May 18, 2022

Pitfalls of Place-Based Revitalization in Atlanta, San Diego: Reports

Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood was originally developed as a summer getaway for local city dwellers in the late 19th century, which featured a prestigious golf course turned into an amusement park.

The community grew in the 1940s and became more integrated with the rest of the city after World War II. In the mid-20th century, like many other communities, the neighborhood experienced White flight. The area that was over 90% white in 1960 became over 90% black in 1980, followed by a long period of divestment.

In the early 1990s, as the city prepared to host the 1996 Olympics, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $35.5 million to the Atlanta Housing Authority to renovate the site of public housing in East Lake Meadows, an investment that residents saw as long overdue. , according to a report by the Urban Institute published on Thursday.

The study by the nonprofit research organization assessed the long-term impacts of this local revitalization effort. The group also assessed the impact of a comprehensive or place-based community initiative on San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood.

Local initiatives are designed to transform disinvested areas by developing apartment buildings, funding small businesses, organizing residents, providing tax breaks, paving streets, revitalizing arts centers, and more, the report said.

Studies reveal that such place-based revitalization initiatives can often encounter two contradictory pitfalls: they either contribute to gentrification or leave neighborhoods as impoverished as they were when efforts began. But Urban Institute senior researcher and report author Brett Theodos said these challenges are not insurmountable, and city leaders now have sufficient resources and knowledge to support the goals of these efforts.

Atlanta’s East Lake Initiative

Atlanta’s local East Lake initiative has directly invested or mobilized more than $600 million in the community since 1995, report says, with support to come philanthropic donations, government funding, and debt and equity financing in private markets.

The initiative established mixed-income housing, community facilities, and retail redevelopments such as a new public golf course, a YMCA branch, and the neighborhood’s first grocery store. He also supported cradle to college education and community welfare.

The East Lake Foundation has created 542 new mixed-use housing units on the site of a public housing estate, become one of the “first modern, planned mixed-income developments in the country”, according to the study. The third phase of development is also currently under construction and will include 108 new apartments, 70 of which will be available for families earning between 50% and 60% of the region’s median income.

Overall, Atlanta’s East Lake initiative has led to “significant local change,” according to the report. Those differences include a decrease in poverty and crime and an increase in income, college degrees and home values, according to an email from Urban Institute spokesman Daniel Fowler.

However, these results may not be the result of the initiative’s intentional efforts. “These effects may be driven by changes in people rather than changes for people, as the study also finds that the share of the population that was black declined and the share that was white increased,” according to Fowler.

San Diego City Heights Initiative

The initiative in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood, which has been supported by philanthropic donations, government funding, and private market debt and equity financing, has directly invested or mobilized more than $212 million in the community since 1995.

Prior to these investments, City Heights, located just east of the city’s central business district, was known as a “high crime area”. The crime rate was partly due to the effects of the California Department of Transportation’s purchase and boarding of several hundred homes ahead of a freeway expansion that took decades..

The City Heights revitalization effort has involved investments in physical redevelopment and social services, particularly for children and youth. The effort has overseen the development of a primary school, in addition to a large adult continuing education building. The initiative has also provided various scholarships, mentorships, tutoring, summer programs, and college prep for students in the region.

In addition to its investments in educational resources, the effort has also overseen new housing developments, while supporting real estate for education, retail, and community facilities.

The effort, which invested hundreds of millions of dollars over 25 years, ultimately “didn’t have much measurable effect outside of the population on the neighborhood,” Theodos said.

Thus, although the population of the district has increased, its economic situation has changed little during the study. However, much of the initiative’s investments focused on human services, which involved helping first-generation students get to college. Many of those students may not have returned to the neighborhood, he said.

It is possible that the community functioned as a “launch pad”, according to Fowler, with successive waves of new residents joining the neighborhood, enjoying it and drifting away. Thus, leaving the region’s economy unchanged as they are replaced by newcomers.

Lessons learned

Although the two location-based initiatives have achieved different results and encountered many complex challenges, Theodos said he hopes city leaders can draw conclusions, especially since there are currently 22 Place-based initiatives across the United States, according to Theodos.

First, leaders must understand that local developments are long and expensive commitments. “If we’re going to take a disinvested neighborhood to the point of being invested…we’re going to need significant, sustained investment,” he said. As such, these efforts also require an institution, usually a non-profit organization, to guide the processes. According to Theodos, government-led projects can sometimes be too associated with a municipal administration, which presents challenges when leadership changes.

The initiative should also be designed to help retain some control on the land, whether through solutions such as long-term affordable housing or a community land trust. “If the strategy works…there must be a way to preserve community benefits for long-time residents so they are not displaced,” he said.

Looking ahead, Theodos said leaders today have much more clarity about the designs, tools, costs, programs and partners needed to create grassroots initiatives. But he said maintaining sufficient investment in a particular location over the long term remains the fundamental challenge. The need currently eclipses the resources, he said, “Which means we don’t stay in one place long enough or big enough. And that’s a challenge that I don’t see as easy to overcome.”