Press | January 1, 2005

A Sort of Homecoming

By C.C. Sullivan

Architecture Magazine

 

The trendiest notion in American urbanism these days is community-based planning, or CBP, the use of grassroots social groups to shape redevelopment projects. From Houston to Minneapolis and Seattle to Baltimore,  municipalities are touting programs that give local folks control of urban turnarounds. “There’s a dramatic upswing in collaborative or participatory neighborhood planning,” believes Kenneth Michael Reardon, chair of Cornell’s planning department in Ithaca, New York, and an expert on the subject. “But the actual practice is extremely uneven.” Reardon isn’t alone in this concern: Many urbanists and local leaders question the effectiveness of CBP initiatives in their areas (see” Newark’s Boom,” page 17), citing minimal citizen involvement, aloof and misdirected consultants, and poorly coordinated nonprofit groups, among other difficulties.

 

Yet, CBP has worked wonders in the least likely places. One unusually public effort, begun 10 years ago in New York City’s South Bronx- a place written off in the 1970s as a no-man’s land of riots, fires, and landlord abandonment-has spawned a redevelopment initiative called Melrose Commons that is seen today as a resounding success. Planned for 1,700 residences, the 35-block zone with a newly bustling commercial strip may soon top off at 3,000 units, according to Ted Weinstein, former planning director for the Bronx. More important, the district’s mix of amenities, open spaces, and architectural features traces straight back to directives from a core of vocal, mostly Hispanic residents in scores of weekly community meetings.

 

Those meetings began in 1994 out of raw fear. “The city intended to take this neighborhood: to buyout the vacant lots and burnt-out buildings with eminent domain” to build low density, mostly market-rate housing, says Magnus Magnusson, an architect involved in early organizing who has since designed new structures there. “The residents were shocked. And they said, ‘We will stay.'” Their Spanish rallying cry became the identity of a soon-to-be pivotal community group: Nos Quedamos.

 

Not only was its formation unexpected, but so was the group’s suddenly powerful role in shaping the area’s renewal. ” It was an election year-and the right place at the right time,” recalls Yolanda Garcia, executive director of Nos Quedamos. “We had all the elected officials- all the way to congress backing this up.” With Garcia’s leadership, the community of 6,000 residents blocked the original 1992 Bronx Center plan, a renewal scheme supported by federal agencies (and the local AlA chapter) that would have effectively razed the area. And a decade later, the residents’ tale is hailed as a triumph of CBP.

 

A Long History
To comprehend how CBP can succeed in the South Bronx but self-destruct elsewhere, it helps to look at related urban design movements. The concept dates back to settlement houses of the late 1800s in London and Chicago, where community-controlled planning became part of social efforts on behalf of burgeoning immigrant populations. By the 1960s, “advocacy planning” was popular, but the idea faded by the 1980s as governments ceded control to private developers.

 

More recently, CBP has yielded a distinct approach, relying more on local organizing than on top-down governmental patronage. Paving the way for such self-reliance has been the “reinventing” of government to focus more on “consumer needs,” says Reardon, coupled with federal spending cuts pushing social responsibilities down to states and municipalities and, ultimately, to loose networks of nonprofit groups.

 

Also contributing to the rise of CBP has been the surfacing of proactive, strident community leaders like Nos Quedamos’s Garcia. ” If you live in a neighborhood, how do you get your voice heard?” asks Petr Stand, an architect who worked with Magnusson on the design guidelines for Melrose Commons.

 

With the help of city housing officials and volunteers like Stand and Magnusson, Nos Quedamos conveyed a fairly specific- and sophisticated-picture of their preferred future. “The residents said, ‘There are good things here; let’  build upon them,'” says Wilhelm Ronda, director of planning for the current Bronx borough president. “They said, ‘Let’s stay connected to the street grid and keep the variety of development. We don’t want a single-income ghetto; we want housing and support services for families, seniors, and people of moderate means.'”

 

Ronda vividly recalls another emphatic stipulation: ”’And we want to have architectural design.'”

 

In fact, the Melrose Commons guidelines were unprecedented for a renewal project in the city. In addition to new land-uses, zoning rules, and height restrictions, the redevelopment scheme ruled out curb cuts on north-south avenues and parking pads in front of residences, notes Weinstein. Residential projects with first-floor units had to be set back to limit visibility into living spaces. And the community demanded tree plantings, play areas near laundry rooms, recessed entrances, and 50-percent open space within new multifamily structures.

 

While many developers balked at the guidelines-some urged city officials to derail the project-others rose to the challenge. Nos Quedamos had a theme and a look, and it’s a step or two above most affordable housing,” says Ron Moelis, a principal with developer L&M Equities in Larchmont, New York. Garcia sees the design rules as integral to any public effort: ” It’s taxpayers’ money and people who are investing their life savings, so we have to be accountable,” she explains.

 

A Role for Architects?
“It’s important to put urban design controls into an urban renewal plan to control the project’s visual aspect,” Stand adds. For that reason alone, he is confident that architects play a critical role in successful CBP, and his opinion is shared by designers from around the United States. Less convinced are many not-for-profit agencies and experts who’ve seen challenges in projects that weren’t as lucky as Melrose Commons. “The professional-expert model does not work, because of lack of contact with the community and subsequent misdiagnosis,” argues Reardon, who thinks recent , high-profile failures “could extinguish institutional and political interest in this approach.”

 

Having grown up in the Bronx, however, perhaps Stand ran less risk. “It was no different than meeting with a private client and getting to know his program,” he counters. “You have to break through the cultural and language barriers, and it’s important to get city planners and housing officials out into the neighborhoods. But change is accomplishable only if there’s political will behind it and a master plan that allows for evolution.”

 

CBP demands “organized citizen power” on a regional and national level in addition to long-term commitment, Reardon adds, to gain momentum and get over entrenched pessimism. “It took more than 1 0 years in East St. Louis” for his well-documented renewal effort to take hold, he points out. “Professionals need to pick a place, do a sort of homecoming, and plan to be there for a while.”