Vacant lots sponge up stormwater, produce community benefits

WELLS-GOODFELLOW – From the north side of St. Louis to the south side, vacant lots and abandoned buildings are a common problem, but in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood there are 155 football fields’ worth of
them — some 480 vacant buildings and 1,400 vacant lots.

They are an eyesore and crime haven, but in the eyes of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District they have a silver lining.

“Each lot cleared and planted reduces 6,500 gallons of combined sewer runoff a year,” said Jeff Riepe, principal engineer of stormwater program planning at MSD.

That’s good for MSD, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has
required it to spend some $4.7 billion in coming years to reduce stormwater runoff across its entire service area and install separate sewer pipes to handle that water. When cleared of old foundations, renewed with clean soil and planted with native grasses, vacant lots act as sponges in heavy rain. Those “sponges” reduce basement sewer backups and raw sewage that would otherwise pour into the Mississippi River.

The problem dates back over a century. Like many older cities, St. Louis decided years ago to build a sewer system that combined stormwater runoff with raw sewage.

It seemed like a good idea at the time – a smart way to dilute raw sewage while diverting stormwater from streets – but then cities began treating sewage before dumping it into rivers. And populations grew.
Now those same systems are overtaxed when extreme rain hits.

With climate change, such rain is happening more often. Although annual rainfall has not changed, it now occurs in more concentrated events that worsen an already bad situation.

Throughout the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, the signs of MSD’s efforts are everywhere: Cleared lots are greening up, and big piles of clean dirt sit in other lots beside rich, black compost.

City-wide, MSD is spending $15 million on the demolition of vacant homes –
fifteen times more than was earmarked by the city before the 2011 EPA decree.

While MSD pays for demolition, the cost of dirt, grading and seeding comes from the Green City Coalition, a joint effort with the Missouri Department of Conservation, city agencies and private foundations.

Laura Ginn, Green City Coalition Program Manager at the St. Louis Development Corporation, engages area residents with neighborhood meetings and door-to-door canvassing. Having been followed by game poachers with AK-47s when she worked as a primatologist in
Burkina Faso, she is fearless where others dare not tread.

“It’s all a matter of perspective,” she said. “I’ve never had any trouble even though some people tell me I shouldn’t be walking around alone.”

Despite her best efforts, GCC’s work has not been without controversy.

“We like the rain gardens,” area resident Antwan Pope said. “Cabbage Patch behind Pierre Laclede school is one of my favorite projects, but the city’s got to do something about the dumping. They spend all this money fixing vacant lots, and as soon as they go away people are dumping trash.”

According to Pope, city officials say they already have security cameras
installed in some places to track illegal dumping, but they need more.

“And where’s the police that’s supposed to be stopping it? They don’t even show up at our weekly events on Saturday,” Pope said, referring to the farmers market he founded on the corner of Goodfellow Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. “If they ain’t here, how they gonna keep an eye on things?”

Ginn said that one way to replace police and cameras was the city’s land trust program.

Jerry Upchurch, 70, has already bought in, farming vegetables in a lot beside his home at the corner of Cote Brilliante Avenue and Goodfellow, an area renowned for crime and open-air drug peddling. Upchurch pays the city a modest fee to use the lot.

Like many elders in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, Upchurch grew up on a farm in the South – in his case,  in Tipton County, Tennessee. He came to St. Louis in his 30s and never looked back.

“I’ve been using [the lot] three years now,” he said. “I’m growing greens, tomatoes, cabbage, corn and hot peppers, so it turned out pretty good.”

According to Ginn, it’s all about “vacancy to vibrancy,” a term GCC uses to describe the transformation of vacant lots to valuable community assets.

“Stormwater absorption? With 6,000 neighbors here, that’s an obscure message to get out,” Ginn said as she planted pumpkins in the Cabbage Patch garden with a crew of moms, dads and kids from a Moms Demand Action chapter promoting “gun sense in America.”

“Twenty years ago, this very land was a vacant lot, but community leaders saw its potential as a magnet for pride and education.

“For some partners, stormwater has nothing to do with it, and that’s fine. Sometimes it’s about taking vacant lots that used to be four- to five-foot weeds and turning them into something that’s better to live with. Stormwater absorption is a secondary benefit.”

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