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Battling Blight:City uses virtual mapping to track vacant properties

St. Joseph launches Building Blocks program to track vacant properties.

Posted: Nov. 13, 2018 6:36 PM
Updated: Nov. 13, 2018 6:40 PM

(St. Joseph,MO) There are 478 vacant buildings in St. Joseph, and a new computer program could reduce that number by helping the city map out vacant properties.

Planning and Community Development Director Clint Thompson said of the 25,000 residential structures, about two percent of the total housing available is vacant.

“On average communities have about 1.5 percent of their structures vacant.The city of St. Joseph is a little higher than the national average,” Thompson said.

To combat the problem the city is investing in the computer software Building Blocks. The program will create a virtual map of the city, highlighting all vacant properties and ranking the stability of each structure.

“The software system will be the first tool that is implemented to actually begin tracking the total number of structures and monitoring the success in reducing that total number [of vacant buildings],” Thompson said. “This will be a mechanism that allows the city to prioritize those structures that need to have immediate attention.”

City Councilman At Large Bryan Myers said vacant buildings can negatively impact property values in a neighborhood.

"Just a couple of properties vacant in a neighborhood can have a substantial impact on your property value, but when you've got dozens and dozens in one part of town there's a significant decrease in people's investments," Myers said.

The Building Blocks program will create a website to help identify the location of a vacant property, as well as an assessment of the physical structure of the building; an estimated value of the property; information on any backlogged utility bills for the property and any police activity on the property.

"The ability to map these structures and identify some that need the attention and the priority to have something taken care of immediately will allow the city to maximize the limited amount of funding that we have to be able to go through the securing and demolition procedure," Thompson said.

The software costs $18,000 annually with costs divided among all city departments that use the program. For the first year, the software will be paid for through the Community Planning and Development Department.

“The system itself has a variety of different aspects that we can utilize from zoning, building regulations, property maintenance, fire, health, police daty,” Thompson said. “Any statistic that is tied to a particular property or parcel within St. Joseph, this software will have the ability to track and monitor progress.”

Thompson said several buildings are permitted to remain vacant, because they are protected as a historic structure or the landowner has obtained the property permits to keep the building vacant while they undergo renovation.
Myers said while removing vacant properties is key to revitalizing neighborhoods, he wants to make sure all unoccupied, historic buildings are protected.

“People travel from all over to come to St. Joseph for a number of reasons and everyone that we come into contact with always remarks on the beauty of our architecture and how it’s unmatched anywhere else in the country,” Myers said. “I don’t want to see any of these homes that are currently in danger, be demolished.We have to take our historic properties and handle them a little differently.”

Once the property information has been uploaded by the city, the Building Blocks program will be available for the public to track the city’s progress, and will give updates when each property is either brought up to code or demolished.

"The city's goal is to save and rehabilitate as many of these structures as possible," Thompson said.

City staff started surveying neighborhoods and collecting information on vacant properties on Monday. Thompson estimates it will take at least two months before the website is available to the public.

“We are hoping this new software system will enable us to at least get a start on tracking where these properties are. Council and city staff have to work together with the community to take the steps to remedy what we find,” Myers said.

The city council will have a work session on Thursday at 2p.m. to discuss property maintenance issues and the Building Blocks program.

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