Urban renewal is about taking a place nobody wants to touch, and turning it into somewhere everyone wants to be.
When it works, derelict buildings, empty lots and crime-infested streets give way to lively stretches of entertainment, art, shopping, dining and retail. The once-blighted neighborhood loses its stigma but retains a distinctive culture — and longtime residents can still call it home.
When it doesn’t work, decades of history, culture, architecture and social networks are swept away, replaced by blocks that could be Anywhere, USA, or — if the funding dries up — nothing at all.
Take LaVilla, on the edge of Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonville’s mayor describes it as “an example of exactly what you don’t want to do.” Land use planner and author Ennis Davis includes it in his top 5 “disastrous urban renewal failures.”
In its heyday, LaVilla was “the Harlem of the South” — a vibrant African-American community and an entertainment hub, hopping with live music venues and theaters, playing host to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Duke Ellington.
With desegregation in the 1960s many residents left and businesses faltered, and by the 1980s LaVilla was known for poverty, crack and crime.
In the 1990s, the city’s River City Renaissance plan allocated $30 million to redevelop the area. Jacksonville bought or condemned tracts of land (often, residents complained, without consultation or warning), demolished houses and cleared lots. The neighborhood was gutted, residents moved away — but developers didn’t come calling.
“In the 20 years after its wholesale destruction,” Davis writes, “the neighborhood formerly known as LaVilla is characterized by empty overgrown lots and suburban office complexes in the heart of the city.”
But urban renewal doesn’t have to be that way. The Warehouse District in Phoenix; Industrial Way in Buellton, Calif.; the Mid-City neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La.; and LoDo in Denver are among many revitalization success stories from across the country.
So what makes the difference between redevelopment and destruction, between beautifying and gentrifying? With development underway in Colorado Springs’ South Nevada Urban Renewal Area, and much more to be done, the Business Journal went looking for answers to the question: What makes urban renewal work?
Talk (and more talk) before action
The first key to urban renewal success: Talk to the people who live and work there — and that means not just once, but repeatedly over time.
No one else knows the community better, or the history, or the strengths and the culture and the problems and the quirks. And those are the things a responsible developer needs to know before making any moves, according to Andrew Mueller, assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and a consultant to real estate developers in Colorado and the Northeast.
Truly regenerative redevelopment starts with extensive canvassing of the neighborhood and its residents “to see what they like about the neighborhood, what they feel is missing in the community, and what they would like to see changed about the neighborhood,” Mueller said, “because you want to keep the good things and change or improve the bad things.
“That process typically takes a lot longer. It oftentimes leads to perhaps a lower short-term profit — but in the end it creates a much more vibrant community.”
A common theme in less successful urban renewal efforts, according to Regina Winters, assistant dean in UCCS’ School of Public Affairs, is that “residents and commercial interests were brought in late in the process, or did not receive enough information to get comfortable with the scope of the project.
“The goal of most of these projects is to create long-term economic development and that means including enough community information, work, and advisory sessions to help the community members engage in a productive conversation about growth,” she said.
Successful urban renewal projects also look ahead and plan for the adjacent neighborhoods and transportation corridors that will see changing needs and traffic as the urban renewal effort takes root, Winters said, so infrastructure investment must include the adjoining neighborhoods.
People, planet, profit
Mueller said developers should follow the triple bottom line — a sustainability framework that considers a project’s environmental, social and financial performance, also known as “people, planet, profit.” It’s a way to pivot from the purely profit-driven failures of the past and toward what he calls regenerative redevelopment.
“The developers who in the past have gotten a bad name, the stereotypical things you hear about is they come into a community, they buy up some land, they put what … they think they can make the most money on, and they build it and they sell it, or lease it up and then sell it — and they back out and move on to the next deal.”
By contrast, regenerative redevelopment starts with the social and environmental parts of the project. It’s an approach that has seen cities requiring developers to donate a park or build a library or fund an addition to a school, Mueller said — but it’s not enough.
“We think that’s a good start, but what really makes the community vibrant in a much longer-term sense is starting with the community, figuring out what they need, and helping them not only build what they need structurally — as far as buildings and parks and that type of stuff — but also helping to start the programs that are needed for the community to take over, and learn, and have the resources to help themselves.”
An example: In West Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, developers are helping start a program to teach residents how to work in the restaurant industry, and it’s linked with a test kitchen where they’ll be trained.
Developers also need a detailed understanding of the neighborhood’s environment. That’s about figuring out ways to “improve the environment and leave it better off than when you started — like cleaning up a river,” Mueller said.
It’s an approach that’s being used in the South Nevada Urban Renewal Area. Developers have secured the sprawling patchwork of rundown residential properties that line the trash-choked Cheyenne Creek, and plan to undo decades of neglect. The aim is to make Cheyenne Creek a destination — cleaned up, landscaped and flanked by wide pedestrian and bicycling paths.
Create (or keep) a culture
Once the blight is gone, how can developers avoid creating bland, cookie-cutter neighborhoods with no sense of place?
They must have “a clear vision of narrative,” Winters said. “A strong anchor is needed.”
In most cases, that’s a geographic attraction like a riverfront, or a commercial center that can attract cottage or service interests, she said.
“However, an anchor can also be a compelling narrative or appeal to historic identity,” Winters said. “The anchor’s origin can differ, but what allows the anchor to work is a clear narrative that goes beyond the first project generation of residents or commercial interests. It comes back again to community buy-in.”
“One of the main things regenerative redevelopment is focused on is not gentrifying an area — not making it too expensive and kicking out the existing residents,” Mueller said. “If you do that, you’re wiping out a lot of what we call the social capital of that area, getting rid of diverse cultures that currently exist in that neighborhood or historical knowledge of the area.”
The goal — and the balancing act — is to work out ways “to incorporate the existing citizens while also improving the area, and allowing additional people to move in, and creating a place where everyone wants to be there and live together.”
Building a culture in Colorado Springs’ urban renewal area is something Bryan Rodriguez is passionate about.
Rodriguez, a 33-year-old West Point graduate and developer who describes himself as “the new kid on the playground,” owns 1415 S. Tejon St., in the urban renewal area.
He’s watched clean-up and building progress along South Nevada, and is evangelical in his desire to see South Tejon develop differently — as something with a uniquely Colorado Springs flavor.
By that he means a place where developers take their time, where they benchmark their plans against the best-of-the-best urban revitalizations in other cities, where they dig into the social, environmental and financial aspects of their plans, and where they focus on more housing, more local brands and deliberately sustainable, community-driven development.
Chains like Chick-fil-A are “good, I guess, for Nevada — but I feel like Tejon needs to be more dense and create something that isn’t already in the Springs,” Rodriguez said.
He calls South Tejon “every developer’s dream” and makes a case for recreating it as a pedestrian-friendly entertainment district.
“Could you envision a Tejon where it’s walkable, where you could have markets there on Saturdays, where you could have a bunch of bars and retail, with apartment living, with the creek walkable?
“You have amazing views there of Cheyenne Mountain,” he added, “and essentially Ivywild — Tejon specifically — should be 100 percent walkable.”
Rodriguez points to the Rainey Street District in Austin, Texas, as an example of what thoughtful redevelopment can be.
“They really used Lady Bird Lake; they retrofitted all the existing buildings; they kept the authenticity and they kept the charm; and they had really great bands and music,” he said. “They did not allow franchises … so that put a responsibility on the local brands to rise up.”
“We have so much potential,” he said. “[We should] focus on community-driven development, walkability, sustainable development; focus on the pedestrian, the live-work-play model.”