Friday, November 07, 2014

The Greening of Revitalization

Inertia may be the reason Durham, North Carolina, where I live, was able to dodge complete destruction during the two-decade era of so-called Urban Renewal following WWII.

This occurred to me while viewing a screening of a short but impeccable new documentary about the adaptive reuse of the old Lucky Strike factory in Durham which began ten years ago.

In December, it will be aired on WRAL, a television station with the same owner and then hopefully it will be online as a must-see.

It wasn’t the first or even the largest of the complexes now emblematic of the commercial, “built” portion of Durham’s sense of place but it may be the most impeccable job ever done anywhere.

Brightleaf Square had been brought back to life as a template twenty years earlier, followed by an early phase of West Village, historic buildings part of an even larger complex nearby, though not under one roof.

But the fact that these wonderful buildings were able to survive the indiscriminate Urban Renewal movement at all is probably because they were still operational as factories and warehouses during the period between 1949 and 1979 which was so devastating across the country to sense of place.

The movement’s intended targets were “brownfields,” areas of abandoned industrial blight.  But instead it became a virtual “wrecking ball, in the hands of officials pushed by developers bent on destruction of landmarks including entire city blocks and priceless ethnic neighborhoods.

Even as a remarkable, overlapping 15 year span of renewed concern for preservation of “sense of place” kicked off in 1965 with the Highway Beautification Act, Urban Renewal had just begun to reach down and hollow out mid-sized communities such as Durham.

The HBA was intended for scenic preservation and restoration of trees including scenic views while limiting billboards to areas already blighted and zoned commercial at the time of passage.

This resurgence of sense of place preservation also included the National Historic Registry, protection of environmental assets such as pure water, clean air and endangered species and Supreme Court validation of preservation of place as a legitimate role of government.

The capstone was an incredible essay in the early 1980s anointing the overarching importance of sense of place.

By then there had been “sense of place revolts” in communities such as Durham, an uprising hastening the end of Urban Renewal and ushering in the era of adaptive reuse and gentrification.

Maybe not by coincidence, the term gentrification was first coined more than fifty years ago at the dawn of that renewed concern for sense of place by urban sociologist Ruth Glass in her book entitled London: Aspects of Change.

There are many different forms of gentrification, even tourism gentrification, but the term essentially refers to adaptive reuse or redevelopment of urban spaces including ripple effects such that it displaces working class people in exchange for middle and upper classes.

It is the two-edge sword of gentrification to sense of place.  On one hand it preserves some aspects while on the other hollowing it out, a consequence as destructive practices of Urban Renewal.  But It isn’t just people who get displaced.

In his study of two gentrified neighborhoods from the perspective of those displaced entitled There Goes The ‘Hood, Dr. Lance Freeman describes that it is also community values and cultural norms, even more temporal aspects of sense of place, that are at risk.

I arrived in Durham to jump start the community’s first official community marketing organization fewer than 24 months after American Tobacco shuttered its 14-16 acre factory in Durham after more than 110 years of operation.

The second of two failed attempts at its adaptive reuse was underway.

The documentary focuses on the third which succeeded in part because community marketing had lowered barriers to financing and tenancy by turning around negative perceptions fostered in neighboring communities.

But even the subsequent investment of more than $100 million dollars by local governments, as well as government historic tax credits and and new market tax credits which were invested would not have tipped it into success without Duke University relocating resources in Durham to serve as an anchor.

But the outcome is also the result of extraordinary developers who with grit and determination focused on resurrecting and creating sense of place.  Even documentaries can only tell part of a story.

Today, entrepreneurial spirit is noted as a result, a value that can be traced historically back through time here to Durham’s very roots.

But the idea of entrepreneurialism as an outcome from gentrification also traces back to 1989 and a paper published by Dr. David Harvey, the author of Spaces of Hope, during the year of that founding of Durham’s community marketing agency.

But an aspect that should have dawned on me decades before reading a newly published history is the relationship of adaptive reuse and gentrification with urban open and green space including green infrastructure.

Spokane, where I began my career took a very different approach to Urban Renewal than Durham where I finished up five years ago and still live.

And we are reminded by an incredibly insightful doctoral dissertation by a BYU alumnus of mine that it didn’t begin there during my tenure with Expo ‘74, an environmental World’s Fair.

A professor now at Weber State, Dr. Jeremy Bryson wrote his dissertation is entitled, The Nature of Gentrification, using a play on the word “nature.”

The transformation in heart of Spokane actually dates to a 1907 with a report by the Olmsted brothers which was then tabled until the 1950s when community leaders sensed Spokane’s downtown too was losing steam and fear had set in that a decline in downtown property values would follow.

In the 1960s, Spokane voters turned down bonds until business leaders caught on that what resonated was not rescuing downtown but cleaning up the riverfront and removing blight that obscured the 140’ falls and islands at the heart of the community.

But voters were skeptical of downtown property owners and a third bond fell 3 percentage points short of the 60% needed for approval.

Unlike Durham which looked to visiting taxpayers, who don’t get to vote, to subsidize the public sector investments in American Tobacco, Spokane businesses voluntarily shouldered a business and occupation tax on their profits.

Still, the effort ended up displacing not only the still-operational railroads blighting the waterfront but through a gentrification ripple effect, also hundreds of low income people in an area called Skid Road.

Researchers in the 1960s and 1970s began quantifying the value or green space to real estate.  By the 1980s and 1990s, the models showed an escalation in the value added by scenic views such as green infrastructure and savvy elected officials began taking notice of the return on investment in tax revenues.

As early as 1984, Durham officials banned billboards in part to increase values followed by placing a scenic overlay over Interstate 40.  By the early 1990s, officials in many cities began to quantify the contribution to tax revenues from scenery.

Evolving a community that is true to its values, sensitive to sense of place, including being affordable for a diverse spectrum of residents will continue to be worthy of love.

Residents and officials should be wary of new development that promises jobs, fuels the local business climate and broadens the local tax base at the expense of deteriorating its sense of place or by treating it merely as an amenity for formula development.

Never be afraid to say no.

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