Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Years post #7: Anacostia and sustainable economic development and revitalization

w commented on an earlier entry that he was distressed to see a comment against bike lanes in an article in yesterday's Post, "D.C.'s Ward 8 pins its hopes for economic improvement on Mayor-elect Gray." From the article:

Juanita White may be 75 years old, but on primary day the 24-year resident of the Hillsdale neighborhood says she rounded up dozens of people - many "complacent and standing on their corners" - and persuaded them to cast votes for Vincent C. Gray. ...

Mayor-elect Gray, she hopes, will transform her community - improving schools, tackling unemployment and boosting economic development so that "more educated people move in and become more involved in the neighborhood."

"I am hoping and praying for what he's going to do," said White, a longtime community and Democratic activist. "No man is God, but we need to have high expectations for him and we are going to be there to support him to see he does what he's supposed to do." ...

"We expect to see some improvement east of the river," said Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Congress Heights. "We want to see it be the same like everywhere else they built up.

"And we don't need no bicycle lanes," Cuthbert said, referring to the perception that outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was more attuned to the concerns of affluent parts of the city. "We need a store where you can buy some pantyhose and a shower curtain, and we want to see people go to work."

While I can claim to have a fair degree of knowledge and experience on revitalization, given my start on the topic in the H Street NE neighborhood that is now considered a regional success and garners all kinds of national attention, I have to say that there are many things that contribute, and it's not a matter of strict "science" in that if you do X, Y, and Z, then bam, everything works out and you get the results you want.

If it were that easy, DC would have been revitalized once Home Rule occurred (early 1970s).

With regard to H Street, ultimately one of the most important factors was location--next to Union Station, 2 miles to the heart of downtown, next to Capitol Hill and walking distance to the U.S. Capitol and the various House and Senate complexes--and historic building stock, that because the neighborhood was not historically designated and majority African-American, was undervalued and therefore priced right for potential success.

Then you had the H Street revitalization plan process, complemented by the H Street Transportation Study, complemented by DC initiatives to develop streetcars, complemented by the creation of an infill subway station at 1st and M Streets NE, which drove residential and commercial property interest north of H Street, especially for new and younger residents.

Not to mention the proximity of Union Station, which led to commercial property development along the railyard between F and H Streets (three buildings, mostly leased to the Securities and Exchange Commission), and plans to develop over the railyard (JBG Air Rights project, called Burnham Square).

Sure, the rehabilitation of the Atlas Theater and the creation of the H Street Playhouse was key, but two other factors, unplanned, may have been even more important. The first was the Children's Museum selling out to a developer, who then made the site into condominiums and apartments called Senate Square. This communicated to developers that the H Street neighborhood was in play. Second was the entry into the retail district by DC nightlife impresario Joe Englert, who realized that he could buy up a bunch of buildings pretty cheap and achieve critical mass, leveraging proximity to the Atlas and the H Street Playhouse, and bring together interesting concepts, motivated entrepreneurs, and financing, to open a bevy of establishments.

Basically, Joe Englert has created a system and process for creating successful nightlife establishments, and by achieving a critical mass of these establishments on H Street, he repositioned the district and accelerated improvement by 5 to 10 years.

In 2000 (or was it 1999), when residents north and south of H Street came together to fight off a proposal for a massive new BP gas station at the foot of the H Street corridor, we never could have imagined any of those kinds of changes.

So, my big lessons from this experience are that successful revitalization is both an art and a science, includes a lot of luck, it's important to have good revitalization plans, but transportation investments could well be the most important public investments, along with having good extant attractive housing stock, and enlightened and capable entrepreneurs.

What I didn't mention is that revitalization is about fixing broken economies. The problem with the H Street neighborhood was that there wasn't enough money there to improve the housing stock and the commercial district. The solution was more residents, and more residents with money. Does that mean displacement? Sometimes it does. Unless you develop alternative strategies that build the incomes and capacities of the impoverished. That's a long process and we don't have many examples on how to do it.

This leads us to consideration of Anacostia and East of the River in DC. The issue there is a broken economy. To jump start improvement, you need more residents with money, and more residents generally.

I think that the Post article that w is concerned about, and that is quoted from above demonstrates why it is so difficult to improve neighborhoods. Despite the hype about various Mayors and what they did or purport do have done, revitalization is a process that takes many years and many stakeholders and mostly private investment and initiative. If residents of Anacostia expect that somehow, Mayor Gray will marshal the resources himself and improve Anacostia himself--especially as it is likely that because of his age, he will be a one term mayor--they are fooling themselves. If they want things to improve, they better get down to work themselves.

In my previous entry on what the City Council should do, I wrestled with putting in as an economic development priority "economic revitalization of Anacostia" by developing in a mixed use fashion, Poplar Point. See past blog entries:

-- Enclave development won't "save" Anacostia
-- Office buildings won't "save" Anacostia
-- Arson as a(nother) redevelopment strategem
-- Thinking really really really big for Poplar Point's park
-- Another example of an RFP (Request for Proposals) being inadequate, not a plan

While there is the Anacostia Waterfront Revitalization Plan, I'd argue there isn't really a comprehensive plan for revitalization of Wards 7 and 8, comparable to the plan that was done for H Street, which note, the plan is focused on the commercial district, it isn't a neighborhood revitalization plan, but a commercial district revitalization plan. That's the project that Mayor Gray should undertake for the improvement of Anacostia.
House by House, Block by Block, book cover, Alexander Von Hoffman
In 2005, I wrote a blog entry on the book House by House, Block by Block: Rebuilding America's Urban Neighborhoods, by Alexander von Hoffman, which details success stories in urban revitalization. According to the book, there are five common threads to stitching a challenged community back together:

A sense of place. A community has to see itself as worth saving. It needs a central idea around which people can coalesce - whether it's a history visible in cobbled streets and gaslights, a central church or school about which people who've stayed in the neighborhood have fond memories, or something as simple as a name.

A group of tenacious leaders, reflective of the whole community. Reviving neighborhoods need "people with a certain kind of courage - maybe even foolish courage - in the face of devastation," says von Hoffman. That doesn't mean one charismatic leader. It means a broad coalition, including the "usual voices" - activists, religious and political leaders, philanthropists, developers - and voices less commonly heard: members of all the area's major ethnic groups, ordinary citizens who've never been politically active in their lives.

A problem, and good conversation about it. Groups start with a shared sense that their community has a problem. They probably don't agree on what that problem is, and they certainly don't agree on what to do about it. So the first step is to facilitate an exchange in which every voice gets heard, every grievance aired. This is a slow process, as everyone who's taken part in such a conversation acknowledges, because fundamentally it's about trust, and trust doesn't happen on a deadline. If participants have the patience to see the process through, however, they almost invariably arrive at a common sense of the problem they're facing - and a common vision of how to tackle it.

A sustainable plan, and the people who can implement it. At some point, though, it's time to stop talking and get practical. Community groups that aim for less - rehabbing a single building, constructing a swimming pool, repaving a street - often stop there, having failed to look systemically at what their area needs and what steps might really get them there.

Political support. The strongest coalition with the best plan is worthless without political leaders who take it seriously. Realistically, Chrislip says, you can't expect politicians to be behind every new neighborhood initiative that starts up. But the sooner they start coming to meetings, seeing a group's seriousness about change, and being engaged in the process, the better for that neighborhood's future.

(Another book that's relevant to the topic is Bringing Buildings Back by Alan Mallach, which focuses on the development of aggressive programs to stanch abandonment. That's especially important for weak real estate markets.)

Don't think that this is an easy process, in Anacostia or anywhere else.

I say that coming up with revitalization programs is very very difficult in "hetereogeneous" neighborhoods, by that I mean mixed race places. The experience with successful Main Street commercial district revitalization efforts in cities is that they tend to be homogeneous--all white, all black, all Hispanic, etc.

The H Street effort has been contentious. People like me got kicked off the H Street Main Street board of directors for being too direct (also see Between Justice and Beauty by Gillette). (The 14th and U Main Street program disbanded for similar reasons.)

And because you need people with money, and because African-Americans with money are still leaving the city for the most part--why do you think that Prince George's County is the most successful African-American majority county in the U.S.?, this means that not only are African-Americans leaving the city, but African-Americans aren't participating as much in the benefits of economic revitalization of the commercial district. From the Washington Post article, "Fenty's legacy, like his tenure, may be marked by polarizing views":

Right now, H Street is segregated at nightfall. During the day, African Americans generally frequent established hair salons, barbershops and clothing stores that survived the riots. At night, mostly white patrons hit a string of faux-dive bars that brush H Street with an edge similar to that of Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.

The influx of bars is ironic, said Sharon Ambrose, a former Ward 6 council member. "I spent years getting rid of bars on H Street. Now, they open a bar a day," she said. The nightlife has created some tension as black bar owners and customers have complained about subtle and outright discrimination, Saleem said. ...

Woody mentioned a number of new minority-owned businesses, including Philadelphia Water Ice, as examples of the corridor's diversity. But Saleem said that of 148 businesses that have opened in the area in four years, only about 25 percent have been black-owned.

I have a joke that it is not only disinvestment that has led to problems in DC neighborhoods, that the ability to improve declining neighborhoods is also hindered by the quality and capacity of neighborhood participation. I used to "blame" residents for this, but now I mostly call it a question of "backwards looking leadership."

Somehow, people need to recognize that in the 21st century, urban problems require urban-specific and urban-appropriate solutions, as well as the recognition that to deal with something in 2011, you need to apply policies and practices that are relevant to the economic and social realities of today, not 1940.

The challenge for East of the River communities will be to create, execute, and implement a revitalization program that is inclusive, and focused on rebuilding people not just buildings and commercial districts.

Four other books that committed activists should read if they want to jumpstart the process to improve their neighborhoods and neighborhood commercial districts:

-- Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz
-- Community Economic Development Handbook by Mihalio Temali
-- Changing Places by Carter Wilkie and Richard Moe
-- Marketing an Image for Main Street

Changing Places is out of print, but very much focused on neighborhoods, and historic preservation-based methods for improvement. It's one of few books focused on residential improvement as opposed to the improvement of commercial districts.

Two other books, very very hard to find because they have been out of print for decades, are
Building Neighborhood Confidence and Understanding Neighborhood Change: The Role of Expectations in Urban Revitalization by Rolf Goetze. He had been research director at the Boston Redevelopment Agency and these books are very practical guides to thinking in very focused ways--no b.s.--about dealing with disinvestment and how to spark reinvestment by the private sector, rather than rely on government investment to improve neighborhoods.

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