Re-thinking Redevelopment: Investing in Communities Through Collaboration

Authors: Danielle DeRuiter-Williams, Green For All Fellow, Class 4 Walking down Market Street in Downtown Inglewood, CA, you can almost hear the potential hustle and bustle that could happen were this area to be reawakened. Unfortunately, the sights and sounds currently are not as vibrant and engaging as one would hope. Market Street is currently lined with vacant buildings and even a few vacant lots, sprinkled with some of the area's surviving small businesses, including barber shops, a suit store and a black-owned vegan restaurant called Stuff I Eat. There is so much potential in this quaint downtown area, but that potential is not being realized. The area is also home to one of the nation's few Fox Theaters left, long abandoned. It is interesting to think about why cities look the way they do. Why do some communities lack access to basic amenities like banks, grocery stores, parks, and community centers, while others are inundated with options? Basically, human development is being neglected in many places – that is, the things that promote well-being of individuals, families and youth are not prioritized by municipalities. I recently completed a project for a class at UCLA where we essentially researched, designed and financed a development plan for Downtown Inglewood, CA, on paper. We chose to focus on the creation of a "green corridor" in Downtown. This project helped to shed some light on the lack of human development investment in certain communities. We wanted to design something that would address the food access problem that Inglewood, as well as many South LA County neighborhoods, are experiencing. Originally we designed a mixed-use development that included apartments featuring their own grow space for organic food, solar panels and other "green amenities," an organic grocery store and an organic restaurant. Unfortunately, the project didn't "pencil out," as in the project could not be profitable. We tried several other iterations of the project, scrapping the residential, adding in office space, playing around with other numbers, but the fact is the land cost and the market in this area simply could not support new development of this kind. Yet the city still needs healthy food access. In the City of Inglewood there is not one organic grocery store, let alone an affordable one. This brought up some very important questions for me as a future urban planner: how do we address community needs while still attracting investment to fill those needs? In thinking about the current purpose of Community Redevelopment Agencies, I realize their aim has been, for the last 30 years, to shore up sales tax in a given municipality. Thus they support primarily retail projects as these yield the greatest returns. At what point, however, do we place some value on human and community development? At what point do we realize that, yes, revenue for cities is important but so are other community-building spaces and amenities, such as healthy food access or production. What became clear in trying to make the project profitable was that traditional methods of development are not always feasible if you want to meet the needs of these communities. Simply courting a developer, providing them with subsidies, attracting investors, and so on do not work for communities long neglected. It became apparent that what we need to transform forgotten areas are concerted efforts on the behalf of a dynamic set of organizations to address community needs. If municipalities, foundations, non-profits, churches and community members can work together to think outside the box when it comes to redeveloping urban spaces, we may be able to make real and necessary change. As a newly minted urban planner (I just earned my Master's degree at the beginning of June) and a Green For All Fellow, I hope to incorporate innovative ways of re-imagining our city-space so that the most vulnerable communities have their needs met now and into the future.

Danielle DeRuiter-Williams — Los Angeles, CA

Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Danielle has lived in LA for about three years, earning dual Master’s Degrees in Urban Planning and Afro-American Studies. She first became interested in economic development for communities of color while completing her senior thesis in undergrad on the urban crisis in Detroit. She saw the damage done and was interested in discovering a way for urban communities to re-imagine their place in “the new economy.” Read more about our Fellow Danielle »

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