Redevelopment for Livable Communities
summarized by planners of the Puget Sound Regional Council
Special to the Green Pages
Uttering the "D" word (density) often provokes a storm of opposition among neighborhood residents and skepticism about "market demand" among developers. But showing them examples of good redevelopment can generate enthusiasm for creating more walkable, compact neighborhoods, and maybe even for eliminating a few parking lots.
Using images of well-designed redevelopment to "sell" similar projects to neighborhoods, developers, elected officials and lenders emerged as a recurring theme at the Redevelopment for Livable Communities conference May 27-29 in downtown Tacoma.
"The power of an image is extraordinary," said architect Michael Pyatok. Real-life examples of projects that have transformed deteriorating neighborhoods into highly desirable places to live - and have made a profit for developers - can change negative perceptions of high-density, multifamily areas. Similarly, using drawings and models to communicate a strong vision for a potential redevelopment area can help galvanize a community around redevelopment.
More than 200 people from Washington State and other parts of the country attended the conference, which was sponsored by the Energy Outreach Center and the Puget Sound Regional Council, as well as dozens of other supporters and contributors.
The conference focused on what makes redevelopment work, and featured provocative speakers, presentations, and hands-on work sessions aimed at overcoming barriers to successful redevelopment. A walking tour of Tacoma's revitalized downtown and a visual feast of case studies at the conference offered participants real-world proof that redevelopment, though difficult, can succeed.
Trends in "new urbanism" that recall the walkable, convenient, friendly neighborhoods common in American cities in the first half of this century were a frequent topic of discussion, as participants stressed the importance of looking to the past to find models for good urban design.
"I'm not saying we should repeat the past, but we should actively learn from it," said Harrison Rue, a community planner and educator based in Florida. Using a community's "historic fragments" can create authentic redevelopment linked to a community's past and a "sense of place" that is absent in typical urban and suburban sprawl development.
Convincing developers and lenders to invest in urban redevelopment projects is particularly challenging, since many prefer "greenfield" development on the suburban fringe to dealing with the complexities involved in redevelopment.
"Developers are not altruists," said Sandy Desner, a developer and principal of Deskoba, Inc. in Olympia, noting that increased building requirements for seismic upgrades, energy efficiency, accessibility for the disabled, as well as a more complex "regulator matrix" created by the Growth Management Act, all affect the economic costs of projects. The public sector can encourage redevelopment by investing in infrastructure and amenities. Ultimately, however, the project must be profitable if it is to be successful, with a rate of return relative to the risk involved.
Rates of return aren't the only issues that come up in redevelopment, especially when an area is perceived as a "bad neighborhood." Rich Juarez, who has been involved in redeveloping San Diego's Barrio Logan neighborhood, expressed his frustration that major supermarkets are still afraid to move into the neighborhood, which in turn affects whether lenders will approve financing for a new commercial center.
The Barrio Logan example underscored the importance of community energy in making redevelopment projects work. Despite lack of support from the private sector, city officials, and financial institutions, the residents of Barrio Logan have begun to transform their neighborhood by building affordable housing, a community health center, and a permanent school.
A number of speakers provided additional examples of "citizen-led" planning efforts, and offered insights into how to build community support for redevelopment. "Involvement should start before any line is drawn, so the community shapes the project, rather than just choosing from pre-packaged options," Pyatok said.
In addition to investing in public infrastructure, methods for promoting private investment discussed at the conference included streamlining regulations, fast-tracking permit processes in targeted areas, equalizing impact fees among jurisdictions, and providing financial incentives or disincentives supportive of redevelopment.
Current zoning laws and other requirements were much-maligned in the discussion, and many conference participants said it was time for serious reform, especially with regard to parking requirements. Cities often require too much parking, which takes a great deal of land and discourages pedestrians and transit. Also, in lower income areas, where more people rely on transit, it doesn't make sense to require a lot of redevelopment.
Mark Hinshaw, an architect and Seattle Times columnist, suggested a novel approach to zoning: do the opposite. For example, instead of maximum building heights, require minimum heights; instead of minimum parking requirements, establish maximum parking ratios; instead of minimum setbacks, have maximum setbacks; and instead of maximum densities, set minimum densities.
The final day was devoted to hands-on work sessions, in which participants discussed barriers to redevelopment and generated possible approaches to move redevelopment forward. A few of the ideas that surfaced included:
By the time you read this, a final report from the conference should be available from the Energy Outreach Center, 943-4595.
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