Looking Back at Yesterday’s Property Tax

It’s 1896.  The Presidential campaign involving William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley is heavily colored by the Panic of 1893 – the worst economic depression yet experienced in the U.S. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are championing the right of American women to vote, a campaign separated from success by twenty more years of hard organizing.  In St. Paul, “empire builder” James Hill is at the peak of his influence as a railroad monopolist.  Near the Cathedral in September, future literary master F. Scott Fitzgerald is born.

And finally (lest I neglect the dictum that only two things resist change), the St. Paul City Council in 1896 passed a measure establishing what became known as the “St. Paul method” of assessing property taxes. 

The method streamlined the process of assessing property in the city for tax purposes, by establishing values per foot of frontage on various types of streets.  In other words, with certain exceptions, the core assumption was the wider a lot on a given street, the higher the assessed value of its property.  In the modern discussion around property tax, this comes close to what is now characterized as a land tax.  In theory, builders and property owners of the time would have been encouraged by this tax system to plat narrower lots and build higher, longer structures, rather than lower, wider structures.  Over the last year, my efforts to engage a full GIS analysis of this dynamic have been stymied for lack of records indicating when the St. Paul method was forced out of use by the state, which at some point likely mandated a more uniform statewide assessment system.  View an 1896 article describing the system by clicking here.

Still, I have run some initial analysis.  Below is a graph (click on it for a larger version) showing citywide property data, and plotting the year each parcel was built versus its floor-area ratio (“FAR”).  FAR represents the total square footage of a building divided by the total land area, and serves as a measure of the density of building on the property.  The blue dots represent buildings constructed in a given year, and the red line represents the annual average FAR for the year.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to draw conclusions around the impact of the St. Paul method without an end date, but the trend of density in the city is certainly of interest. 


1896 is, in fact, a high point, and the years that follow suggest a significant drop in the density of buildings constructed, which lasted until the end of World War I.  However, a range of issues may explain these dynamics beyond the impact of a property tax regime:

• The cost of labor and/or materials related to buildings more than one story;

• Availability of desirable land as the city became more continuously developed;

• Changes in the streetcar and auto transportation system.

Also notably, the current year’s property data have a significant inherent bias, in that many buildings of low and high density have been demolished over time, and so the available data by no means represents a full accounting of when and how construction occurred in St. Paul. But while imperfect, this exercise does suggest how powerful contemporary analysis may be in tracing success and failure in past development and policy.

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