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Community Development Versus the Urban Renewal Approach

In general, Community Development has differed from Urban Renewal primarily in its gentler approach and in its emphasis on rehabilitation and preservation, as opposed to Urban Renewal's clear-and-start-from- scratch approach. For example, in the realm of housing, CD programs have expended substantial funds on grants or low-interest loans to homeowners and to the owners of rental properties for rehabilitation and modernization.

One program that has been highly successful in some cities is urban homesteading. In declining residential areas, cities often come into ownership of residential properties, primarily through foreclosure for unpaid property taxes. (This is not likely to happen in thriving areas, since the higher market values will cause the owner who cannot pay taxes to sell out rather than simply walk away.) In the homesteading program the house is essentially given to a new owner, who promises to "bring it up to code" within a given time period. If the new owner succeeds in doing so, the title then passes to him or her without charge. In effect, the cost of acquiring the property is the expenditure required to bring the building up to the standards set forth in the municipality's building code. That expenditure may be primarily financial, that is, money spent on contractors, or it may largely be labor by the new owner, so-called "sweat equity."

In the city of Baltimore, the program has worked quite successfully on old row houses. The lure of homeownership has been strong enough to attract an adequate number of urban homesteaders, but according to city officials, the potential profitability has not been so great as to bring in many speculators. Not only does the program improve housing quality, but it also fills neighborhoods with individuals and families who have a strong commitment to those neighborhoods. It thus contributes greatly to neighborhood stability, a goal that in the long run is probably more important than simply the maintenance of building quality.

In commercial areas many CD programs have taken a less radical approach than Urban Renewal. Low-interest loans have been made to local businesses, sometimes for operating purposes and sometimes for renovation and expansion. Pedestrian malls designed to attract shoppers have been constructed. Of course, some expenditures quite reminiscent of Urban Renewal have been made; for example, the construction of parking structures and street widening and realignment. But in general, the emphasis has been on preservation, rehabilitation, improvement, and gradual change. The intent has been to achieve the same goals as Urban Renewal but with less damage to the existing urban fabric.

In many cases, municipal governments have given up the idea of competing head-to-head with suburban retailers on the grounds that it is impossible to match the automobile access and parking advantages of the suburban shopping center (the case of White Plains, noted earlier, is an exception in this regard). Instead, there has been more of an emphasis on strengthening those assets of the city that are not so readily matched by suburban areas. Such assets might include cultural facilities and areas designed largely for pedestrian traffic, where the denser and more varied pattern of land uses gives the city an advantage over the suburbs. For example, the revitalized downtown in Roanoke, Virginia includes a museum, a theater, a number of specialty shops, and a small farmers' market, all laid out for pedestrian access. The city has made no serious attempt to compete with outlying shopping centers.

In a number of cities, waterfronts that have long since lost their shipping functions have been converted into areas where one strolls, has lunch or dinner, shops, or uses some cultural or entertainment facility. The Boston Waterfront, Manhattan's South Street Seaport, and Baltimore's Inner Harbor are examples. Very often there is an element of historic preservation in such efforts. For example, South Street Seaport includes a number of restored buildings as well as several old, restored sailing vessels tied up at city-owned piers. Again, one might view this as an attempt to capitalize on an asset that the city has and the suburbs generally do not have, namely the charm of the old.

 
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