Posts by Author: Aline Reynolds

Can This Westchester Community Revitalize without Displacement?

New development and the zoning that facilitates it are often a double-edged sword for U.S. cities. On one hand, as urban areas densify, they can put people to work, provide them with new places to live and create more walkable and vibrant neighborhoods. But small businesses and low-income residents can often be left out of the happy picture that cities paint when describing their grand plans. The City of New Rochelle has taken innovative steps to revitalize itself with the goal of not leaving anyone behind. While eager to see progress in the city, some local advocates are concerned about the plans’ unforeseen effects of gentrification. But New Rochelle has been recognized as a model for pioneering new planning and engagement methods. Time will tell if they are successful in combating the all-too-well-known effects that new development can have on communities.

New Rochelle is undergoing a mini-renaissance. The up-and-coming Westchester County city, about 25 miles north of New York City, is taking on one of the most ambitious downtown redevelopment initiatives in the history of the Hudson Valley. The initiative envisions an abundance of mixed-use development that is anticipated to attract upwards of $4 billion in new investment. This includes an estimated 12 million square feet of new development in its downtown — including up to 6,370 residences, 2.4 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of shops, and 1,200 hotel rooms.

The city intends to create an active, mixed-use district comprised of economically diverse, high-quality housing with a well-designed streetscape and “convenient, safe, and pleasant access” to the New Rochelle Transportation Center, where the Metro North railroad and the Northeast regional Amtrak stop, according to its 2015 Recommended Action Plan. The transit hub also serves as a local bus depot and has a 900-car parking lot.

Rather than grant development approval on a project-by-project basis, the city gained state approval of its overall action plan — conceived in partnership with private developer RXR Realty — through a generic environmental review, explains New Rochelle Development Commissioner Luiz Aragon. The level of community outreach prior to the plan’s creation was extensive, he says. “We went to the community and talked about the maximum build-out of 12 million square feet,” says Aragon of the process. “We answered their questions, and we got the support to get it done.”

The Ingredients of a Renaissance

To enable and expedite the new development, the city spent a year overhauling its zoning code. In 2015, the City Council and Aragon’s team worked together to rezone nearly 300 acres of its downtown, including 15 acres of city-owned land. In doing so, they created a “Downtown Overlay Zone” that features form-based regulations for new buildings. Contrary to the underlying zoning, which regulates development according to the use of land, form-oriented guidelines prioritize the shape and placement of buildings “to support the creation of vibrant places,” according to the Recommended Action Plan.

As for the form-based code, “it’s more about the relationship to the street as opposed to uses in the area,” explains Suzanne Reider, a senior project manager at the city’s Department of Development.

The new zoning designates six optional “overlay” districts, each of which tailors the development rules to a neighborhood’s character and scale. The zones are designed to allow tall, high-density buildings in the city center, near the train station, with smaller buildings more prevalent as you move toward the residential neighborhoods that surround downtown.

Residents don virtual-reality goggles to see how future developments may shape their home city. (Credit: New Rochelle Downtown BID)

Throughout 2015, three or four community meetings were held each week to solicit local feedback on the zoning changes, according to Aragon. “I went from people’s living rooms to talking to them in their neighborhoods, to large auditoriums and colleges,” he recalls. The rezoning is part of an overall framework of growth-oriented policies intended to both incentivize new development and create “certainty” for developers. “What do I mean by certainty?” Aragon says. “When a developer comes to New Rochelle, we want them to know exactly how much it’s going to cost them to do the development, and how long it’s going to take for them to get the necessary [individual] approvals and get it done.”

Now, in late 2018, the city is ahead of schedule with the new development, according to Aragon. About 15 residential and commercial projects have already been approved under the new optional zoning, including 3,300 housing units — more than half of the total number of units envisioned in the overall redevelopment plans. At least another half-dozen new projects have also been approved.

“It’s all happening much faster than we had expected,” says Aragon. The commissioner attributes this to high residential demand due, in part, to New York City’s prohibitive housing market. Households priced out of the Big Apple are considering Westchester and other nearby suburbs in the metropolitan area.

Aragon intends to make New Rochelle the destination city for those households who decide on Westchester over New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island. “We want to position ourselves to be the right choice and to provide a quality, affordable life, and to do all of that in the safest city of our size in New York State,” says Aragon. (According to a 2017 annual report from the city’s police department, New Rochelle ranked 14 on a list of top 50 safest U.S. cities with a population between 80,000 and 99,000 people; it was the only city in New York State that made the list.)

New Rochelle has a history of prosperity. In 1930, more than 100 millionaires lived there — and it was deemed, at the time, the wealthiest city per capita in New York State and the third most affluent city in the nation, according to information collected by the City of New Rochelle. This was followed by a period of decline starting triggered by the late-1950s construction of Interstate 95 (I-95), which divided the city in two; and by the urban renewal of the 1960s, when central historic neighborhoods were razed. The city saw a resurgence during the real estate boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before New Rochelle’s recent rezoning, but progress has been gradual. Reider recalls how, in 2001, the 13-story Kaufman Building, built in 1930, was the city’s tallest building. Now, the city has three high-rise buildings, two of them 40 stories high. Seven more towers are on the way, according to the Aragon.

“Seeing the skyline of the city change slowly over time, for someone who was here during the stagnant times, is exciting in its own right,” says Reider.

The city realized it had to step up to the plate in order to attract more investment into downtown. Things began to percolate in late 2014, when New Rochelle joined forces with RXR Realty — chosen as the master developer — to devise a plan for revitalizing the city, notes Aragon. “We really wanted to change how we approached our future,” says the commissioner. “So, about four years ago, we decided to take a step back and look at how far we have come, where we wanted to be, and what obstacles we were facing regarding growth.”

In an attempt to engage the public in a meaningful way, the city launched a Crowdsourced Placemaking Program, a grassroots outreach initiative aimed at getting citizens’ input for land use and redevelopment decisions — targeting in particular residents such as artists and young professionals who are “often left out of traditional outreach programs,” according to the city’s Recommended Action Plan. Dubbed “NR Future” by New Rochelle citizens, the outreach entailed a mix of in-person meetings and internet forums to collect feedback on retail, public amenities, and other aspects of the redevelopment.

One of the most popular requests that emerged from the outreach program was for a new downtown performance space. RXR Realty has committed to creating a 10,000-square-foot theater — slated to open in 2019 — at its 587 Main Street property in exchange for four additional floors to its new building. The agreement reflects a new Community Benefit Bonus program, established by the rezoning, that requires private developers to provide a community amenity, or provide funding for such infrastructure, in exchange for up to 20 percent in added building height. The city uses a formula to determine the value and type of compensation the developers must offer on a case-by-case basis, according to Aragon. “The developers can pay for the additional bonus floors in the form of community benefits, cash, or both,” he explains.

Aragon believes that New Rochelle’s redevelopment process sets a precedent for other cities around the country that are attempting to revitalize. Municipalities from the tri-state, as well as from Florida and California, have approached the commissioner about his city’s endeavors. “I have been encouraging other communities, especially in the mid-Hudson region, to look at what we’ve done here,” says Aragon.

Some New Rochellians Concerned over Potential Displacement

The city’s redevelopment plans have not unfolded without question and pushback. Some community activists worry that the new development will drive up housing and commercial prices, which could drive out existing residents and businesses. The influx of new development has already begun to displace some residents and small businesses located in and around the rezoned areas, according to longtime New Rochelle resident Michael Yellin, co-chair of the New Rochelle Alliance for Justice. He cites retail storefronts at 587 Main Street — the 28-story building now under construction — as an example of early displacement. The Alliance — an offshoot of New Rochelle against Racism — is a coalition of faith, civic, and labor groups advocating for equitable development and economic justice in New Rochelle.

A rendering of the new construction at 587 Main Street, which will have as its main feature a new theater, at the request of the community. (Credit: City of New Rochelle)

What local activists such as Yellin most fear is that their neighbors will be pushed out of the city because of increased housing costs. “Redevelopment will dramatically increase the value and price of land, and landlords could raise rents of longtime residents as a result,” says Yellin. “I think the city has recognized this and has put in place some mechanisms to address it, but the mechanisms have yet to be really tested.”

Today, New Rochelle’s median household income is approximately $73,200 — about 15 percent lower than the median for Westchester County as a whole — and 36 percent of the city’s downtown residents are reportedly not in the workforce.

New Rochelle resident Lynn McCormick, associate professor of urban planning at Hunter College, is excited about the new development, but worries that competition between New Rochelle and other Westchester County towns to lure wealthy households in order to grow their tax bases could widen income gaps and create, or worsen, inequality. “Suburbs are new territory [for redevelopment] — I don’t think they’re prepared to think about gentrification,” she says. “They’re just excited to have people come in and develop. If New Rochelle could redevelop and also keep the current population mix, I would be happy.”

During the state’s environmental review of the 2015 action plan, McCormick testified that the city’s redevelopment plans were overlooking potential effects of displacement and population diversity. Truly equitable development entails economic development, environmental protection, and social equity, according to McCormick’s written testimony. “The [Recommended Action Plan] covers the first two aspects but is relatively silent on the third principle — equity,” she writes.

The large percentage of Latino and African-American residents who live in or near downtown New Rochelle makes it imperative to investigate the impact of the plans on communities of color, she testified. Out of New Rochelle’s total population of approximately 80,000, about 63 percent of residents identify as white; 29 percent identify as Hispanic; and 19 percent identify as African American, according to 2017 figures from the U.S. Census. The figures also indicate that Downtown New Rochelle, in particular, has a significantly lower percentage of whites than does the rest of the city — and higher proportions of Hispanics and African-Americans.

“If the [Recommended Action Plan] acts to displace many low-income households and cause rents and housing costs to escalate,” writes McCormick, “it might be expected to worsen New Rochelle’s housing affordability crisis.”

Aragon argues that the redevelopment will not drive out current residents from New Rochelle. For one, he says, most of the new residential development is occurring on city-owned parking lots. And, the majority of the privately-owned parcels undergoing redevelopment are two-story structures with primarily commercial uses, he notes. “Even if those buildings are demolished,” says the commissioner, “the number of residential units that would be eliminated are very small.”

How Affordable Is Affordable?

Like McCormick, Yellin worries about affordable housing shortages resulting from the new development. In 2016, 60 percent of all New Rochelle renters were considered “rent-burdened,” meaning that they spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, according to a Community Needs Assessment released by the Westchester Medical Center Center for Regional Healthcare Innovation. “There’s not a lot of affordable housing at levels that are really affordable,” he says. There is a dearth of federally-subsidized Section 8 housing, in particular — to the point that working-class people are moving to more affordable Westchester County cities such as Mount Vernon and Yonkers, notes Yellin. “That’s of great concern, and it’s what we’re trying to address,” he says. “It’s a matter of how you achieve the [affordable housing] goals to get real affordability.”

The city expects developers of the new buildings — often in exchange for height bonuses — to provide higher percentages of affordable units as well as deeper levels of affordability than the minimum requirements, although these higher percentages are not quantified in the 2015 action plan. In accordance with the city’s inclusionary zoning code, which was somewhat modified in the action plan, at least 10 percent of the total 6,370 housing units anticipated for construction will be affordable at 80 percent of the city’s area median income. One example of this higher-percentage expectation: at least 20 percent of housing units in a building under construction at 14 LeCount Place, in downtown new Rochelle, will be made affordable to residents making between 50 percent and 60 percent of area median income.

In total, Aragon expects that about 500 units, or roughly 15 percent, of the 3,300 residential units already approved for development will be designated as affordable. Existing city residents, particularly any who have been displaced, will get first dibs on these homes, he notes. “I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that we will be attracting a large number of affluent tenants to our downtown,” says the commissioner. “But, at the end of the day, there will be a net gain of affordable units in New Rochelle, for New Rochellians.”

To thwart the negative effects that the activists fear, the New Rochelle Alliance for Justice has made specific demands to the city and RXR Realty around local hiring, affordable housing — that at least 20 percent of housing units in all new buildings be made affordable — and anti-displacement. “It is absolutely critical for the city, the developers, and the community to work together to enact strong anti-harassment and anti-displacement policies that will protect local residents and small businesses for years to come,” states a document prepared by the Alliance.

The New Rochelle Alliance for Justice is currently in discussions with the city about how best to implement its Economic Opportunity and Nondiscrimination Policy, a resolution passed in May 2016 that pledges to eliminate workforce discrimination and other employment hurdles for local construction and contract workers involved in the new development. One of the policy’s goals is to allocate at least 20 percent of jobs created by the rezoning to New Rochelle residents. A small percentage of these jobs are supposed to be reserved for workers who are enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship program. In addition to passing the resolution, the city has allocated funds amassed from its Community Benefit Bonus program to open and operate the First Source Referral Center, tasked with training city residents for local jobs in construction, healthcare, and other sectors and helping to place them in companies. “It’s been very successful,” says Aragon of the career center, which opened in 2017 and, so far, has matched more than 160 people with construction work and other jobs. “It’s not just about jobs, though — it’s about getting people ready for careers.”

With a grant from the U.S. Mayors Challenge, New Rochelle is leveraging immersive technology to make citizen engagement more accessible and seamless. (Credit: New Rochelle Downtown BID)

According to Yellin, these efforts have yet not resulted in meaningful workforce development in New Rochelle. “What we’ve been doing since the law’s passage, is try to make the goals a reality,” he says. “As of now, the city has failed in placing New Rochelle residents in construction jobs that lead to a career.” Responding to this, Aragon said that the workforce programs are relatively new, and that the city strives to achieve these policy goals over time.

Despite his worries and complaints, Yellin is guardedly optimistic that New Rochelle’s redevelopment plans can take a turn for the best. “We’re hoping it can be a model for equitable development that’s a win-win-win — for the community, the developers and the government.”

Community Engagement? There’s an App for That

This year, New Rochelle has received national recognition for its innovative approaches to engage the public in private and public development plans. As a participant of former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s U.S. Mayors Challenge initiative, the city will test out the use of high-level “immersive technology” to provide realistic visualizations of new buildings and streetscapes. The idea to use this technology, according to Reider, came out of a partnership the city had with the Interactive Digital Environments Alliance of New Rochelle (dubbed “IDEALab”) and the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District to introduce virtual reality into local arts programming.

This year, New Rochelle is one of nine municipalities nationwide that scored $1 million from the Bloomberg initiative to “uncover and test bold, inventive ideas to confront the toughest problems faced by cities today.” Reider’s team has directed the funds to further its public engagement practices by developing a phone app that provides users with realistic, zoomed-in views of street segments, open spaces, and buildings. The goal is to create a user-friendly app that allows stakeholders to easily visualize changes in their communities and provide meaningful input on the projects at hand. Eventually, New Rochelle hopes to share the model technology with other municipalities, according to Reider.

New Rochelle was also named a “Champion City” and was granted another $100,000 to develop and test a prototype for public-engagement technology. In doing so, the city designed three “sprints.” First, it distributed a web-based survey, asking local stakeholders about how they prefer to provide feedback. “We found through the surveys that people would like to visualize what something could look like in the comfort of their own space,” says Reider.

Next, the city worked with IDEALab to test out the different technologies — and ultimately found that a phone-based app would be the easiest tool for citizens to use. “It is easier to use, because phones are more accessible than [virtual reality] goggles,” explains Reider, “and more people could use it at one time. It would be a matter of just downloading the app on your phone.” The last step entailed making door-to-door visits to city residents and businesses so that stakeholders would have a chance to try out the technology.

Due to its “[great] potential for transformation,” the city was also recently awarded a $10-million grant from the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative to revitalize its downtown area with the help of a strategic investment plan and key catalytic projects. The plan aims to connect the city’s center with the mile-long Lincoln Avenue corridor, which boasts a newly renovated hospital, the train station, and other amenities.

“One of the things that was always in the back of our heads, is how we can better engage the community with this technology by allowing people to be able to see what changes like a new building or a park layout could look like,” says Reider. “We’ll be able to try using this tool on a small scale as we move forward with the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.”

Generally speaking, enhanced community engagement is crucial to overcoming the typical NIMBY opposition to rezoning and redevelopment plans, according to Juliette Michaelson, executive vice president at the Regional Plan Association (RPA). “Asking members of the community to identify a vision for themselves, and to do it in a way that they have the opportunity to truly understand the economic dynamics at work, is critical,” she says. “Educating the public so that there are more informed discussions, is something we’d like to see more of [in the Tri-State region].”

Beyond New Rochelle: Walkability Throughout the Tri-State

New Rochelle’s renaissance is a prime example of how satellite municipalities outside of New York City can become attractive places to live. Key to the appeal of any city or suburb is walkability and proximity to public transit. Currently, just 2.5 percent of all land in the Tri-State region is considered walkable — and yet, the walkable areas collectively contain 42 percent of the region’s population, according to “WalkUP Wake-Up Call New York,” a 2017 report from George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) and the RPA. The report classifies New Rochelle as a “WalkUP”— that is, a “walkable urban place” that is served by commuter rail and is a center of commerce.

The report assesses the WalkUP communities by their levels of economic performance and social equity. Out of 149 WalkUP neighborhoods in the tri-state area, New Rochelle is ranked 87 in economic performance — falling in the third quartile, which leaves room for improvement. However, the less economically prosperous a city is, in some ways the more equitable it may be. These communities typically have less expensive housing and more low-skill jobs than do economically prosperous WalkUP areas; therefore, the potential for inequality is not as extreme, according to CREUA senior data scientist Tracy Loh, a co-author of the report. “It may be a sweet spot in terms of access to opportunity and access to quality of life,” she says.

A neighborhood’s low economic performance may, in fact, make it feel less intimidating and may even motivate local residents to help improve their city’s struggling downtown. “When people look at commercial areas in downtown New Rochelle, they may not see incredible prosperity that [some] are benefitting from,” she says. “So they’re not thinking: there is an evil developer out there making all this money and not sharing it.”

Still, the report ranks New Rochelle relatively low in social equity (80 out of 149) because of its poor access to public transit when compared to neighborhoods within New York City itself. This lack of accessibility results in a higher overall cost of living for area households, according to Loh. “Because New Rochelle has relatively poor transit service,” she says, “transportation costs are higher for New Rochelle households, which wipe out most of the savings that they are getting on housing relative to [households in] other WalkUPs.”

In general, WalkUP communities in the tri-state area are highly desirable places to live — and yet, there aren’t enough of them to accommodate the pent-up demand, Loh notes. “There are probably way more people who would like to be [in these communities] but who can’t afford it,” she explains.

The creation of WalkUP communities tends to be controversial because, more often than not, the new development involved often creates inequities based on geography, income, race, or religious faith. RPA’s Michaelson believes that municipalities and developers can, and must, make deliberate efforts to retain current residents and businesses as they work to revitalize communities. Anti-displacement tactics the RPA recommends include leveraging community land trusts and cooperatives, in which municipalities transfer land to residents so that the units remain affordable and so that the residents could have a share in the profits tied to the new development. Rent regulation to prevent sudden rent increases, and better enforcement of tenant protection laws and services such as legal counsel, can also prove useful in retaining a tri-state community’s long-standing residents, notes Michaelson.

“We want to make sure that the private developers who are involved in these exchanges, make hard commitments and follow through with them — and that the public sector demands that follow-through,” she says.

Rezoning in tri-state municipalities must be done carefully so that the needs of communities — and their physical look and feel — are taken into account. As discussed in the RPA’s report, “Untapped Potential: Opportunities for Affordable Homes and Neighborhoods Near Transit,” transit-oriented development presents opportunities to make meaningful dents in the region’s housing shortfall. “But if we let development run amok,” Michaelson cautions, “We’re going to end up with places that don’t serve communities and that people aren’t happy with. And that would be a mistake.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

 

A Banner Year for San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural District

"Undiscovered SF," hosted by SOMA Pilipinas, attracted 35,000 shoppers and generated $250,000 in sales for Filipino vendors this past year. (Photo courtesy of SOMA Pilipinas

It is proving to be another banner year —literally and figuratively — for SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco’s first-ever Filipino cultural district. The designated area, located in the city’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, is meant to revive and preserve the Filipino-American community that has a storied history there.

“Filipinos have been in the neighborhood for over 100 years, but throughout that period, they have faced constant threats of displacement,” says SOMA Pilipinas Director Raquel Redondiez. “The [cultural] district has been a platform for us to bring back not just residents that have been pushed out, but also small businesses — and also to push for economic and social justice.”

After several years of planning and organizing, which Next City covered previously, the cultural district received state designation in Summer of 2017. It’s now home to a seasonal night market, “Undiscovered SF,” which features established and emerging Filipino food, art, and live music of vendors and artists. Held once a month from July to November, the market attracted over 35,000 people last year, far more than the organizers anticipated. With $250,000 in sales, the 2017 markets generated twice in sales what the city provided in grants to the program.

Undiscovered SF vendorDeanna Sison, who operates three restaurants in SoMa, believes “Undiscovered SF” is a great platform for local businesses to be able to exhibit their products.

“There is such a large Filipino community that has made major contributions to the city that haven’t always been recognized,” Sison says. “To have a stage where they can showcase that has been an amazing opportunity.”

In August, SOMA Pilipinas received a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for a variety of streetscape design improvements in the cultural district. The funds will be used to develop a strategic plan for “creative placemaking” in SOMA — including new crosswalks, murals, and street furniture that pay homage to Filipino art and culture, according to Redondiez.

In July, banners went up along Market Street, a primary corridor of San Francisco, to promote the 25th anniversary of the Pistahan Parade and Festival, an international celebration of Filipino culture and cuisine. In October, to celebrate Filipino-American History Month, the organization hung up 300new banners all around SOMA.

“It celebrates our residents, our community workers, and cultural bearers, and basically declares that we’re here,” says Redondiez of the cultural activities.

Meanwhile, Kultivate Labs, led by Executive Director Desi Danganan, is launching a business development program called “SEED” as part of the vision for the cultural district. The accelerator, for starters, will provide $35,000 in professional development services to six emerging businesses. Eligible entrepreneurs who are being interviewed for the program run fashion, retail, or food businesses that are located in the cultural district. Danganan, who also serves as economic development chair for SOMA Pilipinas, says the goal is to eventually expand the program to include more businesses and pave the way for a Filipino commercial corridor within the cultural district.

SOMA Pilipinas also recently received a grant of around $300,000 from the Mayor’s Office for the continuation of the seasonal night market next year and for the creation of a pop-up-to-permanent retail incubator program. Partnerships with two local businesses — their names yet to be disclosed — are also underway, with the goal of renting commercial spaces to Filipino businesses at prices that are affordable.

“[Affordability] is a big concern,” says Danganan. Undiscovered SF is the sandbox for identifying businesses with potential, Danganan explains. “Next, we move them into the pop-up-to-permanent incubator, and then we move them into below-market-rate units,” he says.

By 2020, Kultivate Labs envisions a commercial strip of Filipino retail and other storefront shops peppered along Mission Street between Fourth and Eleventh Streets.

“You walk into the [Cultural District] now and you have no idea where it starts or ends because there is no business corridor that acts as that demarcation,” says Danganan. “There are already a lot of cultural anchors spread across the area. All we need to do is start to fill in the blanks with Filipino and other businesses.”

To further spur local economic development, SOMA Pilipinas and Kultivate Labs also plan to establish a merchant’s association by early 2019 with the goal of connecting customer-oriented businesses, like restaurants and stores, with wholesale and manufacturing firms. Eventually, the merchant’s association may merge with the SEED accelerator program, Danganan says. “We want to start to pair [these different types of businesses],” he explains, “so they can transact and so we can build a much stronger local economy.”

Sison believes these new initiatives are crucial in helping to counter the harsh realities of commercial displacement caused by gentrification. “It’s excruciating, sometimes, what small business owners have to go through,” she says. “It’s really important for organizations to help these small businesses stay in business.”

Golda Sargento, co-owner of Arkipelgo Books — a candidate for the SEED program — expressed excitement about the future economic development prospects for SOMA. The local bookshop, which has about 4,000 books in its collection, has national significance as one of the nation’s few brick-and-mortar Filipino bookstores. “It’s a small niche when it comes to businesses within the Filipino community,” she says. “We’ve been keeping that alive and really enjoying the position that we’re in … to provide a cultural resource.”

While satisfied with its current location inside the Filipino Community Center in SoMa, Sargento said the business would consider a temporary move to another location in order to be able to refurbish its space — or moving altogether to a storefront closer to bustling Fourth Street. “It’s exciting to think that we have these options,” she says.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

So You Want to Change Zoning to Allow for More Housing

Community members along the Jerome Avenue Corridor in the South Bronx marched to demand a "Just Rezoning" in June 2017. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

As cities and states around the U.S. propose to rezone areas in order to solve problems such as housing shortages and poor connectivity to jobs, they could be creating other problems: gentrification, and angry neighborhood activists.

On the one hand, some say more housing is needed to accommodate influxes of new residents and businesses to growing communities. On the other hand, others say rezoning that allows for new development can inadvertently drive out low-income residents and local businesses and — with little warning or time to adjust — alter the character of neighborhoods.

“Jurisdictions are beginning to understand that up-zoning in order to absorb growth has unintended consequences — it increases the value of the real estate and therefore increases displacement pressures,” says Nora Liu, northwest regional manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national initiative spearheaded by the nonprofit Race Forward that is working with jurisdictions around the country to pioneer equitable development strategies.

“If an area is rezoned, it needs to be done with parallel strategies to strengthen communities, so that people in the communities can thrive in place,” Liu adds.

Competing needs of new development and neighborhood preservation have surfaced in a number of land use projects around the country. Neighborhood activists and politicians fear unforeseen impacts like displacement, big-box business growth, and a loss of landmarked buildings that rezoning or other development projects could have on communities — and they often lose the fight.

In Los Angeles, for example, local preservationists have objected to a developer’s project to build two-dozen new rental apartments that is in line with the city’s transit-oriented development goals, because it would dwarf the block’s low-rise apartment buildings and, also, raze a 1920s housing complex located by the Whitley Heights Historic District. The project’s opponents have little chance of stopping the new development, however, as the city’s planning director has already approved it, according to Curbed.

In the case of Brooklyn’s Broadway Triangle, housing activists sued the city for overlooking the impacts that a rezoning of part of the site (from manufacturing to residential) could have on displacing black and Latino residents from nearby neighborhoods. A Manhattan Supreme Court Judge dismissed the lawsuit in July upon determining that the city does not have to undertake a racial impact study as part of rezonings.

It is the potentially harmful effects of rezoning that policy experts like those at the Pratt Center for Community Development want to bring more to light. Last week, the Pratt Center released a new report, “Flawed Findings,” which concludes that the city greenlights rezoning and other development projects without properly assessing the potential for displacement as a consequence.

Specifically, the report calls into question the New York City Environmental Quality Review process, which is used to assess whether a development project or zoning change could have negative “environmental impact” on surrounding communities — including potential displacement of existing residents. But the methodology of the review process “has assumptions that are so absurd that it does not lead to conclusions that make any sense about actual residential displacement risk,” according to Elena Conte, policy director at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “So, it’s hard to see the validity of any rezoning that relies on this type of an indirect residential displacement measure.”

According to the Pratt Center report, the city tends to dismiss the potential of indirect displacement impacts to communities undergoing rezoning if the project at hand includes mandatory inclusionary housing or a minimum amount of affordable housing required at the future site. “There is a complete disconnect between the lived experience of these folks and what will happen both in terms of the timing of the creation of new affordable units and the eligibility and income requirements for those new units,” Conte explains.

In the Broadway Triangle project, for example, developer Rabsky Group’s promise to make one-quarter of the new development’s housing units permanently affordable appeased the city, but not local residents. More recently in August, the New York City Council approved a controversial rezoning plan for Upper Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood — which locals rallied against despite its promise of 1,600 new affordable housing units.

“It is important to make sure that the housing created meets the affordability and family-size needs of those vulnerable to displacement — that the housing is right-sized as well as right-priced,” notes Liu.

Contrary to the judge’s findings in the Broadway Triangle lawsuit, the Pratt Center team points to the very need for a development impact analysis related to the race or ethnicity of local populations. “[The environmental quality review says] to describe demographic conditions,” says Conte, “but it doesn’t explicitly say to look at the racial breakdown of the neighborhood or of who you’re saying is vulnerable.”

While acknowledging the challenges of predicting displacement tied to new zoning or development, the NYC Department of City Planning defends the existing process.

“Although [the city’s environmental quality review process] is not a means of precisely predicting the future or establishing criteria for policy goals, it is an important tool to inform policymakers by providing a comparison of what we reasonably expect to happen if we take an action versus not taking it,” says Howard Slatkin, deputy executive director for strategic planning at the NYC Department of City Planning. “We stand by the validity of our environmental reviews. The Mayor’s housing plan is driven by goals of improving affordability and combatting tenant harassment and displacement. We believe that in situations like these, walking away and leaving the zoning as is would make those problems worse, not better.”

The Pratt Center report recommends that the municipality conduct a citywide displacement risk analysis that should inform housing and development policy, and that it adopt a comprehensive anti-displacement policy agenda “with a no net loss of affordable units as a key goal.”

Elsewhere in the country, several recent zoning proposals have failed due to overwhelming community opposition — including California’s controversial SB (Senate Bill) 827, which would have sanctioned the construction of larger residential buildings near transit stops in an attempt to quell the state’s housing crisis. The bill was effectively killed in April by its opponents, some of whom claimed that it would result in pushing low-income residents out of their neighborhoods.

The City of Austin also tried to overhaul its land development code so as to encourage new building growth around the city, but, citing a “poisoned” process, the city recently scrapped the plan.

Seattle, meanwhile, is undertaking a citywide growth and equity analysis to better understand potential displacement impacts of growth measures on marginalized populations and come up with mitigation strategies. Accompanying the analysis is an equitable development implementation plan, which commits to using equity-based data and criteria in the analysis of community development projects and strategic plans associated with the city’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan.

“The plan says that you need to have strong and resilient communities — and you need to have great places with equitable access. So, it is looking at places and people together,” explains Liu, formerly a community development manager at the City of Seattle.

Additionally, Seattle has adopted an equitable transit-oriented development policy that intends to include local stakeholders’ input in the reuse of surplus property that came out of a light rail expansion.

While truly inclusive community engagement is a necessary component of equitable development, it is not sufficient on its own, according to Liu.

“What follows — how agencies and institutions incorporate the input and support implementation of the strategies to achieve the vision of impacted communities — is critical,” she says.

 

Oakland Land Trust Finds More Ways to Preserve Affordable Housing

Oakland Community Land Trust purchased this property at 812 East 24th Street to preserve the affordability of several artists' live-work spaces. (Credit: Oakland Community Land Trust)

In 2014, as she approached four decades of being a landlord, then 70-year-old east Oakland resident Dixi Carrillo decided to sell her rental property next to her home. Carillo, a retired landscape photographer, was devoted to maintaining the 8,000-square-foot building where 10 musicians, painters and other artists have live-work space, but she wanted more time to pursue her own art.

Carrillo had always charged her tenants low rents, and she didn’t want to see them evicted by a profit-seeking landlord. “When my husband and I bought the property in the first place, it wasn’t really about making an investment. It had to do with wanting a community of like-minded people,” Carillo says.

When a developer with a subpar reputation as a property manager offered her $1.4 million in 2015 for the seven-unit parcel at 812 East 24th Street, she refused.

“He was going to tear out the walls of the individual units and make it his office,” says Carrillo of the prospective buyer. “It really would have displaced everybody. I’m still living here, so I care about what and who I live next door to.”

Carrillo eventually found a solution: This year, she sold the building to the Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT). The sale marks yet another coup for the nonprofit land holder, whose work protects some of the city’s lowest-income tenants from probable displacement by purchasing properties that are under threat of becoming market-rate rentals. (OakCLT estimates the median market rent of apartments in 5-plus-unit buildings in Oakland to be $2,731 a month.)

The $1.1 million acquisition of 812 East 24th Street is just one of a dozen purchases OakCLT has made so far this year.

“As people move out and units turn over, the vacant units must be made available to low-income households,” says Steve King, OakCLT’s executive director. “It is certainly a victory for preserving community-serving space in Oakland.”

OakCLT has acquired eight vacant lots to be converted into urban gardens and permanently affordable homes, and 18 single-family houses that were rehabilitated and sold to low-income households. The land trust also helped worker-owner collective Hasta Muerte Coffee, a community hub, stay in its two-story building, and bought a mixed-use building housing low-budget social justice organizations in east Oakland. Over the years, it has partnered with local organizations including the Youth Employment Partnership and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action to offer job training, food education, and other programs, and to keep homes affordable.

In response to mounting single-family house vacancies early in the Great Recession, frustrated local social justice advocates formed OakCLT in 2009.

“It was really just this recognition that there were thousands of foreclosed homes, and a sense that this land trust could be a vehicle for bringing them back into community control,” says King. “The alternative would be just this incredible loss of community wealth, particularly among communities of color in the city.”

For its first eight years, OakCLT had only one staffer, which, according to King, is fairly common for community land trusts across the United States.

“Despite all this resurgent interest in the operating model, there has really never been a concerted effort to help scale [up] community land trusts,” he says. “So they have really struggled on their own around the country to do the work with very limited resources.”

Yet since January, OakCLT has made notable strides toward expansion. It has increased its full-time staff from one to three people, who have helped build up the trust’s portfolio of properties from 21 to 32, and it now boasts an annual operating budget of $400,000.

A $2 million anonymous donation in 2015 was a big boost. The land trust typically finances 10 to 20 percent of the acquisition costs for each new property. Funds for OakCLT’s projects come from smaller individual donations, city loans and foundation grants too.

All OakCLT-owned properties are preserved in perpetuity for community-centered uses. The land trust’s goal is to transfer ownership of buildings, including the one at 812 East 24th Street, to residential and commercial tenants. This would be done through the creation of a nonprofit entity called a Limited Equity Housing Cooperative, with each occupant having a share in the cooperative and being guaranteed the right to stay there, notes King.

“In every project, it has been an emerging feature that tenants and residents would like to share in the ownership of the property,” says King. “In that instance, the land would be owned by the land trust, the co-op would own the building, and each household would be a member of the co-op.”

While OakCLT has scored some notable victories in affordable housing and land preservation in Oakland, the community land trust has “barely scratched the surface” in combating tenant displacement throughout the city, King says.

“Certainly we have had a significant impact for the folks we’ve already worked with, but in terms of us [broadly] impacting the ownership and control of land in Oakland,” he says, “we have a long way to go.”

 

Here’s One Superlative New Yorkers Might Not Mind Losing

Recycling trucks drop off items on the "tipping floor" of the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in Brooklyn. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)

New York City produces more trash than any other city on the planet by a wide margin — an estimated 33 million tons per year. The vast majority of all that waste gets sent to landfills.

While its position atop the global garbage mountain isn’t expected to change any time soon, some big changes are coming to NYC’s waste management system, one intended to reduce how much waste gets sent to landfills, and another other to address the disproportionate toll on historically marginalized communities all that trash takes on along the way. A third change in the works could further both of those goals at once.

While NYC is home to one of the largest recycling plants of its kind in the nation, it is one of the only major cities in the U.S. that doesn’t have single-stream recycling— a citywide system that allows recyclables to be collected into single containers at homes and businesses. Currently, NYC residents and businesses are still required to sort metal, glass, and plastic recyclables into one container, and paper and cardboard into another.

As it approaches its 30th anniversary of recycling, NYC is now finalizing plans to convert its waste diversion services to a single-stream system. The end goal of the initiative, slated to take effect in 2020, is to increase the city’s recycling rates by between 20 and 25 percent.

The NYC Department of Sanitation believes having just one recycling bin at home instead of two will result in less space and make it easier to remember and easier to participate, meaning potential for more efficient collection routes and improved recycling collection productivity. The capture rate of the city’s recyclables — or the amount of recyclable materials that end up at the recycling plants — now hovers around 50 percent.

“Right now, half of what is recyclable [in NYC] does not go in the right bin or does not get collected properly,” said Sam Silver, an education and outreach coordinator for Sims Municipal Recycling, a private company that processes the majority of the city’s curbside recyclables, during an August tour of company’s main recycling plant, situated on a pier in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.

“How many of you set out recycling this week, out on the curb?” Silver asked about 15 tour-goers, including urban designers and recycling enthusiasts. Silver says he gives around 300 tours each year of the Brooklyn facility, which opened in late 2013.

A few people eagerly raised their hands.

“If you’re in Brooklyn, and your recycling went out last night, your stuff is guaranteed to be out there right now,” he continued, gesturing at an approximately 30-foot-high pile of discards on what is known as the tipping floor, where the diverted waste is initially gathered at the plant.

The Sims facility claims to be the largest plant for mixed recyclables in North America. Under a 20-year contract as part of a public-private partnership with the NYC Department of Sanitation, Sims processes about 800 tons of material per day and prepares metal, aluminum, and rigid plastics for sale to manufacturing companies.

Each day of operation, the Sims facility receives about 100 collections of metal, glass, and plastics from most of the city by truck or barge (recyclables from Staten Island and Lower Manhattan are sent to a Sims plant in New Jersey). Next, human-operated cranes assemble the objects into enormous piles and feed them into two-and-a-half miles’ worth of conveyor belts that, with the help of optical cameras and infrared light, speedily sort the items by size, material, and even chemical makeup as needed. The flattened objects are then compressed into 1,200-plus pounds of bales that are sold to manufacturing firms across the northeast and Canada. Paper and cardboard are sent to nearby processors and paper mills.

While single-stream recycling has proven successful in other U.S. cities, the system poses certain drawbacks, like the mixing of food particles or liquids and paper that can reduce the quality of recycled materials. More significantly, changes to New York’s recycling system — even positive ones — have historically caused residential recycling rates to drop, at least initially, as households adjust to new habits.

Even after recycling rates pick back up, there’s still a risk of residents putting non-recyclable materials in the recycling bin. At present, about 85 percent of the materials Sims’ Brooklyn facility receives is recyclable. The remaining 15 percent consists of non-recyclables ranging from plastic bags and Styrofoam to miscellaneous belongings like bowling balls, shoes, trombones, and kids’ toys — all of which is sent to landfills. (The city is hoping to end the use of Styrofoam altogether by enacting a ban of it at the beginning of 2019, meaning restaurants, stores, and other businesses will be prohibited from using or selling single-use Styrofoam containers to customers.)

The Sims Municipal Recycling facility in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, including New York City’s first commercial-scale wind turbine. (Credit: Sims Municipal Recycling)

Meanwhile, the city is taking more immediate steps toward what advocates have termed “waste equity” by limiting the amount of waste collection at transfer stations in four predominantly minority communities of Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. Haulers picking up trash from residences and businesses drop off waste at transfer stations, where it is held for loading onto larger trucks or barges for transit outside the city. The concentration of trash truck traffic makes reduces air quality as well as street safety on those neigborhoods. The city recently suspended a politically-connected hauler company’s license after a series of trash truck-related deaths.

On Aug. 16, Mayor de Blasio signed a bill aimed at more evenly distributing the locations of garbage and recyclables drop-off sites. The law, to take effect in Oct. 2019, mandates a reduction in the amount of waste dropped off at key transfer stations in northern Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, where currently three-quarters of all waste transfer drop-offs take place. Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods alone are burdened with at least 40 percent of the city’s entire daily waste, according to City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, the bill’s co-sponsor.

The flawed distribution system, says Reynoso, is an unintended consequence of the city’s closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, in 2001. The city now ships trash by truck or barge to landfills in nine different states, at an estimated annual cost of $300 million.

“When [the Fresh Kills Landfill] was shut down, these transfer stations started opening up,” Reynoso explains. “So, we ended up creating unintentional environmental racism — and we haven’t reacted to it until now.”

“With the legislation,” he adds, “we’re seeking to start bringing about equity to those communities related to trash.”

That legislation also seeks to lay a foundation for another key change that would establish a system of commercial waste zones meant to reduce the number of trash trucks along city streets and better regulate the private hauler industry. The change would reduce the environmental impact of so much, perhaps too much trash truck traffic, as well as provide a regulatory framework to push through further waste-reduction strategies.

Currently, about 90 hauler companies operate across the city based on a free-market system. “These haulers often have long, overlapping routes that create unnecessary truck traffic, promote unsafe work practices, and discourage proper recycling practices,” according to a statement from the city’s OneNYC website.

Under the new system, the city would be carved up into geographic zones, and there would be a cap on the number of hauler companies that could serve restaurants, other businesses, and office buildings in each zone. Haulers would compete for contracts with more stringent safety requirements in order to be able to collect waste from each designated zone.

While improving safety for sanitation workers, the new system will allow for much-improved efficiency in truck route mileage while still allowing for customer choice, says Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Sanitation.

A 2016 study undertaken by the sanitation department and the Business Integrity Commission, which oversees trash hauler licensing for the city, found that a zone-based system has the potential for reducing waste-related truck traffic by up to 68 percent and lessening associated greenhouse gas emissions by up to 64 percent.

Zone-based systems are a topic of much debate in the waste management industry. Los Angeles made the switch to a zone-based system for commercial waste collection last year.

As was the case for Los Angeles, proponents of a zone-based system for NYC expect the new contracts will also provide a regulatory framework to get the city’s commercial sector closer to achieving “zero-waste” goals. Reynoso anticipates a bill to be passed sometime in 2019 instituting the change.

In terms of residential recycling, the city has already made strides towards zero-waste goals by collecting the highest tonnage of metal, glass and plastic recyclables in 2017 in nearly 15 years, according to its 2017 Waste Characterization Study. According to that study, New Yorkers are throwing away less than ever before.

Still, an estimated 80 percent of New York residents’ trash and recyclables end up in landfills — making the city’s goal of achieving a 100 percent recycling rate by 2030 seem like a stretch.

“People are doing a little bit better [in recycling] year by year, but not quite at the rate in which we would hit our zero-waste goals in 12 years,” said Silver, during the August tour of the Sims recycling facility. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

 

Making Progress on Baltimore’s Bumpy Road to Bike Safety

Baltimore's Maryland Avenue bike lane. (Photo by Brian O'Doherty)

On a warm, sunny afternoon in mid-June, longtime bike advocate Liz Cornish was returning home from a Baltimore City Council hearing when she noticed a large tiller fire truck — the kind with a secondary steering wheel for its tail end — parked in front of her house on Maryland Avenue in central Baltimore. Five higher-ranking Fire Department officials were also there, not responding to an emergency, but participating in the filming of a video intended to highlight the obstacles that bike lanes pose to emergency vehicle access.

“I recognized it immediately as a [fire] truck I had never seen in my neighborhood before,” Cornish recalls. “I was taken aback and I was angry because it really looked like clear intimidation.”

The incident became linked to a few verbal and physical bouts of fighting over the past year between Baltimore fire authorities, local residents, and cyclist advocates over a bike lane along Potomac Street in southeastern Baltimore. Shortly after its construction began in spring 2017, the bike lane became the center of controversy when area residents and members of the city’s Fire Department alleged that it would take up precious street space from emergency vehicles.

The firestorm caused Baltimore legislators to introduce a bill that would loosen urban design guidelines of the city’s fire code with the goal of lessening the regulatory hurdles to new bike lanes and private development projects. They approved the bill this month.

The fire code amendment bill, which will likely become law in late October, revokes a section of Baltimore’s fire code that requires at least 20-26 feet of clear street width for large fire apparatus during an emergency response. The clearance regulations would be supplanted by more flexible street design guidelines, from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, in order to facilitate approval of public infrastructure and private development projects.

Opponents of the Potomac Street bike lane viewed the lane as a safety hazard because, according to them, it would impede access to fires. Within a month of the start of construction, they petitioned the city’s Department of Transportation to cease completion of the two-way buffered lane. In June 2017, the city took heed and made plans remove the infrastructure it had only begun building two months prior.

“Initially, the department of transportation worked with the firehouse to make some minor adjustments [to the bike lane design],” says Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, a local cyclist advocacy organization. “Since that didn’t satisfy the opposition, the issue was brought to the [Baltimore County] fire marshal’s office, international fire code was invoked, and the city was going to stop work.”

Bikemore sued the city in an attempt to prevent the bike lane’s demolition, claiming that the application of the fire code’s clearance rule was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Other projects [that entailed] changing parking configurations had been approved that didn’t meet the requirements of the fire code,” says Cornish. “As we continued to raise this issue for many months, the Fire Department’s response was not to work on a case-by-case basis to ensure public safety, but to become more strict about how they approved projects. And, it was clear that the city’s inaction had emboldened the firefighters.”

City Council Member Ryan Dorsey, vice chair of the council’s public safety committee and a member of the council’s land use and transportation committee, says the Fire Department’s public safety concerns were short-sighted — particularly since some 80 percent of emergency calls the department receives are about non-fire-related incidents. “The Fire Department has exhibited a narrow definition of public safety, one that looks essentially only at fire access,” says the council member.

Dorsey also notes that the Potomac Street controversy set a bad precedent for other public and private development projects around Baltimore.

“It impacted literally every other [development] project in the city for a year,” he says. “Other cycling infrastructure was not allowed to move forward, and some private development projects ended up having to modify their design to be substandard and, in some cases, less safe, in order to appease the Fire Department.”

Bikemore won a temporary restraining order that halted the bike lane’s demolition and proceeded to drop its lawsuit once the city agreed to keep the Potomac Street bike lane, which was finally completed last December. The bike organization and its supporters may have scored an even larger with the fire code amendment bill. City legislators expect the bill to go into effect on October 29.

The law is deemed a necessary legislative solution to the recurring dilemma of the city’s strict fire code standards impeding individual development and infrastructure projects, according to city councilman Eric Costello.

“This problem we’ve identified is extremely prevalent throughout the entire city,” says Costello, who chairs the council’s judiciary and legislative investigations committee. “We gave the Fire Department multiple options for ways to work with us, and they essentially said, ‘we’re still opposed to this bill’ — so, we moved forward with the bill.”

While Cornish believes the law is a result of a lack of effective leadership by the city and the Fire Department, she has hopes that it will lessen or eliminate the “competition” between fire safety and cyclist safety. “If we can design city streets that calm traffic and reduce the speed of cars,” she says, “we can reduce the number of times our emergency responders need to respond to [incidents].”

Bikemore’s rise to the forefront of Baltimore’s bike advocacy world was prompted by tragedy in late 2014, when Baltimore bike frame builder Thomas Palermo was struck and killed by a drunk driver. At the time, Baltimore’s streets had no protected lanes exclusively for bicycles, and politicians were virtually stagnant on taking steps to actively promote safe bike travel, according to Cornish.

While the road ahead looked steep, the need for change was perhaps more apparent than ever. “All of a sudden, there were all these people were so moved and were asking, ‘What can we do so this never happens again?’” Cornish says of Palermo’s death. “That began the advocacy movement.”

Bikemore first emerged in 2012 from an Alliance for Biking and Walking initiative and an Open Society Foundations grant, hiring an interim leader while launching a national search for an executive director. They found Cornish, a bike aficionado originally from Tulsa, Okla., who at the time managed the women bike division for the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C.

“When I was hired in spring of 2015, it was just me, a little bit of money in a bank account, and a young, small board,” Cornish notes. “We had to grow very quickly as an organization and solidify its position as the authority and the voice of biking advocacy in the city.”

Bikemore’s chief goal quickly became to advocate for the realization of the Downtown Bike Network, a Baltimore Department of Transportation initiative that envisions a connected system of bike lanes in neighborhoods across the city. While the city had most of the necessary funds for the network’s construction, the political will to get the project going was virtually non-existent, says Cornish.

So she worked “aggressively” to cultivate relationships with representatives of state and city agencies in order to influence projects in the early stages of their development. “We just needed to get people in the same room so they could stop pointing fingers at each other about who would start the process,” she says. Later that year, Bikemore also launched its “IWalk, IRide Transit, IBike, IVote” campaign to mobilize the city’s bike advocates to cast votes for prospective city council members who support transportation equity.

Thanks to these types of advocacy efforts, and with the support of the Roland Park Civic League, the Baltimore Department of Transportation decided to include a two-way buffered bike lane along Roland Avenue as part of its resurfacing and traffic-calming project for the corridor. That bike lane was completed in December of 2015.

In late 2016, the Maryland Avenue bike lane also opened, and it earned a spot in PeopleforBikes’ top-ten best new bike lanes of the year. Cornish, who deems it the “crown jewel” of Baltimore’s bicycle infrastructure, witnesses local families with children using the bike lane to get to nearby Wyman Park. “I see firsthand how ridership volumes and diversity has changed,” she says. “You even see my elderly neighbors pushing their shopping carts down it.”

In just three years under Cornish’s leadership, Bikemore’s membership count has grown fivefold to more than 5,000 supporters, its operating budget has tripled in size to $90,000, and the organization now has three full-time staff members.

As a woman in a male-dominated world of city politics, Cornish vows to continue fighting for more equitable, bike-oriented communities in Baltimore.

“I have a very, very tiny piece of the pie in the government that I’m responsible for advocating for,” she says, “but I have an opportunity to show that it’s possible to win.”

 

Raising the Bar for Local Economic Impact of Affordable Housing

CAMBA Gardens II. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)

Joseph Williams gleams with pride anytime he drives by the new CAMBA Gardens II development in Brooklyn with a friend or family member.

“I say to them, ‘My company did the electrical work [for that complex],’” he says. “A lot of people look at me twice when I say it.”

With its office about two and a half miles away in another part of Brooklyn, Williams’ JW Electric Corp. is a certified minority-owned subcontractor hired to set up the building’s electricity. The firm got $5.1 million in subcontracts for CAMBA Gardens II, its largest contract since Williams founded the business in 2002. The project employed up to 25 of his workers — most of them Brooklyn residents.

“It has helped [the neighborhood’s] economy because these guys were well-paid,” says Williams, who moved to the U.S. from Grenada nearly 35 years ago and has worked as an electrician for close to three decades.

After 27 months of construction, CAMBA Gardens II celebrated its grand opening earlier this year. The 100-percent below-market rate housing project includes nearly 300 studio, one, two, and three-bedroom affordable apartments, all designated for households making between about $30,000 and $59,000 a year. The LEED-Gold certified property includes over 60,000 square feet of open space, including a nicely manicured front lawn, and a “butterfly garden” that also nurtures bees.

CAMBA Housing Ventures, the local nonprofit developer that built the CAMBA Gardens II, partners with the Horticultural Society of New York to offer guided planting activities as well as cooking and nutrition classes to its residents. Sculptures, imported from artists in Zimbabwe, accent the public spaces in and around the central Brooklyn housing complex.

From both inside and outside, the development is a vast transformation for a site that, up until 2009, housed the neighboring Kings County Hospital’s former psychiatric center (made obsolete by the hospital’s new behavioral health center).

“Some folks have said they felt like they could see a museum, every day when the walked into the lobby — which is exactly [the feeling] we want to provide,” says Margaret Taddy, vice president at CAMBA Housing Ventures.

Besides the impact of the final product’s new housing and programming, the project also put some 160 Brooklynites to work — at least two dozen of them from minority or women-owned businesses.

“Affordable and supportive housing is a big job creator in these communities,” says Taddy.

In compliance with the mandates of state- and city-sponsored financial assistance programs, CAMBA Housing Ventures utilized minority or women-owned enterprises, certified as such by the city or the state, and it paid all the project’s laborers prevailing wages.

The project’s general contractor, Bruno Frustaci Contracting, found his subcontractors through previous development projects and the use of online business directories of city and state governments. Consequently, CAMBA Housing Ventures ended up surpassing the minority or women-owned business goals of New York State’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program and its Homes and Community Renewal program — which provided loans for the project — by more than $4 million.

Hiring minority- or women-owned businesses is important to CAMBA Housing Ventures when undertaking its development projects, according to Taddy.

“It’s something we work with the general contractor to ensure that it’s their priority,” she says. “When they are awarded the contract, we make it clear that the project’s financing requires a certain percentage of the [government] agencies’ money to be awarded to [minority- and women-owned] firms.”

Joseph Williams, founder and CEO of JW Electric Corp., which got $5.1 million on subcontracts for electrical work on CAMBA Gardens II. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)

All told, about a third of the $100 million CAMBA Gardens II was awarded to Brooklyn-based subcontractors, and an additional $1.3 million was spent on Brooklyn-sourced materials and equipment. That includes $8.6 million in subcontracts for certified minority- or women-owned subcontractors, including Williams.

In addition, More than 50 of the 160 local laborers lived within approximately two miles of CAMBA Gardens II.

Alex Vigario was another local subcontractor who worked on CAMBA Gardens II. Vigaro’s Double A Concrete Corp. was awarded over $1 million for building the foundation of CAMBA Gardens II. Vigario, who founded his company in 2000, has been in the business for nearly four decades. Traveling back-and-forth 11 miles to the Brooklyn project from the company’s yard in Jamaica, Queens, with his 20 or so workers was easy, Vigario says. “Sometimes you need to pick up some other material,” he says, “and it’s good when we’re close by and can just go back to our yard and come back.”

CAMBA Housing Ventures assembled state, city, and private financing for the project, and it was completed in partnership with New York City Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, which still owns the property. According to Taddy, the public-private partnership facilitated CAMBA Housing Ventures’ access to the necessary loans from both state and city housing agencies to make the project work. The developer and the city both sought to convert what was vacant hospital land into low-income “supportive” housing, or housing that streamlines residents’ access to primary health care. Together with CAMBA Gardens I, the projects are a model for co-locating housing and health care services.

“There was a shared goal and understanding of the importance of reutilizing this public land to contribute to the [city’s] overall goal of affordable housing,” Taddy says.

 

Movement to Get Public Money Out of Wall Street Comes to Wall Street

Winsome Pindergrass addresses the crowd at a June 5 rally on Wall Street. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)

Winsome Pindergrass wants a better chance at securing financing to buy a home. At a June 5 rally in front of the New York Stock Exchange, the 59-year-old Brooklyn resident talked about how three-quarters of her monthly income goes to her $2,200-a-month rent, which has nearly doubled since 2010. She’s watched her neighbors get pushed out by rising rents.

“We don’t even recognize our neighborhoods anymore,” she said. “The affordable apartments are all gone, or they are disappearing fast.”

Pindergrass was one of dozens of residents and community organizers who were gathered in front of the stock exchange, on Wall Street, to launch the Public Bank NYC Coalition. Made up of more than two-dozen groups, the coalition is calling for the creation of a city-owned bank that would serve as the repository of all local taxes, fees, fines and other municipal revenue — in contrast with the current system in which around 20 banks are currently authorized to provide bank accounts for New York City government as well as its various agencies and affiliated entities.

“We need a public bank…here to serve and to answer to us…to keep the wealth in our communities, invest in real, long-term affordable housing, and [get taxpayer money] out of the hands of Wall Street vultures,” Pindergrass said.

As a symbolic gesture, the coalition announced the start of its citywide campaign the same day that the New York City Council was slated to adopt its $89 billion budget for 2019. The public bank coalition’s launch timing also hearkens to the city’s announcement last June that it was joining other U.S. cities in breaking ties with Wells Fargo due to the bank’s failing grade on its most recent Community Reinvestment Act examination.

Public bank advocates argued that the status quo — private banks’ storing and managing of public funds — results in taxpayer money being directed to harmful purposes such as fracking, gun manufacturing and sales, and, particularly in NYC, developers who take out bank loans to acquire rent-stabilized buildings and flip them into market-rate apartments or condos.

“We want New York City to take our public dollars out of those banks—all of it,” said Deyanira Del Rio, co-director of New Economy Project, at the June 5 rally. “And we want New York City to put that money in a public bank that is owned and controlled by the people through our government, and that is held accountable to New Yorkers and our communities.”

The coalition envisions a New York City public bank that would, “make equitable investments that support low- and extremely low-income housing, union and living wage jobs for New York City residents, democratically-controlled clean energy, public infrastructure, cooperative ownership, and small businesses, prioritizing minority and women-owned businesses and locally-based enterprises.”

Linda Diaz also spoke at the June 5 rally. She recently co-founded the worker cooperative Brooklyn Stone & Tile with five other former employees of a stone and tile firm that recently closed. The new cooperative received $700,000 in startup capital from The Working World, a community development financial institution dedicated to nurturing employee-owned businesses in low-income areas.

“It is with extreme pride that I report to you that we launched [Brooklyn Stone & Tile] in April and secured our first countertop sales in May,” said Diaz. “A great public bank in New York City should provide fair and accessible financing, the way The Working World does for workers just like us.”

A city-run bank could trigger the creation of hundreds of community-friendly financial institutions around the city that would direct funds to working-class communities, Working World Founder and Executive Director Brendan Martin told Next City in an interview.

“A public bank is like a reservoir—you’re going to need more plumbing on a smaller scale to get the water to those places,” says Martin, explaining how the Working World would be like one of many smaller water tanks that would draw from the public bank “reservoir.”

There are few precedents for a municipal public bank in the U.S. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities are considering setting up government-owned banks, as are the states of New Jersey and Michigan. Until recently, the only public bank in the U.S. was the 99-year-old Bank of North Dakota, serving as the repository of that state’s public revenues. In April, American Samoa received approval for a public bank serving the U.S. Territory, after a two-year wait.

“We have to figure out a tremendous amount of the logistics and details,” says Sarah Ludwig, co-director of the New Economy Project, in an interview with Next City. “But we have a lot of sharp, super-dedicated minds that are on this.”

 

The Search For Enough Green to Go Green

(Credit: Brooklyn SolarWorks)

Upwards of 6,400 rebates, tax credits, and other incentives are available to U.S. entities and households that undertake eco-friendly projects like solar panel installations or LED lighting upgrades. While the sheer breadth of options seems to be a promising sign of a greener future, navigating that labyrinth can be daunting.

As a result, some 40 to 50 percent of available funding for eco-friendly development in the U.S. is going unused, according to Texas-based sustainability entrepreneur Natalie Campos Goodman.

“That’s buckets of money sitting out there, waiting to be utilized,” she says.

The need to streamline the quest for such funding is what inspired Campos Goodman to co-found IncentiFind, which operates a publicly-available database of green incentives covering federal, state and local incentives.

In addition to its database, IncentiFind is building out a model in which anyone from individual homeowners to entire municipal governments or entire hospital systems can go to one place to find out which incentives they’re eligible to receive, to apply for those incentives, and get connected to local contractors qualified to do the work of making energy efficiency or other sustainability upgrades.

After spending over a year in heavily-polluted Shanghai, Campos Goodman — who herself suffers from asthma — wanted to make a rapid impact on the often sluggish sector of sustainability back at home.

So far, IncentiFind’s services have led to the completion of 26 projects nationwide, such as LED lighting systems, energy efficient HVAC systems, and other energy-efficient initiatives for offices and commercial uses. Together, these projects have been connected to approximately $4.5 million in incentives, many of them rebate programs, in which the businesses are reimbursed for eco-friendly investments.

Using the IncentiFind database, a care facility in Austin identified approximately $185,000 in incentives, including a $30,000 federal solar tax credit, that could help finance its new cool roof and solar panels. Meanwhile, a 100,000-square-foot commercial establishment in Dallas was determined eligible for about $180,000 in funding, between local utility incentives, a state tax exemption, and other subsidies, for planned upgrades to its HVAC and lighting systems.

So far, it’s not been uncommon for a business with a specific project to be eligible for five or six different incentives at various levels of government. In Houston, six incentives, including a monthly electric bill credit and a state property tax deduction, funded nearly the entire $126,000 cost of a hotel’s purchase and installation of solar panels. The firm that did that hotel’s installation has three or four other similar Texas-based projects in the pipeline.

Campos Goodman says about half of initial IncentiFind searches are made by small businesses, which she attributes to “a huge push in reducing the cost of doing business by going green.”

After searching the database, not all users move to the second step of verifying eligibility, for which the firm currently charges businesses a flat fee of $1,200 for muddling through the necessary information, providing an estimate of how much in incentives are available to a business, and filling out applications on behalf of a business. IncentiFind plans to charge individual homeowners $150 for a similar level of service, though that option isn’t planned for launch till later this year.

“Our goal is to not lose out on a huge, hard-to-reach, marginalized group of people,” Campos Goodman says of sustainability-minded homeowners living on modest incomes.

Additionally, municipalities and private entities can complete IncentiFind’s intake survey to provide information about benefits they offer to eligible businesses and residents that are in their catchment areas. IncentiFind can then verify and add those incentives to its database. “[Municipalities] really don’t have anywhere [else] to go to promote these incentives,” says Campos Goodman.

With a backlog of at least 100 projects seeking help with their incentive searches and applications, following a peak in the use of IncentiFind’s free search tool in January, Campos Goodman and her colleagues aim to leverage technology in order to further automate the system. “It’s not to take the human element out of it, but to expedite the process and maintain affordability,” she says.

 

NYC Has a Plan to Push the Pedal on Buses

As part of an overhaul of its bus system, NYC plans to add double-decker buses along express routes. (Credit: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit)

Bronx resident John Sattaur relies on city buses to go practically everywhere, including work. He takes three different buses to get to his job at the New York Public Library, which is less thanfour miles away from his apartment. On a bad day, his roundabout commute takes him an hour and fifteen minutes each way—not surprising, given that New York City buses are the slowest in the country.

“It’s a crapshoot. I don’t know what the day is going to hold,” Sattaur says of his unpredictable bus commutes.

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has unveiled a plan for a complete overhaul of NYC’s ailing bus system — including a redesign of its approximately 300 routes — that promises to improve straphangers’ estimated two million rides each weekday. The multi-year bus plan features a wide-ranging set of initiatives intended to modernize the city’s bus fleet and ameliorate service across the five boroughs.

Among the plan’s commitments: increase inter-neighborhood connectivity by modifying bus routes; give buses more priority on city streets with dedicated bus lanes; accelerate passenger boarding; step up traffic enforcement; and provide more real-time information about bus service. Zero-emissions vehicles and double-decker buses will be introduced to the existing fleet. The MTA’s NYC Transit subsidiary — led by President Andy Byford, who took the helm in January — plans to roll out these new initiatives by 2021 or sooner.

“We’re extremely happy. It’s an ambitious plan that is looking to change the way things are operating,” says Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer at the Riders Alliance, a local membership-based organization with a network of about 50,000 transit advocates. “The key component for this redesign to go well is to make sure there is a huge community engagement component, so that [bus riders] share their experiences and what it is they need their buses to do for them.”

Services that don’t require city approval or coordination will be the most feasible to implement, Burgos-Veras says. For example, the MTA can ensure that the buses’ arrivals at each stop are more evenly spaced apart by having them depart from bus depots on schedule.

Frequent bus delays have caused Eastern Queens resident Natasha Saunders, who runs a cleaning business, to utilize a ride-sharing app for getting to and from the Long Island Railroad, where she catches the train to Manhattan. She is not alone in abandoning the buses: citywide ridership has declined by 14 percent over the last decade.

“I don’t take the bus anymore, ‘cause I actually need to get to where I’m going on time,” she says.

By late 2020, the plan also promises to establish all-door boarding and to install a new fare payment system on its entire bus fleet that will allow riders to “tap and pay” using their Metro Cards or smartphones. And, over the course of this year, all new city buses and 1,000 existing buses will be equipped with digital screens that notify riders about next stops and service changes, according to the plan — something Riders Alliance has been asking to improve.

With respect to new services that require collaboration with the city’s Department of Transportation, such as expanding exclusive bus lanes around the city, Burgos-Veras worries that political hurdles could get in the way of timely delivery. Bus-only lanes could prove controversial, since private car drivers are loathe to lose their share of road space. “It is very easy for things like this to get very difficult if the mayor doesn’t stand behind it,” she says. “We just want to make sure that the city isn’t refusing to collaborate or decide to work at a slower pace than the MTA.”

Other aspects of the plan that involve the city — such as expanding transit signal priority for buses — could also take time to implement. Transit signal priority could involve using sensors to detect when a bus is approaching, causing the traffic signal for the bus to extend its green or change earlier to green; or it could involve entirely seperate traffic signals for buses in exclusive bus lanes.

When asked whether the Department of Transportation will support the bus plan’s implementation, assistant press secretary Lolita Avila says, “[The department] sees the all-door boarding, redesigning of the bus network, and tap reader components as positive steps forward, and we look to our continued partnership with the MTA on improving bus service citywide.”

To expedite additional transit signal priority, an improvement that could significantly shorten bus trips, NYC Council Member Mark Levine has introduced a bill that would require the Department of Transportation to modernize traffic lights along ten routes per year over the next four years. Modernization would include capacity for transit signal priority, shortening the wait time buses have at red lights, where they now spend an average of 21 percent of their time on congested routes, according to Levine.

Levine expects his proposed law to get a hearing later this year. “There is a huge coalition behind this,” he says, noting that the bill already has 30 co-sponsors. “We’re really optimistic that the bill will move soon, and that it will be a huge win for bus riders.”

Levine refers to the city’s current state of transportation as a “death spiral,” with the demand for public transit rising even as bus ridership drops because commuters like Saunders are choosing private cars over buses. This trend causes more congestion, which further slows down the buses.

“It’s really a parallel crisis that is no less serious than the subway crisis, but the bus crisis hasn’t been in the headlines as much as the train crisis has been,” says Levine. “[Transit signal] technology offers us an opportunity to … get into a virtuous cycle in which we reduce wait times at [traffic] lights and get people back on buses.”

The promised upgrades to the bus system can’t come soon enough for Saunders and others. “I want to see it all happen, and I want to see it happen as quickly as possible,” she says. “New York is considered the capital of the world. For us to travel like this is a disgrace. It’s embarrassing, and it has to stop.”

 



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