urban Homestead program has nearly $2 million to assist in converting structures back into neighborhood assets.
Davis said it’s a difficult process locating a property owner and facilitating a response.
“Sometimes it’s even getting them to acknowledge that they own the property,” Davis said. “Whether it be an LLC or a bank that bought it or received it in a foreclosure hoping they could sell it for profit later on, that they never realized. Then, for ten years they never maintained that property and the city’s been expected to in that time frame.”
It’s a long process that is hard for anyone to see changes overnight, Davis said.
The city of St. Joseph also created a Vacant Residential Registration program that requires a structure that is in violation of the property maintenance code to receive a six-month permit from the city. As a result, there are 51 vacant properties with paid fees and 213 vacant properties with assessed fees.
Clint Thompson, planning and community development director, said he thinks a shift in the commercial landscape could be contributing to the large number of vacant lots and buildings.
“It’s not just within St. Joseph; it’s a national shift,” Thompson said. “I think commercial is starting to go more internet sales, which changes the demographic and footprint of having an actual storefront and that’s affected us locally.”
Thompson said it can be difficult finding someone to fill large big box department stores like the two Kmart locations on the belt.
“Kmart used to have two locations within the market area and with them pulling out of St. Joseph, it’s changed the landscape within those particular locations,” Thompson said. “It’s really difficult sometimes to retrofit those particular uses for a new use. The city is constantly trying to work with interested developers or trying to attract business to assist in the redevelopment of those vacant properties.”
When these vacant buildings start to set the trend of a specific area, it drives residents and business owners to move to different areas, Davis said.
“It’s people who are relocating to different neighborhoods in St. Joseph that doesn’t have as many of the abandoned structures or vacant structures,” Davis said. “If residents aren’t seeing investment in their neighborhoods, they’re not going to want to live in those neighborhoods. It’s doing things like the parks tax or street infrastructure replacements or bridge replacements. It’s those kinds of things that do add that there’s been investment from the community to the neighborhood.”
Thompson emphasized that these vacancy issues aren’t just problems in St. Joseph.
“I think the vacancy that exists in St. Joseph can be an opportunity to attract new businesses,” Thompson said. “But, until that can become a reality, it can be a negative on that immediate area, whether it be lack of maintenance by existing property owners or just potential vandalism that could occur from a vacant structure. Ideally, to have a successful neighborhood, whether it’s residential, commercial, it has to be an area that has some type of activity going on and there’s intent to actually attract people to that area.”
Davis asks citizens to be good neighbors to help contribute to the success of St. Joseph.
“If there’s issues in their neighborhood, certainly report them to our property maintenance so that we can make sure that we get those things addressed,” Davis said. “We can follow that process from the very beginning. I think when you’re able to start some of those problems before they are 5 or 10 years old, it’s a lot easier to solve.”
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