For Development, Do Business Leaders Need Community Input Too?

11.1.12 | Can one man and his money save downtown Las Vegas? An article in The New York Times Magazine several weeks back dives into a unique experiment going on in the Las Vegas metro region, which as readers know, has been particularly hard hit by unemployment, the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis.

Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos, the billion-dollar online shoe and apparel company is taking on the revitalization of downtown Vegas in the “Downtown Project.” Hsieh started the project last year after his company outgrew offices in nearby suburban Henderson, Nev. and Hsieh decided to move the company to downtown Las Vegas.

The Times Timothy Pratt explains further:

“Then he got to thinking: If he was going to move at least 1,200 employees, why not make it possible for them to live nearby? And if they could live nearby, why not create an urban community aligned with the culture of Zappos, which encourages the kind of “serendipitous interactions” that happen in offices without walls?”

Hsieh and his partners plan to spend $350 million to develop the city’s 1.5-square mile downtown area, a few miles north of the Vegas strip.  Their goal is to turn the area into a vibrant neighborhood where employees can live, work, and play. They hope the area will eventually attract ambitious creative types from around the country and world.

Hsieh is a fan of the famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs who saw cities as living beings and ecosystems, where diversity, mixed-use zoning and density breed spontaneity and creativity, and, to use a more modern word, innovation. He’s also a fan of Edward Glaeser, who’s book, “Triumph of a City,” we’ve written about before.

Hsieh used Glaeser’s recommendations of 100 homes per acre to come up with the Downtown Project’s goal of 10,000 new residents.

The project hopes to draw these “upwardly mobile, innovative professionals” to the area in the next five years by offering seed money to start up companies in exchange for entrepreneurs agreeing to live and work in downtown Las Vegas.

Hsieh says the development will help Zappos retain employees, revitalize the economy, and hopefully spur even more development.

But Jane Jacobs, who fought hard against urban renewal projects in the 1960’s, was also very much an advocate of bottom-up community development where existing community members were given a voice and power in deciding the future of their own communities.

And the article points to the fact that Hsieh and his colleagues could use some schooling in this arena.

Downtown Las Vegas is, in fact, a lot more than just an area filled with “empty lots,” “liquor stores, and weekly hotels” as it may appear to visitors.

The project’s plans to revitalize a downtown apartment building got into some trouble after it failed at first to take into account the building’s existing residents.

The Downtown Project has had some real success so far. Pratt reports that after less than a year, 15 tech startups have signed on. And Glaeser is full of praise for the project for starting with bringing in human capitol as opposed to building and then hoping people will come, as he says most urban-renewal projects do.

But how successful can the Downtown Project be without ensuring they have community buy-in from all of the neighborhood’s existing residents?

BRR research shows has shown that community development projects that are the most successful are those that include community folks at the table in addition to more powerfully connected business and government interests.

In “Collaboration is Not Enough: Virtuous Cycles of Reform in Transportation Policy,” BRR Director Margaret Weir and University of California Berkeley colleagues Jane Rongerude and Christopher Ansell looked at two efforts to move transportation-related projects from drawing board to policy, one in Los Angeles and one in Chicago.

Specifically, the researchers were interested in the effectiveness of new laws that mandated more public participation in the planning process in making regional level policy change.

They found that horizontal collaboration (ties between various non-profits and groups that represent community interests), while important, were most successful when supplemented with “power brokers,” including government officials and key stakeholders in the business community, as was the case in Chicago where efforts were more successful. The key, these authors find, was the presence of movers and shakers at the table, which Hsieh clearly already has.  But hopefully project organizers are working to involve the existing community members as well.

Richard Florida, author of “The Creative Class,” was quoted in the Times piece as saying the project needs a “robust community process,” and a plan to make sure the existing community is involved. “You can have serendipity,” he said. “But when you’re building a community, you also need a strategy.”

Photo/ Jude Joffe-Block

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