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Neighborhood Transformation

Thomas M. Gallas

It starts with a spark or catalytic set of actions by many that leads to other positive planned and unplanned activities.

Neighborhood transformation for communities that have experienced serious disinvestment is about more than realizing just a single design project on a site. It’s about a spark or catalytic set of actions that leads to other positive planned and unplanned activities initiated by that project. It’s about dramatic and comprehensive change to the physical, social, cultural, and economic aspects of a neighborhood. And it requires trust, vision, cooperation, consensus, partnership, and investment to be successful.

For the design of the Master Plan for Crystal City in Arlington County, Virginia, Torti Gallas worked closely with existing neighborhood associations, holding a community walking tour, a week-long charrette, three community forums, and more than forty task force meetings. Led by architects and planners from the firm, these open exchanges provided opportunities for two-way communication between the designers and community members while nurturing cooperation and consensus for the project.

Successful neighborhood transformation must start with a common will. Communities must first want it to happen and believe that it can happen. And then the facilitators of change must earn the trust of the community and garner their support for change. We all know that change can be frightening. Even for those who are convinced that neighborhood transformation is needed, it may still be hard to agree to participate as a “change agent” because “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  This is particularly true for people in lower income brackets who have seen promises go unfulfilled time and time again. And any constituents, rich or poor, private sector or public, must understand that change cannot happen if they alone are the only ones who want it. Real and successful neighborhood transformation requires the support of many. Cooperation and forming a consensus centered on finding “win-win” solutions are critical elements of change.

Establishing a common will must be paired with creating a common vision. This usually entails gaining community-wide cooperation and encouraging stakeholders to listen to one another and express their ideas in a safe and non-hostile environment. If community members feel that they can openly and candidly voice their wants and needs for neighborhood transformation, the probability of arriving at consensus and acceptance of change increases. And when the community can share ownership for change, the likelihood of success is more assured.

The diverse Salishan neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington is made up of multigenerational, multicultural residents who all share a deep appreciation for the people and traditions of Salishan. Over a one-year planning process, the mutual cooperation between designers and residents led to the hugely successful transformation of the neighborhood.

Not all aspects of neighborhood transformation can or should be planned. Just as neighborhoods and cities evolve organically over time, neighborhood transformation can and should spark other creative and entrepreneurial activities and events that generate broader and more constructive change. Once there is agreement on the level of quality and the overall desired outcome, the actual responses can often materialize in unique and unexpected ways. In effect, the “chemical reaction” of both planned and unplanned activities initiated by the catalyst must be encouraged to provide a positive and impactful result.

Comprehensive neighborhood transformation is often dependent upon a successful first step—a single project or action reflecting that common vision—which is followed by other steps by other parties that feed off that first step. Strategic location and the level of quality achieved in that first step are critical determinants in establishing the degree of success of the ensuing transformative activities. And for the desired catalytic effect to occur, the first step must be successful, attracting follow-on financial and communal investment that will ensure the ultimate desired positive results. This initial successful investment must be considered as leverage toward other future transformative activities and developments that will lead to comprehensive returns to the entire community.

Philadelphia has reaped substantial benefits from the comprehensive neighborhood transformation of the Martin Luther King Plaza public housing complex. The area had become an island in the midst of the city, disconnected from surrounding neighborhoods -- a place to avoid. Its failed high-rise towers were imploded and replaced by rowhouses, corner stores, and an urban square more in tune with the surrounding neighborhoods.
The revitalization targeted infill of additional housing and community retail in the surrounding neighborhood and“seeded” broader transformation spurring numerous other public and private investments that has led to a safe and healthy seamless community.

Public/private partnerships are often also essential for realizing successful and comprehensive neighborhood transformations. The larger footprints associated with neighborhood transformations usually require the involvement of public partners to assemble land and garner neighborhood-wide participation. Private partners are then called upon to supply their expertise and capital to create innovative and economically viable outcomes.

The public/private partnership that revitalized Columbia Heights in Washington, DC took the efforts of city politicians and staff, working with local residents and community groups over many years, to keep the neighborhood intact. Its central commercial core had been burned out in the 1968 riots, and although the surrounding neighborhood had managed to remain strong, it was unable to rebuild by itself.
Decades after the riots, the city initiated redevelopment projects that brought together public and private investment to create thriving housing and retail in this under-served area. The newly transformed neighborhood now boasts a mixed-use, transit-oriented development that caters to its residents with ground-floor restaurants and commercial space, as well as a variety of housing options for all income levels and ages.

True neighborhood transformation addresses not only the physical imprint of a neighborhood but its social, economic, and cultural aspects as well. As the mix and makeup of a neighborhood changes, these less tangible factors all enter into the picture, with the overall result being the transformation of the lives of the people who live, work, shop, and play there. Social and cultural benefits can be derived from the services, amenities, and opportunities that take root in the community. And the economic transformation of the neighborhood must be available to a broad spectrum of the community’s residents—not through displacement but through enrichment. True, positive neighborhood transformation cannot happen without all of this occurring in a balanced fashion.

When neighborhood transformation is successful, “all tides rise together”— one step feeding the next, with exponential impact over time. Torti Gallas + Partners’ commitment to community education and to listening to stakeholders to facilitate consensus about the need for and the direction of change has resulted in catalytic developments that have sparked dozens of successful neighborhood transformations.

This essay is abstracted from Torti Gallas + Partners: Architects of Community, published by Vendome Press in June 2017.  To purchase a copy of the book please click here.

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