Is Urban Revitalization Without Gentrification Possible?

Barry Farm / The Huffington Post

Cities are the place to be these days, which means big changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. While much of the urban renewal experiments of the 1940s through the 1960s have been deemed disasters, word is still out on the new wave of “urban revitalization” that began in the 1990s and continues through to today in most of America’s cities. The supporters of revitalization say rising tides lift all boats. As wealth has come back to cities, everyone benefits. But critics of revitalization simply call it gentrification, and, as one speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. said, “gentrification is a crime.” Furthermore, new discussions of turning existing urban neighborhoods into “ecodistricts” may just be gentrification in a green dress. How can cities encourage growth but also provide a sense of continuity? How can over-taxed city planning departments accommodate the forces of change while also respecting local communities and cultures?

According to Charles Hostovsky, a professor of urban planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the speed of revitalization in D.C. has been extraordinarily rapid. Every neighborhood has cranes, signifying new development. There has been a corresponding shift in the demographics of the city. In 1970, the city was 77 percent African American. Today, it’s just 49 percent. “The number of people who have been displaced equals a small town.” Indeed: in the past decade, approximately 50,000 young, white Millennials have moved into the city while 35,000 African Americans have left.

Reyna Alorro, who works for the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning, said revitalization has even spread east of the Anacostia River, perhaps the last hold out to gentrification. There, the city is supporting the redevelopment of Barry Farm, 25 acres of public housing, into a new mixed-income, mixed-use development that they hope will be an example of equitable revitalization. As HUD Hope IV funds have diminished since 2005, the District has started its own program of revamping public housing. “We want to target the areas with blight, crime, high unemployment and turn them into mixed income communities.” The theory is that reducing the concentration of the poor in communities, and relieving their isolation, will improve their conditions.

Barry Farm, a historic African American community founded by freed slaves, currently has some 400 units, with 1,200 people. The population of the housing development is 93 percent single mothers; some 86 percent are unemployed. “This is not a friendly, welcoming site.” There is only one over-priced corner store, with a bullet-proof glass wall separating the store owners from customers.

The $550 million redevelopment plan, said Kelly Smyser, DC Housing Authority, will create 1,400 public and affordable apartments at the same site. New apartments will face each other, creating open public thoroughfares that enable “eyes on the street.” There will also be a recreation center, with an indoor pool, basketball courts, and computer labs, as well as a charter school. The nearby Anacostia Metro station will get a full upgrade, with improved access to the station from the development. “We want to bring opportunity to residents. We will make the connection to Metro easier and safer.”

The District government calls this project “revitalization without gentrification,” as all current residents will be allowed to come back to the new development. “There will be zero displacement.” The city also promises it will undertake a program of “build first before demolition.” To increase the diversity of the development, some 300 of the new units will be affordable housing, rentals, or for sale. The city also wants to encourage small businesses to locate in Barry Farms. They are creating “live-work” sites that will enable people to live above their stores. “We need to get rid of the bullet proof glass.”

The neighborhood is rightly concerned about how they can preserve the best of the local culture with all the change. One example of this is the Goodman League, a basketball tournament that happens in the neighborhood every year. “People have a good time, barbequing, sitting in lawn chairs. There are no beefs on the court.” The basketball courts where this happen will remain untouched.

While Smyser was convinced this upgrade will benefit the community, one conference attendee seemed equally as convinced that with the District’s multimillion dollar investment, the city will simply be opening the neighborhood to opportunistic developers and further gentrification. Word is still out on how this urban redevelopment story will play out.

Hazel Edwards, a professor of planning at Catholic University, outlined some examples of successful revitalization without gentrification in other parts of the U.S. She pointed to Melrose Commons in South Bronx, where a group of local residents banded together in the early 1990s into a group called Nos Quedamos (We Stay) and fought back New York City government’s imposed urban renewal plan. With the help of an altruistic architect, Nos Quedamos forged their own urban design that respected the community’s unique cultural heritage. The plan and design resulted in 2,000 units of affordable housing. “There was no displacement in the community.”

In Portland, Oregon, Edwards told us about a project called Cully Main Street plan, which helped preserve one the most diverse neighborhoods in Portland, with some 40-50 percent people of color. They devised a plan to equitably bring in commercial activity to their main street while accommodating an influx of new white homeowners and preserving the neighborhood diversity.

Edwards said the key to revitalization without gentrification is “bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.” This kind of public planning process requires a great investment of time and resources by city governments, but without this investment, the only result may be inequitable, developer-led urban revitalization. “Cities have to form diverse, inclusive partnerships, foster openness, and collaborate on goals and outcomes.”

Quoting the urban leader and author, Kaid Benfield, she said, “we have to work towards a balanced solution,” and also track our progress to see whether we are living up to our goals.

12 thoughts on “Is Urban Revitalization Without Gentrification Possible?

  1. numericlandscape 10/11/2014 / 6:36 am

    Reblogged this on NUMERIC LANDSCAPE and commented:
    La revitalisation urbaine et la gentrification sont intimement liés. Voici un article bien intéressant sur des pistes proposant de nouveaux mécanismes permettant surtout, aux populations d’origine de ces quartier à y rester pendant et après la rénovation urbaine. A tout le moins, c’est déjà bien de se poser la question des migrations dans les quartiers rénovés, ce qui fait souvent défaut en Europe.

  2. njflavia 10/17/2014 / 5:36 pm

    There may be no one size fits all solution here. Although the movement to return poor people to redeveloped neighborhoods in larger cities has not been a total flop, it hasn’t been a screaming success either, certainly not over the long term, and places that command mobile younger populations may ultimately find gentrification inevitable. Perhaps small post-industrial cities within striking distance of large urban enclaves can model certain kinds of non-gentrifying solutions that larger cities can’t. The “gentrification” process will be slower, for one thing, and thus allow poorer families to gain a foothold before redevelopment–and improved transportation to and from their magnet big cities–have a chance to drive them out. I saw this in a city like Paterson, NJ, not far from NYC, and see it now again in Bridgeton, at the other end of the state, 3/4 hr from Philly. Here farmworker families (and their somewhat more educated/assimilated children) are now beginning to buy historic older housing stock and (to some extent) preserve rather than remodel it. Because there are district regs, there’s measurable interest among such families in understanding what character-respectul improvements on gingerbreaded structures might be (we are the first city in the state to have translated our design guidelines into Spanish). But many are also keen to acquire the skills that may make improvements cheaper, both as DYI or for sale in the possibly gentrifying marketplace. In any case, people are coming together across language and difference, and as theorists and practitioners and just plain folks, to find ways to keep working-class families here AND respect the character of much of our huge historic district, largest in the state.

    • Lloyd Lindley II 10/17/2014 / 10:51 pm

      In areas targeted for revitalization, regeneration and urban renewal, economic investment, and growth are inevitable without public intervention such as rent relief and property tax abatement. Without interventions, market forces and increases in equity will drive low income and older retirees on fixed incomes out. In the US, market and desirability compounded with return on housing investment drive the inevitability of gentrification. Sad but true.

      • Jesse Janowiak (@wonkeythemonkey) 02/13/2015 / 11:42 am

        That was the thought that I had as well. Sadly, the primary reason that rent in blighted neighborhoods remains affordable to its residents is that nobody would choose to live there if they didn’t have to. Make the neighborhood desirable, and rents will rise.

  3. Paula Elliott 10/20/2014 / 9:51 am

    Kudos to Edwards and the Dirt for highlighting models of urban development that managed the forces and stakeholders promoting gentrification.

  4. George Siekkinen 10/22/2014 / 10:03 am

    Interesting article – I am thinking that some responses would be:

    -community oriented/controlled “housing land trusts” that would own the land under redeveloped buildings and the land ownership would be a “forever” type of timeframe; the housing stock above could be rented or owned by people coming back to their neighborhood; the next set of important points would be that if and when the buyers wanted to sell, there would have to be some appropriate equation with some options:

    -right of first refusal to the community housing land trust to purchase the unit and then resell it at a reasonable price, but still within reach of community members;

    -or some equation that would try to find a balance between reasonable equity being earned by the original owner when they sold their unit, but providing for some social justice for the next buyer to be able to afford to buy the unit being sold.

    The thoughts above are just rough ideas that need some work and further refinement. In the end, these concepts may not be viable given the enormous market pressures on real estate in metropolitan areas with vibrant economies particularly along the East and West Coasts and in some cities such as Chicago and others like it with good local economies.

    As a final comment, the US economy has not be fair for most people for many decades, since probably the 1970s, with most of the increase in national wealth going to those limited numbers at the top of social pyramid. Most economists have been advocating deregulation and free trade for some decades and the “rewards” from this approach have been generally collected by those with financial investments and unearned sources of income versus limited gains for those who earn their daily bread from their labors of muscle and/or mind. Obviously, this current national economic model of deregulation and free trade is not working for most Americans.

  5. Joe Gautier 12/06/2014 / 10:28 pm

    I think you’re right…social justice is the answer (it’s working in Detroit) and God knows that people who are successful have no right to be.

  6. Don Arambula 02/25/2015 / 1:01 pm

    I appreciate the ASLA addressing revitalization and gentrification, but this article hits so many sour notes, I feel compelled to respond:

    1. While gentrification grabs all the headlines, of more concern is the expansion and concentration of urban poverty. See the great article by Joe Cortright–

    2. Poverty is not exclusively an urban revitalization issue. In fact, the spread of poverty is greatest in suburban areas, not urban areas. As noted by Elizabeth Kneebone of Bloomberg, “We’ve passed this tipping point and there are now more poor people in the suburbs than the cities.” See what the Brookings Institute has to say about this–

    … and this from Bill Moyers–

    3. The Berry Farm discussion is interesting because often the issue is displacement, not gentrification– which are not the same. The Berry Farm ‘build first then demolish’ plan has a challenge ahead if the District Government anticipate not displacing any existing residents. This project is reminiscent of many old HUD Hope VI projects that were built in the 2000’s. Most had the same displacement objective. Monitoring of Hope VI post occupancy surveys indicates that typically no more than 10% of existing residents come back after reconstruction. Unfortunate, but a reality.

    4. As a Portland resident, I am astonished that the Cully project is identified as a case study of how to avoid gentrification while revitalizing a neighborhood. While admirable, is hardly worth duplicating. Bootstrapped together by neighborhood leaders, the ‘mom and pop’ projects are underfunded, lack a urban design revitalization framework, and have not leveraged any significant change compared to similar neighborhoods. There are any number of Portland projects that are better examples, including the Pearl District. The Pearl has seen over 5,000 residential units built including 28% that are affordable (despite recent criticism that developers have not provided enough), and a commitment by city council that a target of 35% will be provided at build-out (which local affordable housing advocates demand).

    5. The affordability problem is so big, lets have a discussion of reasonable methods of how to infuse as much mixed income housing into cities, rather than taking on gentrification red herring. See this San Francisco proposal–

    • Charles Host Hostovsky 03/31/2015 / 3:59 pm

      Good points. Well I agree about the suburbs – the data shows that more poor now live in the suburbs now than the inner city in the USA. But this is at result, in part, of gentrification in the inner city combined with white-flight in the suburbs. This is precisely what occurred in St. Louis and Ferguson. This suburb was 1% Black in 1970 and 67% Black by 2010. We know how that played out. Many scholars are pointing out that when we see ethnic shift in America now, it is either black to primarily white and white to black.

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