Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Join LOA Principal Larisa Ortiz for a Discussion with Alan Mallach, Author of "The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America"

Discussions about poverty are never far from the work that we do at LOA, especially when working in distressed urban communities where jobs are few and far between and where business owners struggle to make ends meet. Despite these challenges, we are always inspired by the communities where we work, and in particular the residents and community leaders who continue to take action and find ways to make their neighborhoods better places. So what are the challenges and solutions to persistent poverty at the neighborhood level? And is "gentrification" a red herring that keeps us from recognizing the mounting problems of communities that may never see the arrival of higher income residents? These are questions with which we grapple on a daily basis. 

This is why I am particularly excited to join author, advocate and Professor Alan Mallach to discuss his new book, The Divided City, Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America on June 25th at the Century Foundation in Lower Manhattan. Other speakers include Professor Laura Wolf-Powers of Hunter College's Department of Urban Policy and Planning and Joseph Della Fave, Executive Director of Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ. 

As I dig into this book I found it to be a great read, offering historical context and deep insight into the urban challenges currently facing many post-industrial cities. For those looking for solutions to the challenges facing "magnet" cities like New York, Washington DC or San Francisco, cities that often dominate the headlines with concerns about the rapid influx of high income residents displacing those with lesser means, look elsewhere. This book is about "legacy" cities like Youngstown, OH, Trenton, NJ and Buffalo, NY, where job growth and economic development continue to lag - and where persistent and concentrated poverty continues to relegate generations of poor (often black and brown) people to cycles of poverty from which escape is increasingly unlikely. These places also happen to be places where we have worked and partnered with Community Development Corporations, Community Development Intermediaries, and local government to identify asset-based solutions to neighborhoods that struggle to retain jobs and businesses for local residents. It promises to be a lively discussion so I hope you will join us!

For tickets please click here. This event is sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and  The Century Foundation. The event will be held at 1 Whitehall Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10004 on June 25th from 5:30 - 7:30 pm. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Is Your Post Office Being a Good Neighbor?

In many communities, the local Post Office remains a critical Main Street anchor. Often located in the heart of a community, it drives visitation and pedestrian traffic throughout the day. As a result, the condition of the local post office can play a significant role in how a district is perceived. Post Office assets are often imposing civic institutions. Maintaining these key assets and ensuring they have a positive impact on local business districts is often a key component of successful community and commercial revitalization efforts.

About a year ago we completed an assessment and corridor plan for Mermaid Avenue, in Coney Island, Brooklyn, funded by the New York State Governor's Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) . Mermaid Avenue, the business district that serves this vibrant community, had been severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy and even years after the storm the repercussions were still being felt. A relatively low-income community, Mermaid Avenue had a few clear nodes of business activity that needed some TLC. Our plan, developed with architecture firm WXY, laid out a clear plan of action for the Alliance for Coney Island, the non-profit entity formed to manage, maintain and advocate for the area.

The Post Office along Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: LOA
One key opportunity was the local Post Office, located immediately adjacent to one of the primary and most robust commercial nodes. The Post Office was clearly a destination driver in a community with very few options for secure package delivery. Yet the conditions of the building left much to be desired. Frankly, it was hard to even tell whether the Post Office was even open. Rusted gates over windows, graffiti, dead trees, litter, and weedy tree pits all contributed to a prevalent sense of insecurity for residents and visitors alike. While it is highly likely that some of these conditions were due to the storm, the opportunity for small scale improvements here was clearly evident. 

These kinds of partnerships with the local Post Office are not uncommon. In Jackson Heights, Queens, a local volunteer-led non-profit, The Jackson Heights Beautification Group, led an effort to improve the weedy, overgrown landscaping in front of the Post Office. Led by Len Maniaci, a long-time community advocate, environmentalist,  and former JHBG President, the group used volunteers to develop a design, and paid for both landscaping and a new irrigation system of the "curbside garden" that would ensure the survival of the perennials that are sure to have a big impact on the corridor. All for less than $10k.
The Post Office along 37th Avenue,
Jackson Heights, NY
Photo Credit: Len Maniaci 

The differences between these two Post Office assets could not be more stark. Clearly, community advocacy plays a role in advancing corridor improvement efforts. Along Mermaid Avenue, the Alliance for Coney Island is an excellent position to be that advocate and now they have a blueprint for action and a set of starting points from which to work. We are thrilled by their efforts and look forward to chronicling the implementation of the corridor plan over time, especially in partners with the Post Office.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Neighborhood Change and Why Public Participation Matters

We have a problem in this country. While some urban communities are facing unprecedented growth, the benefits of this economic development success are not necessarily being spread evenly around. More to the point, as cities like New York continue to grow and attract residents and investors, those who have weathered the ups and downs - both residents and small business owners - are increasingly finding themselves at risk of displacement. Frankly, this should come as no surprise. The market pressures to find higher paying tenants (both residential and commercial) and the rewards for finding loopholes in the rules that protect residential tenants in particular have never been greater. (See this fantastic series in the NYTimes that discusses the many challenges tenants face).

We are a victim of our own success. The problem is that none of this is in the long term best interest of our urban places. A city where those who provide critical services are unable to get to work without a long commute, or crippling transportation expenses that rob them of time and ability to manage their homes or finances, all while incurring child care costs that they can already ill afford, is a city that squanders the resources of its citizens. Not only that, but the situation deeply undermines their ability to participate in the very decision making process that affects the urban investments that potentially impact and improve their daily lives.

Our client, Livingston County, NY gathered hundreds of residents to discuss downtown recommendations in November 2017. Great staff, long-standing community relationships, and strategic outreach were key to ensuring that a broad section of residents were in attendance. For those unable to attend, the County issued an electronic survey to get additional feedback.

Why does this matter to our work? 
In our analysis of place we lean heavily on both qualitative and quantitative data to inform our assessments and recommendations. But what happens when only a small segment of a community participates in that process? People who are barely making ends meet don't have time to participate in most community planning efforts. Too frequently, the plans that inform resource allocation and public policy are not necessarily reflective of the community as a whole, but rather a small subsection of those who have the time, resources and inclination to participate. For those of us engaged in community planning efforts, we must do better and we must explore innovative ways to engage communities on their terms, not ours. It is hard work and sometimes the budget to engage communities and residents is simply not there.

Another challenge, particularly for the work we do along commercial corridors, is that the success of a business is inextricably rooted in market realities that are hard for us to change. With higher income residents come opportunities for both existing and new businesses. Generally this is good news for businesses who now have more customers with more discretionary spending. But in some markets, "improvements" come at the expense of those living there. As rents and property values increase, neighborhoods inevitably change. In New York City where I serve as one of thirteen City Planning Commissioners, I witness firsthand the skepticism that many community members bring to their public testimony - concerns that improvements that accompany rezoning efforts are precursors to displacement. The question that is often posed is "why didn't we get park improvements or streetscape improvements or really any kinds of improvements BEFORE?" As a result, residents often find themselves in the strange position of rejecting improvements that they themselves acknowledge would make their communities and lives better. But what good are those improvements if they are no longer able to afford to live there? That is the rub.

As we think about rapid changes in technology we have new opportunities to challenge our methods of engagement and explore ways to ensure that community planning is more effectively than ever before. Some great best practices can be found in the annual awards given by the American Planning Association. Making sure these great examples are not simply the exception to the rule will take time and resources - but most off all it will take a commitment to participatory planning that to date has been in limited supply.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

For Upstate NY Practitioners: Small Scale Real Estate Development Workshop

If you plan to be in the Syracuse area on June 27th, this looks like a great day-long session designed to introduce the principles behind neighborhood based real estate development projects. Small scale development is a an important community development strategy - but it requires small developers!

The workshop is conducted by the Incremental Development Alliance, a national non-profit that works to build local wealth in neighborhoods through ground-up real estate development.


Small Scale Real Estate Development Workshop

WHEN: Wednesday, June 27, 2018 8a-5p
WHERE: Hotel Syracuse, 100 East Onondaga Street Syracuse, NY, 13202
  • Early Bird Registration Rate ($170) open until Friday, June 8 
  • Regular Registration Rate ($200) open until Monday, June 25 
  • Last Minute Registration Rate is ($230) 
Register today at http://www.incrementaldevelopment.org/events/syracuseworkshop

Apply for a scholarship here

The workshop offers specialized training about how to create small projects, like 1-3 story buildings with less than 20 units, which are residential, commercial or mixed in use and 1,000-12,000 sf in size. The course assumes you know a lot about where you live, but not necessarily much about the real estate process or building development.

Through presentations on finance, design and site selection, a hands-on practice exercise, and networking with local like-minded people, this workshop is the first step to becoming a small developer yourself or creating a supportive ecosystem for small development in your city.

Who Should Attend?
  • Individuals in construction, design, planning or real estate looking to either enhance their current practice or make career transition 
  • Volunteers or professionals in business associations, main streets associations, historic preservation groups and neighborhood improvement groups looking to champion incremental development in their communities 
  • Public sector professionals in city management, economic development, planning, and related agencies who are looking to make it easier for small development projects to occur in their town 
  • Professionals in non-profit development organizations, churches, and community development or housing development organizations who need new strategies for small lot development 
  • Private banking professionals specializing in mortgages, commercial real estate loans or SBA loans and professionals as at Community Development Financial Institutions and Community Foundations who want to become more effective investors