Inner ring suburban community improvement
While I focus on urban or center city revitalization, the reality is that the characteristics of successful community improvement are universal, even if community characteristics and opportunities for improvement vary from place to place.
People often make the mistake of thinking "universally" or "globally" when the reality is that community improvement works at the scale of a district. And that means that neighborhood "submarkets" in the city vary from each other and from the Downtown, and that at that scale, can be compared to suburban towns and agglomeration in terms of improvement opportunity.
A couple years ago I did break out and add a section of links in the right sidebar on "suburban revitalization," and I discuss various suburban revitalization efforts from time to time, such as recently, when I mentioned the Classic Towns commercial district revitalization initiative of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Greater Philadelphia.
Another good example is the Main Street Oakland County program in Michigan, although some of the county's biggest town commercial districct successes, like Royal Oak, don't actually participate in the program.
Both of these programs use Main Street-based commercial district revitalization practices that aren't particularly unique. What is unique is that other suburban counties haven't figured out the necessity of taking on such a systematic approach.
Gentrification isn't the issue: investment is. This comes up because of the recent Urbanophile entry, "A new donut," which discusses inner ring decline and posits the question on whether these communities can be improved, and can it be done without gentrification.
I do think the question is an interesting one. But it isn't new. Inner ring suburbs have been declining in many metropolitan areas for decades. Note that the Washington DC region provides at least three examples of attempts at revitalization of inner ring suburbs over the past 40+ years. The first two examples, Arlington County (dating to the late 1960s) and Silver Spring, Maryland (various efforts starting in the 1990s), are for the most part, incredible success stories.
Arlington was losing population and businesses when it decided to route the coming Metrorail system through the county's main arterial corridor, Wilson Boulevard, instead of the otherwise preferred routing within the I-66 freeway. Coincident with zoning changes focused on intensifying development in the new transit corridor, the county has added population, office and commercial space, new businesses and jobs, new retail, and a great deal of multunit housing.
Similarly, Silver Spring, in Montgomery County, abutting DC and anchored by a Metrorail station, after various unsuccessful efforts, has turned the corner and is adding population. Although unlike Arlington, Silver Spring has been less successful at attracting and retaining commercial office activity, although it has a successful retail core that is a regional destination for both retail and community activity (such as festivals, farmers markets, etc.).
But neither area was distressed, just languishing, by comparison to developments further out from the core. Today in Arlington, in the Wilson Boulevard corridor, housing prices are highest in the county and rental rates are high. Silver Spring's residential real estate market is pretty strong as well, although by no means the best in the county.
It's fair to say that it's difficult for poorer people to compete for housing in these areas, which is part of the animus driving anti-transit sentiment in Arlington County's Columbia Pike Corridor.
On the other hand, in Prince George's County, the Baker Administration's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative is aiming for something much more difficult, the revitalization of distressed communities.
Because the county has so many different competing economic development objectives, which include both reinvestment within the "urban core" of the county as well as investing in areas of the county that aren't connected by fixed rail transit, and because there is so much underutilized land and lack of enough growth opportunities to absorb it all, it will be interesting to see how their program turns out.
Both Arlington and Silver Spring had the advantage of being focused on smaller areas, which is not an advantage possessed by Prince George's County.
What people often call gentrification to me means inward investment. Communities in need of investment are declining because of disinvestment. The solution in a market economy to disinvestment is investment.
The real question: whether or not the communities can be improved while minimizing the displacement of lower income houseolds.
Displacement effects are dependent on the strength of the real estate market at the metropolitan and local scales: in strong markets, people get displaced. The answer is dependent on whether or not the metropolitan area is experiencing growth and is a "strong" or "weak" real estate market.
It's easy to ward off displacement in weak real estate submarkets.
But given the limited set of tools haphazardly used, it's almost impossible to ward off displacement in strong real estate submarkets--the only way to do it is by doing portfolio investment designed to maintain a large base of rental property with a commitment to not raise prices, and to have moratoria on property tax increases..
So in St. Paul Minnesota, people can be proud of their successful efforts to improve communities without displacement, but it's almost impossible to pull off in the core of Washington, DC, where the general real estate market at the metropolitan scale is strong and it is especially strong in most core submarkets in the city, where it is virtually impossible to add to the inventory of single family housing, which is the segment of the market experiencing the greatest demand.
On the other hand, as the Urbanophile entry points out, in many metropolitan areas, there isn't enough demand present to generate the necessary level of reinvestment required to fix things. For example, in a place like Greater Cleveland, which at the metropolitan scale isn't experiencing growth--the population today is less than it was in 1960-- it's hard for suburbs to improve except on a relative basis, just as it is hard for the center city to improve, because there is far more ability to accommodate growth than there is demand to absorb .
In response, almost 20 years ago, a number of Cleveland's suburbs came together to organize the First Suburbs Consortium to coordinate revitalization efforts.
Gentrification is relative. Even in weak markets, strong submarkets will experience price appreciation and people can get displaced. But usually there is enough slack capacity that when people get displaced, they have many other alternatives.
Resources. I wouldn't consider this list to be in any way definitive, but it is useful.
- Build a Better Burb
- Classic Towns (Greater Philadelphia}
- First Suburbs Consortium (OH-revitalization)
- Michigan Suburbs Alliance
- The Next Frontier: Retrofitting Suburban Commercial Strips
- Putting the Urban in Suburban: Art and Business of Placemaking
- The Quest to Confront Suburban Decline: Political Realities and Lessons
- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts
- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips
- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs
- Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts
- Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations
Labels: suburban revitalization