Jamaa Birth Village, a midwifery clinic presently occupying a former doctor’s office on Florissant Road, performs an admirable and much needed service. Black mothers suffer from a lack of quality maternal care, and their children pay the price. Providing the opportunity for children to get a good start is an endeavor which yields benefits that last for an entire lifetime.
Because of their tremendous work, it is particularly concerning that they have approached expansion of their facilities in such a ham handed and haphazard manner. The first proposal floated was converting a recently renovated century home on South Clay, in the midst of a residential neighborhood, into a group home. Thankfully, the home was purchased by a family, and will continue to serve its intended purpose.
Jamaa now proposes to construct a multi-building facility on currently vacant land on the west side of Cunningham Avenue, just south of Hereford Avenue and directly east of Walgreens. This land previously served as parking for commercial establishments which no longer exist. The half acre parking lot at the corner belonged to the apparently defunct Emmet Mercantile Inc., which had paid no tax on the property since 2011. An additional half acre directly to the south is owned by Schnuck’s, according to county records, though news reports suggest that Jamaa has acquired both of these properties.
Several difficulties exist with Jamaa’s proposal. First of all, the properties are zoned DT-3. According to Ferguson’s zoning code, a variety of uses are permitted in that stretch, including a bed and breakfast, museum, restaurant, small scale retail, and a medical marijuana dispensary. But the zoning code does not permit a residential care facility. In their current fundraising material, Jamaa proposes to develop “a birthing and postpartum retreat center.” Clearly, that is a short-term residential care facility. The DT-3 district stretches all the way to Darst, and backs up to homes on Adelle. The development of a multi-building residential care facility in this district violates the zoning code, and would further degrade a street which already suffers from being the rear end of Walgreens and the funeral home, neither of which take great pains to attend to that view of their property. This would be one more step toward making Cunningham entirely unsuitable as a residential street. That Jamaa has purchased land and is raising funds to develop a facility which is prohibited by zoning, without first seeking approval from the city, is concerning.
Then, there is the issue of the site itself. This one acre parcel, assembled from two existing parcels, is bounded by Hereford to the north, a creek to the east, and the driveway of an existing residence to the south. A setback from the creek would be needed, in case of flooding. Presumably, even if the city did grant spot zoning for this site, it would require an appropriate setback from the existing residence. And given the traffic safety issues and constant high noise level on Hereford, it would be inappropriate to build too close to that busy arterial. With the setbacks, that acre plot may ultimately have only half an acre of usable space. Their rendition appears to show four small buildings, one large building, and what appears to be a large gazebo adjoining the large building, as well as a parking along Cunningham for about 15 vehicles. Even the most crafty architect can’t fit so many buildings into such a small space. And it’s worth noting that the existing residence to the south isn’t a large home at the rear of the property, set far back from the street, with an alternate entrance. Rather, the resident of that modest home would now be a driveway’s width from the boundary of Jamaa’s property, with Jamaa customers parking within a couple dozen feet of their home.
Another difficulty with this proposal is that it continues the troubling trend of taking large parcels of property off the tax rolls in Ferguson. In the West Florissant corridor, the Urban League/Salvation Army Community Empowerment Center, and the Boys and Girls Club Teen Center of Excellence, both occupy large commercially zoned parcels which ones paid substantial taxes. A lengthy tax abatement was provided to Centene for a call center just west of New Halls Ferry at 270. A former printing and photography business at the corner of Elkan and Florissant Road is now city owned and vacant. And of course, there’s the Corner Coffee House, which once paid more than $5,000 a year in property taxes, now sitting vacant and neglected since its acquisition by a non-profit in early 2019. In contrast, Walgreens pays more than $100,000 in property taxes, including over $10,000 to the city of Ferguson.
Ultimately, the long-term path of this city is being charted by the decisions we make today. Most of these tax exempt charities are great causes. But Ferguson can’t be home to all the community assistance in the region. And we shouldn’t engage in spot zoning to accommodate a tax exempt purpose. We are confident that there are other parcels in north county which would be better suited to the needs of this important organization.
Finally, no story would be complete without a “microaggression” directed at Mayor Jones. News accounts indicated that “city officials” were present at the announcement, which took place at the newly acquired land. Photographs shared in social media show Mayor Jones in group shots at the site, holding up plans for the development. Mayor Jones should be aware that developers must follow a process, which includes complying with zoning or seeking variances. It is premature and foolish to raise funds, hold press conferences, and acquire land, for a use which does not conform to zoning. And it is inappropriate of Mayor Jones to celebrate a plan which apparently believes it is more important than that process, which exists to protect the existing residents from inappropriate development. The mayor will surely open the next council meeting with calls for cooperation and unity, now that she no longer holds a majority to work her will. Smiling for the cameras at the announcement of a non-conforming use which has not even taken the first step in the approval process is great way to undermine that.