Redeveloping a neighborhood is like baking a cake. In the same way that a baker assembles all the right ingredients for a cake, neighborhood leaders must assemble all the right ingredients to realize success in their project. Leaving out an ingredient or missing a step could be a recipe for disaster.
For those working hard to turn neighborhoods around, the process can be long and arduous. Neighborhood revitalization can at times seem more art than science and those on the front lines may wonder if they will ever see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Understanding the ingredients needed for success, the importance of timing and even learning from mistakes can all ensure eventual success for a neighborhood that may seem marginal. Looking at examples of two neighborhoods that got it right, Cooper-Young in Memphis and the downtown district in New Albany, Ind., helps illustrate the evolution of neighborhoods.
The Cooper-Young neighborhood traces its roots to the Mount Arlington Subdivision, which was founded about 1890 in the area now known as Midtown Memphis. Most of the 1,600 houses in Cooper-Young were constructed between 1900 and 1915, and the area is considered Memphis' first working-class neighborhood.
The neighborhood thrived until the 1960s when many families began moving to suburbs farther east. By the mid-1970s, few viable businesses remained in the neighborhood's commercial corridor, and housing values had fallen drastically. What was left were some long-time residents still committed to the area and historic homes that could be bought cheaply. These attributes would become the foundation for the rebirth of Cooper-Young.
Those committed residents formed a neighborhood association, the Cooper-Young Community Association, in 1976 to promote a Neighborhood Watch and develop other programs to preserve the area.
In 1979, the neighborhood participated in the Midtown Demonstration Project, which restricted zoning in Cooper-Young. It also halted the practice of converting single-family houses into rental properties often owned by absentee landlords who did not maintain their properties. The project added period lighting on many of the residential streets. These steps made the neighborhood more attractive.
With its affordable housing prices and historic architecture, Cooper-Young started attracting artists and musicians. In 1988, the Cooper-Young Business Association was formed and shortly after held its first Cooper-Young Festival to promote the area, drawing 6,000 attendees. In 1989, Cooper-Young was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, the community association and the business association jointly formed a new neighborhood organization, the Cooper-Young Development Corp. (CYDC), with the purpose of developing housing to support revitalization of the area. During the 1990s, the CYDC engaged in both new construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing.
Today, there are more than 50 businesses in the neighborhood, with a thriving commercial corridor that includes restaurants such as Tsunami and The Beauty Shop as well as retail and other service businesses as diverse as Goner Records and a Bank of America branch.
The Cooper-Young Festival attracts more than 50,000 visitors to its one-day celebration of the neighborhood with food, music and shopping.
The CYDC has built or rehabbed 49 residential properties and two commercial properties in the area. It is now undertaking an ambitious initiative, the Seattle Project, targeting an extremely distressed area on the southwest border with construction of 11 homes. House prices that were once around $10,000 to $15,000 in the mid-70s are now averaging around $160,000.
In reviewing the renaissance of the Cooper-Young neighborhood over the past 30 years, one important factor has been the role of business owners in stabilizing the area. The community association and the business association gave birth to the CYDC, the neighborhood community development corporation that has been able to focus on redevelopment efforts.
The commercial corridor of Cooper-Young is now home to a wide variety of businesses and restaurants that serve as anchors to the area, including an antique district on Central Avenue at the northern border of the neighborhood. And the area is attracting new development, such as the Pie Factory, a mixed-use project with 3,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and 32 condominiums for sale.
The CYDC has played a key role in the area's rebirth. Its start as a grassroots organization with heavy involvement by neighborhood stakeholders has continued, with the board playing an active role in the day-to-day work. The organization also has targeted its affordable housing work to maximize impact. Initial projects targeted two streets in the most distressed sector of Cooper-Young, with eight to nine houses redeveloped in a short period on each street. As proof of the success of such efforts, one of the earliest houses sold by the CYDC on New York Street had a price of $48,000 in 1995. The house was recently sold again for $110,000.
Some of the biggest obstacles to the revitalization of Cooper-Young have been related to funding, or the lack thereof. Consistent funding for redevelopment work is a challenge, according to Sutton Mora Hayes, executive director of the CYDC. Property acquisition can also be a challenge with many hurdles, including tracking down owners of abandoned properties and a cumbersome legal process. Because of funding and process issues, projects sometimes take longer than anticipated, frustrating residents anxious for improvements. Hayes says an important job of the CYDC is to set priorities and manage expectations.
Hayes offered some important advice for those neighborhoods undergoing redevelopment:
Another neighborhood finally realizing its potential is in historic New Albany, Ind., near Louisville, Ky. Community leaders there have taken the old real estate adage of "location, location, location" to heart and are reinventing themselves as a quaint urban alternative to their neighbor across the Ohio River. New Albany's proximity to downtown Louisville is being leveraged to jumpstart a downtown renaissance of its own.
Two local organizations, Develop New Albany and the New Albany Historic Preservation Commission, are marketing the assets of the downtown district to attract businesses, residents and tourists. Develop New Albany's web site outlines some of the downtown area's strong points:
A major project under way in the area is Scribner Place, a multi-use development jointly built by the city of New Albany and the YMCA of Southern Indiana. It will house a YMCA, a municipally owned aquatic center, a service agency for senior citizens and Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services. A $20 million grant from the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County is providing most of the financing.
Other projects include a bistro, a bakery, a hotel, loft apartments and pedestrian access to the Ohio River and the Ohio River Greenway.
Affordable housing prices and wise investment for the cost-conscious consumer who may be looking for a historic property for a residence or business will be key factors in attracting businesses and residents to New Albany. Last year, the city had a median home sales price of $105,000 at the end of January, according to the Southern Indiana Realtors Association. In Louisville, for that same period, the median sales price was $132,000, according to the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors.
The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, along with historic preservation advocates and neighborhood leaders, have launched a web site—www.historicnewalbany.com—to showcase the city's historic homes. The web site contains an inventory of historic homes and commercial buildings for sale. Each property, in turn, has a history, including former owners, a description of its architectural style and interior and exterior photos.
Founded in 1813 by brothers Joel, Abner and Nathaniel Scribner, New Albany rose to prominence in the 19th century. By the mid-19th century, the river port town with its major steamboat production center was the largest city in Indiana. As New Albany grew, stately homes and commercial buildings built by the community's prominent citizens showcased its prosperity. Many of these vintage homes have been preserved and line the streets of New Albany's four designated historic districts.
New Albany's Uptown residential neighborhoods, which surround the downtown commercial district, also are experiencing an upswing in interest from buyers seeking vintage properties. Many of the large historic homes in the East Spring Street and South Ellen Jones neighborhoods were divided into multi-units. Today's buyers are restoring units back to single-family dwellings.
In the last four years, there has been an influx of people interested in making the neighborhood better, said Ted Fulmore, chair of the New Albany Historic Preservation Commission.
Fulmore and Jeff Gillenwater, an East Spring Street neighborhood activist, credit the cooperation of a large network of stakeholders with helping to revitalize the neighborhoods. They include the New Albany Floyd County Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO), Develop New Albany, the New Albany Historic Preservation Commission, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Southern Indiana, New Directions Housing Corp., a Louisville-based NeighborWorks affiliate, and neighborhood associations.
Community and neighborhood revitalization does not occur overnight, but happens in incremental steps that build on one another. Neighborhood groups interested in improving their communities must engage residents as well as a variety of stakeholders who all have different resources to bring to the table.
The New Albany Floyd County CHDO plans to build four new "shotgun-style" homes in the Oak Street neighborhood. A local architect offered his services pro bono to design a contemporary-style shotgun home. The CHDO also is working closely with the New Albany Urban Enterprise Zone, which is creating a loan fund to provide gap financing to private developers doing commercial projects in the downtown district and surrounding neighborhoods. The loan fund will give developers access to capital at below-market rates. The CHDO plans to then develop affordable housing units in mixed-use developments built by private developers in the downtown district.
Another sure sign of the Uptown area's comeback is the success of a locally owned business that recently opened in the neighborhood. In March 2006, Israel Landin and his wife, Lidia, opened La Rosita, a sit-down Mexican restaurant. The couple's authentic Mexican cuisine and warm hospitality have been embraced by a large following from the neighborhood as well as Louisvillians. La Rosita has added diversity and a neighborhood restaurant that patrons can walk to.
Strong commercial and retail elements are just as important to a neighborhood's viability as residential areas. The collaboration of neighborhood organizations with metro and regional resources are also key to successful redevelopment projects.
Both historic New Albany and Cooper-Young illustrate the difficult process of revitalizing neighborhoods. Common themes emerge, such as collaboration, capitalizing on neighborhood strengths and the importance of leadership.
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