In October 2005, residents and activists from the Bergen and Monticello neighborhoods of Jersey City, New Jersey, went to the office of Mayor Jerramiah Healy for a critical meeting. They asked the mayor to write a letter of support for the plan the neighborhoods had spent three years crafting. The mayor, aware of the substantial backing the plan had in the neighborhoods, quickly agreed to sign on.
Soon afterwards the city council passed a resolution praising the neighborhood plan. While the politicians’ support was non-binding and didn’t include specific development proposals, it was still an important step forward. “We are able to hold them accountable for the plan in general,” says Tanya Marione-Stanton, an organizer active in the planning process.
Fairmount Housing Corporation, a CDC based in the Bergen and Monticello area, had taken the lead in starting the planning process in 2002. Fairmount and other nonprofits in these neighborhoods had built positive reputations among residents and business owners. If they could develop housing, community centers and local pride, why shouldn’t they be able to plan for the future, too? In doing so, they could meet multiple goals: bring various neighborhood stakeholders together, develop resident leaders and gain a measure of control over local development. In fact, many neighborhood-based organizations across the country have written or helped create plans with the support of residents, business owners and other neighborhood institutions. There’s more to the process than just getting a plan on paper, as a neighborhood must also convince local government to support a plan’s agenda, and then find the money to actually implement it.
Weighing the Benefits
Because community planning is not a common function for CDCs, they have to consider what specific benefits it offers for them and their neighborhoods before they decide to go ahead. If a plan is adopted and gets government support, it may make it easier for a CDC to do its development work. It could use the plan as a guide when choosing what projects to prioritize, knowing the plan has the community’s backing. It may also lead to more funding opportunities as foundations, banks and private investors see the potential for progress and dividends within a defined geographic area (see sidebar below).
For Fairmount Housing, the decision to initiate a plan for the Bergen and Monticello neighborhoods was not primarily about financial benefit or institutional recognition. Certainly the CDC could end up being the developer of the mixed-income housing called for in the neighborhood plan. But Fairmount staff did not stress the fact they had started the planning process. Rather than take the lead, they wanted the plan to result from collaboration among the dozens of grassroots organizations that existed in the community. It also seemed to the CDC that a plan was more likely to get support from city officials if it represented the interests of the entire neighborhood.
“That was very important to us,” says Martha Lewin, who was director of Fairmount’s parent organization, WomenRising, until her recent retirement. “There were days when we thought that it would have been easier to just have it be Fairmount’s process, but that wouldn’t have been what we wanted.”
Fairmount worked with other local groups, including CDCs and block associations, to form Bergen Communities United (BCU). This group formed a steering committee to decide how to do the plan and other committees to raise money and develop short and long-term strategies. Fairmount provided administrative staff for the plan, hiring two organizers – one to bring youth into the process and the other to involve the broader community. While some plans are begun and finished within a single year, the process in Bergen and Monticello began in 2002 and a final plan was only completed in 2005.
The impetus to plan in the neighborhood was the imminent approach of gentrification, which brought a sudden shift upward in housing prices. The median home price in the area more than doubled from 2000 to 2005 and rents increased over 50 percent. At the same time, the area has many of the challenges of a low-income community, including a high crime rate and poor code enforcement in apartment buildings. It was up to the neighborhood to take action, since the city government itself hadn’t done much planning that took the community as a whole into account. The city had done some narrowly defined planning in the area, including a redevelopment plan for Monticello Avenue, the major commercial artery through the Bergen and Monticello neighborhoods, in 1997.
While BCU was developing its plan, one of its member organizations, the Monticello CDC, was revising the 1997 redevelopment plan for the city’s review. BCU put a high priority on revitalizing the artery, but it didn’t suggest specific development ideas for that area. It deferred to the redevelopment plan for projects on the commercial artery itself, while working with the Monticello CDC and the city to ensure that the plans are consistent with one another.
Aware of how plans often fail to be implemented, BCU prioritized its short-term strategy, which was to give residents a sense that planning would lead to specific actions. The plan released in 2005 included an action plan that identified things that could be accomplished in the next two years. Since residents had said housing was one of their top concerns, the action plan called for the community to decide which sites were most appropriate for new homes and what the income mix should be. The action plan also suggested that the community launch an inclusionary zoning campaign. The goal would be to craft a city ordinance requiring 20 percent of all new housing units to be affordable to low and moderate-income households. Final approval of these initiatives would have to come from the city government, but residents could do a lot to start the process.
Getting the mayor to sign that letter of support was a start. Beyond that action, BCU now has six action committees made up of residents working to implement pieces of the plan. One committee’s charge is to make the streets safer; it is now working with the police and city officials to identify crime problems and seek state funding for traffic calming improvements. Another committee is researching best practices for a new community center. Instead of organizing residents to come to general planning meetings, Marione-Stanton now calls on members of the committees to make sure they’re staying on their specific tasks.
“It’s really a different kind of organizing now,” she says. “It’s issue-based. It makes it a lot easier to get people on board now that I know who to target on the committees.” During the planning phase, organizers had to work much harder to get people to come to meetings, she adds. In addition, BCU now has an advisory board that includes the mayor and the major funders supporting the planning and implementation effort.
Reviving An Old Plan
The Fenway CDC in Boston had its organizational self-interest a bit more at heart when it launched a planning process in the early 1990s. It did so in coordination with other neighborhood groups that disliked the city’s attempt to rezone the community for outside commercial interests. But the CDC was always seen as the leader in the process, and it presented itself as the community’s voice without trying to win over local opponents.
“We do kind of wear two hats,” says Carl Nagy-Koechlin, Fenway’s executive director. “On the one hand we’re sort of a catalyst and a voice for the community in how we want to see these areas developed, and on the other hand, we also see these planning processes as providing a pipeline for development projects for us. I think that’s fine. Most CDCs’ strategies are built on controlling real estate. We’re doing that in the planning role through zoning and through mobilizing people to influence projects that get developed. But there’s no substitute for actually owning land and doing development yourself. That’s the way you can really determine the fate of the neighborhood as well as the health of your organization.”
While the plan was completed in 1992, it took over a decade for it to begin to bear fruit. Throughout the 1990s, developers ignored the Fenway neighborhood’s economic potential, and funding was unavailable for the housing, transit, retail and open space improvements called for in the plan. Moreover, the coalition of neighborhood groups that the CDC had organized didn’t have funding to continue its work. Then, a proposal by the Red Sox baseball team in 2000 to build a new stadium in the neighborhood brought the plan back to life.
The CDC renewed the proposals it had made in the earlier plan, but reframed its original proposal for an “urban village” as an alternative to the stadium. The village concept included mixed-income housing, small businesses, a school and parks; the various components of the plan would help give a new identity to a commercial strip known for speeding traffic and parking lots. Together with another neighborhood group, the CDC held several design meetings, inviting residents, business owners and political leaders to consider the benefits of this form of development. At the height of the campaign, as many as 150 neighborhood residents were turning up at each planning session, city council meeting and zoning board hearing to oppose the stadium and in support of the urban village proposal.
In the end, the stadium idea was dropped because the state refused to subsidize it. The city then adopted many of the CDC’s proposals for the neighborhood through a new re-zoning process. Now developers are beginning to build some of the housing and neighborhood retail stores the CDC wanted.
Having opponents on both flanks – one neighborhood group thought the CDC wasn’t sufficiently opposed to the stadium and other for-profit developers, while another thought the stadium would be good for residents – was actually helpful, says Nagy-Koechlin. Though these groups felt strongly enough about these issues to go against the CDC, in fact everyone in the neighborhood agreed on many planning issues. Where they didn’t necessarily agree was how critical it was for Fenway to be a diverse community, and on this issue the CDC wasn’t willing to budge. It insisted that roughly 20 percent of new housing in the area should be affordable.
Planning Can Be Done Quickly
Plans can be implemented in far less time than it has taken Fenway CDC and BCU, if the planners’ aspirations are modest. In Portland, Oregon, REACH CDC prepared and began implementing a plan within a one-year period in 1990. Working with a coalition of neighborhood groups in Southeast Portland, REACH identified West Clinton, a small area of 320 houses in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, as the area to focus on. At the time, West Clinton suffered from disinvestment, and the state owned a significant amount of vacant houses and land in the area. Until REACH got involved, residents’ participation in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood association was low. One of REACH’s main victories was to drum up the community’s interest in the plan and get the city to devote attention to the area.
The CDC and West Clinton and Hosford-Abernethy residents spent six months in the winter and spring of 1990 collecting data and surveying residents, and organized three neighborhood meetings to discuss and craft the plan. By August the plan was ready to go. REACH tapped a variety of funding sources to acquire and rehabilitate several deteriorated housing units in West Clinton and to implement other aspects of the plan.
Some residents had big dreams they wanted included in the plan, such as a new library, but the final plan was confined to goals that were achievable in a short time. These included getting the city’s library to send a mobile library to the neighborhood once a month. The biggest single component of the plan was to renovate many of the area’s vacant houses. The plan had a total of seven goals and 35 proposed actions, an amount of work that seemed possible to implement quickly.
“I think it was really important that the community got involved with implementation,” says Dee Walsh, executive director of REACH. “There was a lot of grassroots involvement. We did neighborhood cleanups and planted street trees, and the houses we bought and renovated were ones the residents helped us identify. If we hadn’t had their involvement, it wouldn’t have worked at all.” REACH also got residents to lead specific efforts, so they felt a sense of ownership of part of the process. “Every project we did, my staff person had a co-leader who was from the neighborhood.”
Several years later, West Clinton’s plan won an award from Neighborhoods, USA, an organization dedicated to community building. “I remember that in [the neighborhood association’s] application they barely mentioned us,” says Walsh. “At first I was really irritated, and then I thought, this is good, because they really took ownership of the plan.”
Although REACH spent only $7,000 on creating the plan, it brought over $1.3 million in public and private investment to the neighborhood. REACH’s work in West Clinton also convinced Portland officials to create a program to provide seed funding for neighborhoods to implement community plans. The CDC used city funds to leverage additional dollars from business and foundations.
REACH also used these funding sources to hire a staff person for another planning project focused on the Belmont business district in the Sunnyside neighborhood. REACH worked in the area for five years and created a plan for both the residential and business sections of Sunnyside. But the city’s interest in providing financial support for planning waned by the end of the 1990s; as a result, REACH decided not to do additional target area plans. Without the city’s help, it would have been difficult for REACH to leverage enough private funding to keep the staff position in Sunnyside or to continue its planning work in other districts.
“We designed an exit strategy for ourselves, so when we left there would be pools of money available to the neighborhood to continue some of the things we helped start,” says Walsh. She notes that some of that money is used to support a street fair every September co-sponsored by the business and neighborhood associations.
Challenges to Planning
A CDC-led planning process could be perceived as a threat by city officials if they aren’t involved. Cities that don’t have their own planning office or a history of planning are especially prone to view grassroots initiatives in a bad light. So BCU and other groups invited city leaders to some of their earliest meetings and encouraged the city planning office to lend its expertise, though they didn’t do intensive outreach to city officials until residents had time to get organized. There is a tension between the desire to involve political leaders to get their support, and wanting to keep politicians at arms’ length so they don’t co-opt the planning process.
Even if politicians tell residents they support a plan, as in the case of the mayor of Jersey City, the plan typically has no legal standing. Only continued organizing will ensure that pieces of the plan can be implemented over time and that local officials don’t get in the way. Otherwise, city officials may opt to create their own plan, which may contradict the community plan, or they may pursue individual development projects that are at odds with that plan.
Another question for CDCs is whether it still makes sense to do planning in neighborhoods where gentrification is happening, as opposed to areas where the economy is weak. “There’s not the same need for this focused redevelopment effort that there was then,” says Walsh of REACH, a decade after her organization did most of its planning work. “These efforts are important in weak market cities.”
Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center in New York, argues planning is just as critical for CDCs in hot markets, even though the CDCs are placed in a role to which they are less accustomed. “In the old days the CDCs did planning as part of their classic role, to bring the neighborhood back,” he says. “They thought it could make a difference to possibly attract large-scale investment. In New York it’s more of a reactive enterprise, because the market is so hot. The market is doing a lot of things that aren’t so good, so you try to influence the regulatory environment.”
These conditions might make the way planning is handled even more of a critical issue than in weak markets. In many cities the planning staff of local government do more to enable rapid development than to control it. In a gentrifying environment, there can be tremendous development pressure and government is more likely to want to do its own planning, with or without real community involvement. It is in these situations where community groups may have the greatest opportunity to influence planning outcomes, if they can’t do the planning themselves.
That’s what the Fenway CDC has tried to do as it faces Boston’s red-hot real estate market. The CDC continues to organize residents during the implementation phase of the urban village plan. The intensity of the work is much less than it was when the threat of the stadium hung over the neighborhood, but CDC staff and board members keep a core group of residents aware of new project proposals and ask them to write comment letters and attend public hearings. As the first two developers to build in the community since the plan was completed have declined to meet the CDC’s 20 percent affordability standard, committing only to the city’s 10 percent threshold, the CDC is pressuring Mayor Thomas Menino to intervene. Its argument is that the mayor, who has been a strong advocate for affordable housing, should press his case in the Fenway.
CDCs are coming to realize that, whether their neighborhoods are in weak or strong markets, they must take on new roles if they hope to create meaningful change. While their overall goal has always been to influence whole neighborhoods, CDCs’ traditional means to reach that end was to plan individual projects that they would complete. By contrast, community planning requires them to consider their neighborhood comprehensively, often working with many other organizations and residents. Daunting as this is, community planning’s potential to engage residents and foster equitable development makes it difficult to ignore.