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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Urban Renewal, 21st Century

Many of us urban planners like to think that the days where planning comes from a group of well dressed middle aged white men and is passed down to communities of all colors, ages, and incomes is over.

Really, though, it's not. Urban renewal is alive and well across the country. New Orleans is deadset on tearing down a 16 square block neighborhood known as Tulane/Gravier (or Lower Mid City) for a new Louisiana State University and V.A. combined hospital complex. Likewise, Baltimore has already torn down a swath of "Middle East Baltimore" for an expansion of Johns Hopkins.

I know, in New Orleans' case, sensible alternatives abound for the siting of these two important hospitals. There's, in fact, a moribund medical district already just to the east of their desired footprint that contains more parking garages and surface lots than buildings. It's ripe for redevelopment. But the city wants to build the hospital atop Tulane/Gravier--a poor neighborhood that was heavily flooded during Katrina. An unlikely renaissance seemed possible just post-storm, when a Tulane medical student organized the neighborhood with a new group called "Phoenix of New Orleans". But the LSU/VA Medical Complex talks led the city to declare the Tulane/Gravier neighborhood a no-permit zone. That's right. Since December 2007, the city will not issue building or demolition or rehabilitation permits for the entire area.

A row of houses--in varying conditions--in the Medical District footprint. Whole blocks of these distinctively New Orleans homes, some dating to the Civil War, will be torn down soon if current plans are approved. Photograph by Becky Houtman.

Ultimately, Tulane/Gravier will likely be felled (even as a National Register historic district). Why, in a city with an affordable housing shortage, in a city that has recently demolished nearly every public housing unit (attractive and sturdy as they were), in a city where there are many vacant and underutilized parcels in the current medical district, are they tackling Tulane/Gravier? It's a poor neighborhood with rundown housing. The development team wants that site "development ready". It's often that simple. That's all the justification that's needed.

“It was obvious the community was falling apart,” said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the medical faculty and chief executive of the hospital since 1997. “I could see drug deals from my office.”

An East Baltimore row. Is this torn down now? I don't know. I'm trying to find pictures of the redevelopment area. But this should give a proper context. Photograph courtesy of bing7220's flickr page.

It's funny: it's as if poverty is synonymous with blight to the average person. It's an impediment to investment rather than an economic state of a neighborhood populated by people who have lower earnings, yes, but also hopes, goals, lives, jobs, dogs, front porches and back yards...

To my knowledge, though, St. Louis may be one of the biggest proponents of a "New Urban Renewal". Late 20th and early 21st Century neighborhoods that were "redeveloped" include McRee Town, Gaslight Square, and Bohemian Hill.

Perhaps these developments, especially the former two, seem beneficial to the city in the end. Slums were cleared away; poverty scattered; aging and unkempt buildings rendered nuisances no longer. McRee Town and Gaslight Square seem to have caught on to that elusive middle class population that the city has been seeking for so long.

But these developments have set an alarming precedent: that after enough decline, neighborhoods are unsalvageable and must be torn down. Imagine if this scenario had played out in Soulard, which it almost did, and Soulard were redeveloped into the neighborhood of Garden Apartments that St. Louis's hotshot planner Harland Bartholomew actually wanted.

Better yet, imagine the impoverished residents of McRee Town suing the Garden District Commission before they planted the current crop of passably urban but uninspired homes that replaced the neighborhood's history. Pretend that they won; that the redevelopment could have demolished only those buildings that could not have been saved. Imagine that a thoughtful cohesion of old and new breathed new life into McRee Town, rather than a coalition of wealthier neighborhoods and a self-interested major institution razing it and renaming it "Botanical Heights" in shameless self-promotion.

Might we be having so many problems with Blairmont? If McRee had somehow informed our elected leadership and citizenry that it's possible to forge a new neighborhood identity without all new buildings; that poor people can be mobilized to better their community if they see some investment and new jobs come with it--what would be happening on the Near North Side this day? Blairmont is simply a clever form of urban renewal, Smart Shrink, take your planning poison pick. It's secretive. It's top down. Though, after five years, we still know of no specific plans. Given this economy, whatever plans there were may even be scaled back at this point. But it doesn't matter. Irreplaceable architecture, St. Louis's best economic development asset, is being lost and there's no leadership to stop it, to stem it, to plan it. Citizens don't have the keys to that proverbial backroom where these dealings take place. So many have grown indifferent or inured to our city's stagnation.

The New Urban Renewal is much like the old in its mentality. Impoverished neighborhoods have, by virtue of their struggle, proven themselves not viable. The N.U.R. states that, once someone with greater access to capital comes along and sees a way to squeeze tax revenue out of an area, it should be torn down. There is too rarely the question: can we improve the neighborhood without replacing it?

But the newness of this round of Urban Renewal is that it's only those neighborhoods that have demonstrated a prolonged resistance to the recent better times for cities that are being bulldozed. Aren't these neighborhoods the ones that need the benefits of bottom-up planning and community sensitivity the most?

It is important not to forget, post-Barack Obama, that top-down planning still occurs. And it's still quite often wrong and misguided.


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