Monday, December 18, 2006

Is Revitalization Necessary?

While "revitalization" may be a buzzword in government circles these days, it's not always what it's cracked up to be.

On the surface, the word and all it conveys sounds great. Encourage investors to tear down dilapidated buildings in residential neighborhoods and replace them with modern condominiums. Encourage investors to build chic restaurants in old commercial districts to draw business and traffic.

Out with the old, in with the new. Encourage investors.

With government help in the way of special taxing districts, grants and zoning changes, it's happening all over the country.

Redevelopment consultants cite various success stories as blueprints of what to do at their next stop, which could very easily be your neighborhood if your house or place of business is more than 30 years old.

This is the opening of Eric Ernst's recent column in the SHT. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

When people think about their own neighborhood, Ernst says:

People see a unique place, with distinguishing elements from one block to the next. They see real people, living real lives. And for the most part, they must like what they see or they would not live there.

That's not to say they object to improvements. They simply want those improvements to build on what's there, not alter their surroundings to an unrecognizable form.

Residents of older neighborhoods can always point to eyesores that would make good targets for razing. It seems, though, that government-initiated revitalization often leaves the dumps standing and tears down the more tolerable properties, which appeal to investors.

The "revitalization concept" is too often sold in broad, nebulous terms indicating it will be "good for the community". There are projects where revitalization makes sense. But when the community pays too high a price in terms of the loss of sense of place or unwanted height and density that lead to trafic, loss of openess, loss of green space, then it becomes a question of community value vs developer profits.

Decisions are tough when these are pitted against each other. Developers throw out terms such as NIMBYism and "fear of change" as ways of discounting the community interest and feelings about a project.

If developers cannot find a way to show that a proposed project is indeed a benefit to the community - and in doing so, is able to get community approval - then more work needs to be done.

The project that Ernst was relating to was the recent Englewood proposed "revitalization" of a trailer park. The county commissioners determined that the particular project was too intense and that other options were available. They then turned down the request for zoning change.

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