Neighborhood Revitalization Needs Local Leadership, Gentrification Too

11.8.11 | Gentrification doesn’t have to be a bad word, says the National Resources Defense Council’s Kaid Benfield. We need cities that can attract new residents “with incomes that can strengthen the tax base and support new economic activity, while at the same time being strong and hospitable enough to hold on to existing residents.  And we must provide both groups with the services and amenities required to meet their needs.  Is that too much to hope for?”

Perhaps. But Benfield’s blog post at the NRDC’s Switchboard does a good job of laying out successful revitalization efforts, while also giving important attention to the messiness of real life democratic planning initiatives that take into account the needs and strengths of the existing community.

There are ample examples of posts or articles bashing gentrification for ruining authentic neighborhoods and displacing residents. Far fewer are the posts or articles about successful redevelopment efforts. Benfield’s writing in general does a great job of the latter. He shows that with real community planning and leadership, residents can do more than just stall development projects from moving forward – and instead effect positive change.

Here’s a few of his favorite neighborhood development projects that he says seem to be headed in the right direction. They have both solid community leadership and support, and city resources designed to attract private investment dollars:

The redevelopment of the Old North Neighborhood in St. Louis and Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative are both examples of low-income communities that have seen important growth and development thanks to community planning shaped by local residents.

Also, the Melrose Neighborhood of the South Bronx – an area of New York City –  has seen tremendous change over the past few decades.  After years of disinvestment, much of the original housing stock had been neglected or abandoned as middle-class residents left and fires and arson swept the neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. But several major development projects in recent years seem to be on the right track, Benfield says, because of their commitment to sustainability and true leadership from community residents.

Benfield has written about Via Verde, a mixed-use, mixed-income development in the neighborhood that is almost completed and will bring 151 affordable rental apartments and 71 co-op ownership units for middle-income households.  The project’s unique focus on sustainability and green urban living includes a large garden to grow food and provide open space to residents.

But the biggest project is Melrose Commons, which  Benfield writes about here. With leadership from the visionary community group Nos Quedamos or “we stay,” and the late Yolanda Garcia, community advocacy efforts prevented large-scale displacement of existing residents in the neighborhood, and ensured that the new housing planned was affordable and green. The resulting plans will eventually have some 2,000 mixed-income homes and retail services designed to create dense neighborhoods with tree-lined streets. The goal is affordability while attracting private development. The development is LEED certified and covers 30 city blocks with plans to provide as many as 2000 units of affordable housing.

Nos Quedamos’ website lays out the vision:

This vision is one that respects, supports and involves the existing community in the formulation of plans and policies that address the issues of housing, open space, community renewal and its sustainability. This is vital for the continued growth of Melrose Commons, the Bronx and its role in the regional economy that fosters cohesion, growth, and responsibility. We believe that current members of the community must be afforded the opportunity not only to remain in the neighborhood as it undergoes renewal, but also to play an active and integral role in determining the very process of development.

Development projects like Melrose Commons are having some success even in this gloomy housing market. Long-neglected neighborhoods need some kind of gentrification, Benfield says, to fund a more sustainable tax base for civic improvements, more sustainable growth, and a higher quality of life. “The challenge,” he writes, “is to have enough without having too much.”

His discussion of Washington, DC, is case in point. The African-American population in the city has been dropping as middle class African-American residents leave for the suburbs. New white and Latino residents have kept the overall population from dropping.  Benfield describes efforts by the community to influence the development along the Georgia Avenue corridor, yet planning and zoning processes are making it difficult for the community to have a voice in the revitalization process.

Benfield concludes that bringing equity and sustainability to our cities in the future “will require more, not less, revitalization and more, not fewer, new residents.” He continues:

But it will also require providing high-quality affordable housing in neighborhoods where revitalization is occurring.  It will require bringing existing residents to the table early and often in the planning process, but to help shape good neighborhood development, not to prevent it.  And, where wounds over gentrification exist, we must take steps to heal them, because divisive rhetoric only hurts everyone involved and, ultimately, the viability of our communities.

Photo by Jacob.

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