Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Local Issues: 3CDC, Gentrification, Mixed Feelings...

I know this might be a tired issue to some, but I've been re-thinking my position on 3CDC's development of Over-the-Rhine--the "Gateway Quarter."

(photo courtesy of Rustwire.com)

Among those concerned with the welfare of Cincinnati's urban core and its residents, there has been a lot of talk of the ills/benefits of gentrification, the implications of a rising cost of living in Over-the-Rhine (OTR) and the Central Business District (CBD), and what the displacement of the characteristically urban residents means for the surrounding areas (CUF, Mt. Auburn, the West End, etc.). In the past few years, I have gone back and forth about 3CDC, its takeover of the neighborhood, and its methods of achieving (what appear to be) great development goals. I don't want to get too personal here, since I'm still new to the Cincinnati blogging community and I'm not quite ready to make enemies, but I do want to share some thoughts on a few specific issues.

The "socially-conscious" side of me is very sympathetic to those who may be displaced from their current homes because they (like myself) may not be able to survive the rising rent costs. I understand how it feels to have a strict budget, one that can't lend itself to an extra $200 a month in rent. And now that my husband and I are beginning the search for our first house, we understand how difficult it is to find a single-family home that is safe, affordable and where the amenities of an urban life are still accessible. Because we believe in the inherent value of having a large family, yet we are not a part of the upper-class, we may never have the expendable income necessary to adapt to living in an up-and-coming neighborhood. (I've had to reconcile that my life will probably never resemble the Huxtables'. Bummer, right?) And, so, it does sadden me to think of all the families in much worse financially situation than us. It's only a matter of time, I'm sure, before there are simply no options for the true "working poor," and they will be forced to move out of OTR and the CBD in search of apartments with more than two bedrooms, for less than $1000 a month in rent.

I must admit, though, that my sympathy only reaches so far.

I know what sort of living conditions often come with "affordable rent," and I know that poverty in an urban setting is inextricably bound to issues of blight and crime. So, although I am sympathetic to the family who will be displaced because of rising rent costs, I am not sympathetic to the drug dealer who used to sell on their doorstep but is now struggling in his new "market," the absentee landlord who had (until now) refused to turn on their heat before December, and the owner of the (now closed) corner store a block away who made a good living selling malt liquour beverages that feed addictions and destroy lives. If keeping this hypothetical family in their home requires protecting the "rights" of those who also live in the neighborhood and who are victimizing the family every day, then I'm not certain which cause deserves more attention. Which is a greater quality of life issue: the right to poverty or the right to progress?

Along these lines, I appreciate what 3CDC has been able to do to improve the quality of life for residents in Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding area.

But, let's take this a step further.
I believe that economic development would, in a perfect world, benefit not only those with the resources to facilitate the development, but also those who currently reside in the area being developed. The goal, then, is not to develop an area in a way such that people are forced to leave, but in such a way that they are allowed to develop and grow with the neighborhood. So, a truly benevolent investor would pour his/her money into the community in such a way that makes accessible the education, jobs, and resources that will make the people--not just the buildings--better. The catch is that people, unlike buildings, cannot be forcibly altered. And for every family that would like to progress toward purchasing a quality home and will work hard to maintain its quality (for the benefit of the whole neighborhood), there is another that is too loyal to the current regime of the neighborhood to allow themselves to participate in the progress. The same goes for business owners: some current business owners deserve to stay while others, I am bold to say, do not.

Then, on top of the actual ideological issue of gentrification, we could add the questions of economics (What exactly is "poverty" and what should be considered a reasonable cost of living for a thriving neighborhood?), culture (Who decides which cultural expressions/institutions should remain as an area develops?), and praxis (Who should design the development, what should it look like, who should be contracted to do the work, etc.?), but I don't want to get into those now.

At the end of the day, I still have mixed feelings about gentrification in general and Cincinnati's current urban renaissance specifically (a la 3CDC, Urban Sites, and others). I suppose that, like most things, we will have to judge the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine on a building-by-building, case-by-case basis; We can talk about gentrification, ideologically, until we're blue in the face and never actual address any real issues.

On that note, there are two specific criticisms of 3CDC that I'd like to express, before I retire the issue altogether.

First.
Was it really necessary to close both sides of the sidewalk on Vine St. at the same time?
I understand that streetscape projects like planting and concrete work require proper timing and weather conditions, but a little common sense would have told the developers to do one side at a time! There are tons of folks who walk up and down Vine St. every day on their way to work, school, the grocery store, the bus stop, etc. and it's not only a major inconvenience, but it speaks volumes about the developer's lack of regard for the people who already live in the neighborhood. Did anyone else notice this problem? I know I wasn't the only one dodging traffic with a stroller the past few weeks!

Second.
I am thankful that much of the new development involves condo living, rather than rentals, but the actual living spaces themselves and the cost of living in them send another message to potential buyers: families are not welcome. I understand that it's really fun and exciting to fill the neighborhood with uppity young professionals who will spend their nights sipping wine on the balcony and decide to have their first (and only) child at the age of 45 but, frankly, you cannot build a community with only these folks. A quick search on 3CDC's website for units for sale with 2 or more "sleeping areas" yields only 28 options, most of them hovering around 1000 sq. feet and over $200k. The mortgage, together with the condo fees, parking fees, etc., would require (in my opinion) an income in the range of $60-80k a year, at least. Although many folks in Cincinnati may fall into this income bracket, why in their right mind would they choose to live in a 1000 square foot condo where the second "sleeping area" is actually a corner of the room with a privacy wall when they could just as well live in a 3 bedroom, 2000 square foot tudor in Pleasant Ridge on a .5 acre plot of land? And that doesn't even take into account the families that need to live downtown because of the availability of public transport and employment opportunities and make closer to $30-50k (or less). They will be stuck in apartments forever.

I know that 3CDC is working the OTRCH to subsidize a few of the rowhouse properties they're building. I don't know, though, that this will even begin to solve the problem. What message does the subsidy send? It tells these potential homeowners that they can only have a decent, affordable home when it comes in the form of a handout. It says, "These homes are not for you, but we'll let you live here."
But, this is an issue for another time...

Thoughts?
Am I totally wrong here?
Do you have specific praises or critiques for urban revitalization here or elsewhere?
What's your experience with gentrification?
(Note: unwarranted, cruel comments may be deleted)

5 comments:

  1. I'm a new owner of a condo in OTR and I think about these issues all the time. I try very hard to understand the "other side", that is, against so-called gentrification.

    I hope that, especially in this neighborhood with so many vacant buildings, a rising tide can truly lift all boats.

    But I guess if the new development REALLY takes off, and the area really becomes desirable, rents will rise, and people will get displaced anyway.

    I struggle with this because I don't have any interest in that happening. And I don't think OTR can be left to rot. I feel like some parties want the city to invest in OTR's poor. And I have no problem with that. But cities don't invest in the poor. People don't invest in something that won't provide a return. In my ideal world, that isn't the case, but that is reality.

    Well, all of this is to say, I am happy to be a new homeowner in Over-the-Rhine, and my first interest is being a good neighbor to those who preceded me. I don't know how to solve the world's problems. But I hope the city can clean up this neighborhood without lowering ANYONE's quality of life. I guess that's all I can hope.

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  2. Also, please forgive me for saying "a rising tide can truly lift all boats."

    I would have edited that cliche out if I had read my comment before posting. :)

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  4. Thanks for being brave and expressing your thoughts on this subject. I'm also quite ambivalent about the various changes I see happening around me, although I can't take a side. The issues are too complex, and my own position within the situation isn't quite cut-and-dry either. A few thoughts.

    I, too, noticed that the sidewalk closing seemed obnoxious, although it does seem to dovetail with the lingering notion that no one lives in OTR [or downtown, which I also hear]. It was also probably more detrimental to local businesses than it needed to be. It's work that needs to happen, obviously, but it seems that it could have been coordinated better.

    I think you're right about the rehabs and new construction being slanted toward young professionals without kids, or with only one baby or toddler. That's not my personal concern, but even I've noticed that the available units tend to skew smaller.

    The Washington Park pool is supposed to be removed and replaced by a fountain [err, "interactive water feature" is the proper term, I think] and a dog park. I'm sure that cost [maintenance and staffing] is a huge factor in this, but it also takes away an activity that includes older children, while "replacing" it with something that [I think] will only suit very young children. Again, I think your point is valid.

    The dog park seems like a much-needed amenity somewhere in the basin, although it really saddens me that it's replacing the pool. I think it's a deliberate shift toward the perceived wants of young professionals and, while that's not a bad thing, I wish it were being placed somewhere else in the area.

    One last thought regarding John's comment that "...cities don't invest in the poor. People don't invest in something that won't provide a return." I guess the hope is that the "lifting" does then provide a return. You could see that in several different ways, from providing a return by doing the right thing for your neighbors, to providing a return by enabling opportunities for people who will then contribute to a growing tax base.

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