Public involvement in accelerating urban renewal is in focus as California’s Gov. Brown proposes to eliminate the redevelopment agencies that stimulate and regulate the revitalization of inner city cores and districts.
Quasi-governmental entities, such as the City of San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), have been effective in implementing necessary policy changes and providing incentives. Their focus has been bringing life to central business districts; specifically encouraging housing, where live-work environments bring 24-hr occupancy. This is a betterment of the human condition by improving the built environment.
Whether revitalization is via mandated agencies or a conventional, organic process, there is the ongoing conflict between extremes: retention of all authentic character in a district (real), and destruction thereof for contrived new neighborhoods (fake). While displacement of less viable uses is a reality, destruction of interesting vernacular flavor is never the intent. The goals of compassionate, sensible and relevant developments are to restore and enhance safe, vibrant, livable environments. The more popular these areas, the higher the rents and a better ROI for the private developer.
While it seems it’s win-win on many levels, development is not always properly executed and can tarnish public perception of what gentrification can achieve. The following premises are fact, yet there are conflicts of interest: urban blight needs economic stimulus; livable neighborhoods produce vital communities; reinforcing identities of districts makes projects easier to market; preservation is often economically infeasible; introducing ‘highest, best use’ results in displacement and dissipates modest local flavor. It’s a sensitive topic for small, independent, private stake-holders; the property developer’s goals are not philanthropic.
Our studio has been in Barrio Logan (San Diego) for a decade…always in search of more edge, we tend go where others fear to tread. While there’s rife homelessness and a serious vagrant issue because of all the nearby social service amenities, we have had few, minor incidents of nuisance. Our BarrioHaus building is the former SD Rescue Mission and previously housed transient single mothers. A local street chap poked his head in the door in our first year. “Where are all the women?”, he hollered out in a loud slurring voice. “You f-king yuppies come down here and throw out the women to build your fancy offices! F-k you all – go back to where you came from!” We politely assured him the women were fine; the Rescue Mission had moved to nice high-rise premises on Elm Street, uptown. He asked for bus money so we suppose he was missing the local inventory, but it sure made us think.
Lara Gates, senior planner for the city of San Diego, commenting recently on the impact of Barrio Logan’s imminent Mercado mixed-use development, said, “it will be the heart and soul of a new community village.” Responding to expressed fears of gentrification, she stated succinctly, “we’re bringing new blood into the area. It’s a balance.” What’s good for the community should be good for the developer and vice versa.
Balanced revitalization starts with planning guidelines involving the community, catalytic primer projects, local interaction and public-private partnering. An unbalanced model might be a multi-acre, single-phased, master-planned development eradicating a delicate, fine-grain, inner city precinct. It’s just so damn Godly – do we really know today what is completely right for the future of a large chunk of sensitive urban tract? Some rapid-paced, large-scale renewal programs have served to rescue communities, even regions, where such heavy-handed measures are the only resort. Downtown Las Vegas is one example, it needs an emperor – I will address this in another blog post.
Renewal must happen incrementally, in an organic, self-morphing and grass roots fashion. Just live with the fact it’s not all going to happen in your lifetime. We are generally inconsiderate of the effect of the built environment over the next 100 years, thinking only in terms of our own occupancy, our retirement years, or those of our direct kids, at most. Besides carefully executed catalyst projects? Urban Infill and Adaptive Re-use, Urban Infill and Adaptive Re-use, Urban Infill and Adaptive Re-use…
There are a lot exciting new possibilities to look forward to, including David Malmuth’s IDEA concept for East Village (San Diego) and some maverick, under-current concept for a ‘Free Zone’ in lower East Village and Barrio Logan.