Guest article from Revitalization News:
“When you chat with your grandmother about urban revitalization, the words that you use and the images she has in her head are likely focused on brick, stone, or clapboard buildings; on tree-lined, brick-paved streets; or on walkable main streets teeming with local retailers, hung shingles, and small offices or apartments above.
It is all about saving places. And we do it for a host of good reasons, be they economic, emotional, or to take advantage of a particular underserved market that wants to move in, not out to the hinterland exurbs.
The strategies we have relied upon mirror those images and words that we use. We focus, and understandably so, on the buildings, streets, and public spaces that make up the neighborhoods we want to save. We wrap policies around these places like bubble wrap, hoping to stem the dis- or mal-investment that has plagued them for a half century.
Design codes and zoning overlays institutionalize the wisdom of previous eras that we seem to be losing, the intuition that allowed us to build great places for millennia. To bridge the gap between what a landowner can invest in a building and what she can reasonably expect in return through rents, we have created a competitive set of tax credits that can be swapped for cash to pour into repointing the brick, popping in new windows, restoring the tin ceiling, and patching the roof.
When successful, we do save the place. Blood, sweat, tears and years go into stabilizing and restoring the bricks and mortar. Retailers open up shop, people move back in, and selfies are taken with your restored neighborhood serving as the memorable backdrop.
But saving that street or adopting that overlay district does not automatically save the neighborhood and, even if it does, it does not necessarily jump the tracks to the next neighborhood even if it exhibits some of the same great buildings and streets that dot your newly revitalized district. The movement does not scale on its own. What is more, even as we have restored investment in the place, real and often valid concerns about how we are restoring investment in the people that for generations stuck it out in the that place grow.
Enter gentrification and displacement.
And when we ignore the movement’s ability to scale and resist the difficult conversations about racial, cultural, and economic inclusion, we expose the preservation movement’s broad side to criticisms about Disneyification and loss of authenticity while isolating the pursuit of revitalization to a narrowing class of advocates that have the resources to navigate the bureaucracy, planning, lending, and trade skills necessary to bring a place back from the brink. This threatens to slow and narrow the movement right when we need to accelerate and broaden it the most.
These shortcomings are due, in large part, to how we go about revitalizing places. In other words: the supply-only approach of property acquisition, tax credits, building stabilization and restoration, and protection policies limit the risks of doing it all. And its importance cannot be underestimated. But while doing all of that hard work with our right hands, it is critical that we do something just as important with our left.
That something is a strategy we’ve come to call Demand Discovery where, through targeted activation of overlooked spaces, programming, storytelling, and ongoing tweaking, we figure out where, how, who, and what to focus on while removing the market’s mental obstacles preventing it from coming to the place you are trying to save.
A central observation of demand discovery is that, over time, we have value engineered out of the building process two key steps. We are likely to still engage in some form of planning (be it in a church basement or in a boardroom) with the intended goal of sustained development and investment.
But the leap between the two is proving to be too vast. We are missing one step by which we test those planning ideas through quick, low-cost, low-risk activations of the idea. We miss another that makes permanent the early and most successful aspects of those activations through smart, small development of the amenities and other uses that virtually all plans wish to bring back to a place. This holds just as true for a coffee shop as it does for a walkable street and allows our bigger development to be more sophisticated, market-driven (ie smarter use of gap funding), and integrated into the fabric of a place.
It is not your grandma’s picture of revitalization but, in fact, more like how places grew when she was a little girl through small scale trial and error that incrementally evolves into an extraordinary place.”