WELLS-GOODFELLOW – A pair of billionaires is funding a demolition project in north St. Louis they say can solve the problem of abandoned, blighted buildings in a matter of years. They’re calling it the St. Louis Blight Authority.
St. Louis native and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, along with Detroit philanthropist Bill Pulte, whose family made its fortune in home building, stood watching in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood on July 19 as crews began tearing down a four-block stretch of abandoned buildings.
The pair have put up $500,000 and are encouraging area businesses and philanthropists to contribute more.
“Some of these residents have had these buildings up for over twenty years and in America that should not happen,” Pulte said. “So by working with the private sector, this public-private partnership, we’re knocking down these building that need to come down. Nobody should have to be next to these abandoned buildings.”
Pulte has run similar projects in the Detroit area, saying he has achieved a great deal of success in that city, where he calls the blight problem worse and more complicated. Beyond that, he claims to have completely rid suburban Pontiac, Mich., a city of about 60,000, of blighted buildings. Pulte said he could have the same success here.
“This problem can be solved,” he said. “This problem can be solved in less than 15 years. This is just about willpower at the government and private sector level.”
For Dorsey’s part, he believes both his money and connections here can help grow what he describes as a “pilot program.” He said he was most attracted to Pulte’s model when he found that, in Michigan, the land was cleared, cleaned up and given to area residents to determine its ultimate future.
“I’m hoping the city of St. Louis follows a similar pattern,” he said. “It is up to them right now whether they decide to give it to the community or not. But I’m hoping they’re inspired by what has happened in Detroit.”
Several north side residents were among those wearing bright red “St. Louis Blight Authority” T-shirts, working as part of the demolition crews.
Theon Ford, who lives in Walnut Park, was one of them.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said, watching the heavy equipment raze an aging brick structure. “It gives us a chance to get our neighborhoods back. Gives us a chance to tear down some of these things and build something positive. Maybe a playground for the kids or even a garden for the community.”
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, 22nd Ward, represents the neighborhood surrounding Burd Avenue, where the initial work is taking place. He insists that development could be an option here.
“We’re getting rid of the slum and blight so developers can see the vision of rebuilding of our community,” he told reporters and onlookers. “We are standing on fertile soil for development. It’s my hope and my vision that 10 years from now we can come back and tour this block and see homes.”
But not everyone sees this as a great idea. Former city comptroller Virvus Jones, whose daughter is the current city treasurer, profanely criticized the project on Twitter.
“Anybody can tear (s#@%) down. This is absolute craziness,” he wrote.
That was followed by the retweet of a comment by Pulte, raving about an online compliment one of his projects received from President Donald Trump.
Above it, Jones wrote, “Recognize this guy? This is who @LydaKrewson is praising as the savior of North Stl,” referring to Mayor Lyda Krewson, who signed off on the deal.
But Dorsey said the project was about not tearing down, but building up.
“While it looks like destruction right now, it clears the way for construction, and that’s what I’m excited to see,” he said. “So I don’t put too much into this moment, because we have to come back and see how we follow through.”
The NorthSider will continue to follow this project and report on its progress.