Great cities do not happen overnight. Paris once barely extended beyond an island in the Seine. Skyscraper delirious New York was developing so slowly that city leaders couldn’t fathom much more than farms and country estates north of lower Manhattan.
Just as great places evolve slowly, it takes time to restitch the fabric of a neighborhood or corridor. Whether the area lost its way or never quite had an identity and purpose, creating place and prosperity requires patience.
The bad news is that mayors, commissioners, council members and other elected officials often want magic bullet, quick fixes that are impossible to execute. The good news is even if an old neighborhood is hamstrung with abandoned buildings, vacant lots, lost jobs, substandard housing and widespread poverty, it very likely still has the DNA to rebuild around.
Historic buildings, quaint parks, pre-automobile urban density and nostalgia for a once-thriving neighborhood are building blocks for repurposing and rebirth.
Detroit and Cincinnati, former powerhouses of industry and commerce, repurposed hundreds of buildings and sparked interest in long-moribund neighborhoods with patient, methodical public-private partnerships.
Other cities worked with local REALTOR® Associations that leveraged National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) grants and resources to focus on pedestrian safety, walkability, small businesses, transit-oriented development and other tools that improved quality of life and property values before things got really bad.
The Rebirth of Detroit
Eric Larson is head of the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP), which just celebrated its centennial, making it one of the longest-running central city agencies in the nation. He also has his own real estate company, which developed affordable and market-rate apartments along with retail on the site of old Tiger Stadium on historic Corktown in the core of Detroit. The century-old, historic playing field was preserved and is used by the Police Athletic League.
“For new developments, having a piece of history and the character that brought that community to where it is gives it depth and an appreciation for its very existence,” he said. “That appreciation is what draws people to places and what gives those places intrigue. A blend of old and new is important to a resilient community but all of any one thing is not sustainable.
Larson said support from mayors, planning directors and other officials is key to long-term revitalization efforts. He credited Detroit’s mayor for negotiating with the prominent owner — the Moroun Family — of the Michigan Central Station in Corktown to replace the windows at the long-shuttered train station and to give it a sense of purpose and future.
“The new windows caught the attention of Bill Ford. The Ford family had come from Cork in Ireland, so that area means a lot to them,” Larson said. “The Ford family ultimately acquired the 1913 Beaux Arts-style train station landmark, which had sat empty since 1988, and recently reopened it.
Creating place and prosperity requires patience.
“The building will house 50 percent Ford employees and 50 percent innovations companies. By 2024, it will anchor a 5,000 employee, 30-acre innovation district in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.”
For a classic building, that had truly been in decline since the late 1960s, the rebirth of Michigan Central has to be the all-time case study for patience paying off.
“We have been deliberate in the redevelopment of a historic area and delivered a true mix of uses. The downtown economy is not dependent on any one industry. We have some wonderful high density that supports transit,” Larson said. “People want authenticity and originality — you only get that in a city that was built over time. The reality is, cities that work, aren’t contrived. They have been able to embrace their past, their character. You can build a big project fast, but you can’t build the trueness of the community back overnight — you have to have patience and vision.”
Larson said incentives are critical tools to demonstrate and support evolving communities and progressive development. They encourage development that otherwise would not be possible and keep vibrancy throughout the community. Some properties have compounding issues or are a combination of historically significant relevance and having a menu of financing options that can fit multiple scenarios is critical in redevelopment. The office market is undergoing a massive change. Providing tools to repurpose office buildings provides an important opportunity to reposition these properties.
“Hundreds of buildings have been repurposed in Downtown Detroit. Dan Gilbert bought and repurposed 100 buildings in the core alone,” Larson said of the billionaire, businessman, and philanthropist, who is co-founder and majority owner of Rocket Mortgage, founder of Rock Ventures, and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. “We avoided the scatter gun approach. We concentrated the money in areas that had a base of stability. You bring it back then move to the next neighborhood.”
People want authenticity and originality — you only get that in a city that was built over time.
Joe Rudemiller is vice president of Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). He explained that the tipping point for revitalizing center city Cincinnati was in 2001 when protests and civil disorder erupted after a 19-year-old unarmed African American man was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer attempting to make an arrest for nonviolent misdemeanors.
The 3CDC opened in 2004 and focused on redeveloping two core areas — Over-The-Rhine and Fountain Square, the apex of the city’s downtown core. It is a nonprofit, but it operates like a full-service real estate firm. The agency also does programming of festivals and events.
Over-the-Rhine is a downtown area settled and built by German Immigrants. It features the largest19th century Italianate architecture in the country. But the area experienced neglect from absentee landlords, an exodus of neighborhood retail and other issues in the last decades of the 20th century.
“Over-the-Rhine had incredible housing stock, but it was vacant and dilapidated. We spent $33 million buying crumbling, but beautiful buildings,” Rudemiller said of the classic buildings that had restaurants or shops on the first floor and residential above. “First, we spent to stabilize them — we knew over time we would redevelop the buildings.”
Cincinnati’s downtown shut down at 5 p.m. while everyone scrambled home to the suburbs. The 3CDC started programming lunch events, live music on Fridays and Saturdays, Salsa nights, Reggae nights — events to activate Fountain Square and other civic spaces.
Fountain Square underwent a $48-million renovation, funded by New Market Tax Credits, city funds, philanthropic support and Tax Increment Financing.
In Over-the-Rhine, the corporate community created an equity fund. One of the key tools is a revolving loan fund. It allowed 3CDC to invest money into areas and buildings that were deemed too risky for conventional investors.
“We started with a mixed-use development with a ground floor restaurant. The sales of the upper floor condos go into the revolving fund, which in turn funds more redevelopment,” Rudemiller said, noting that historic tax credits have been used frequently and to a lesser extent, low-income housing tax credits have funded some redevelopment.
Because 3CDC was moving patiently, it created an LLC for each purchase. That kept speculators in the dark, so prices were not driven up before properties could be assembled to make meaningful change. Work started in the heart of Over-the-Rhine. The 3CDC wanted to improve a core area, rather than work on standalone properties scattered throughout its boundaries.
When Over-the-Rhine was making a comeback and homeownership was increasing, 3CDC launched a $48-million renovation of Washington Park, which had a history of drugs, prostitution and other ills. Proceeds from a 450-space parking garage under the park helped finance its restoration. The renovation added a water feature and other amenities as well as renewing the front lawn of historic Music Hall, which hosts opera, symphony, ballet, pops and other performing arts.
In less than two decades, 3CDC has overseen $1.7 billion in development while restoring more than 200 buildings and creating more than 1,000 apartments and more than 500 condos. Throughout the slow process, the organization has enjoyed support from three distinctively different mayoral administrations.
“We recognized it wouldn’t happen overnight,” he said of the effort to turn around two key parts of downtown. “We picked one intersection and moved block by block, moving the momentum as things improved. We had some trailblazers in our first restaurant spaces. They were incredible chefs, had great talent, but not the equity. They turned into great success stories.”
NAR Community Outreach Resources Help with Turnarounds
In 2016 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the Coastal Carolinas Association of REALTORS® (CCAR) was awarded an NAR Smart Growth grant to support an in-depth walkability study that continues to inform local decisionmakers on infrastructure improvements.
“Over time, people moved away from the central hub of communities. Now we’re shifting back. This helps rebuild it in a sustainable way — something that addresses the mobility of people, not just traffic,” said Laura Crowther, CEO of CCAR. “The beauty of it is when you’re actively involved in working in concert with elected officials and staff and looking for opportunities for the community.”
In a coastal community where the year-round population of fewer than 40,000 swells into the millions during the summer, pedestrian safety is a big priority. The report suggested infrastructure would improve not only the health and safety, but also the economic outlook of Myrtle Beach.
“The grant looked at walkability and bikeability and helped us identify what we had in place that just needed improvements. In some places, it was simply clearing shrubs and limbs and maintaining proper sidewalks In others, it was looking for streets that can support a bike path,” Crowther said. “Change takes time. One of the best things we did was break it down into three parts — things we could accomplish right away, things in a three- to five-year plan and things that would take more than five. It allowed us to prioritize, so we had success on the front end.”
The creation of a vibrant Arts and Innovation District in the urban center, detailed in Myrtle Beach’s master plan, came from the walkability study. The City Council created a downtown Municipal Improvement District funded by an additional one-percent tax on businesses, which overwhelmingly supported it.
“We keep looking at safer pedestrian crosswalks, ways to enable walkability,” Crowther said. “Sidewalks are one of the most impactful things in a city. When our city administrator at the time was out on a walking tour, he was surprised that sidewalks were impassable in certain areas. We emphasized that you have to have good sidewalks to provide accessibility for all.”
An additional NAR Placemaking grant helped rehabilitate a central downtown plaza where popular concerts are held. Another enhanced the safety of the alleyway connecting the plaza to its parking lot, with new lighting and benches. Crowther said more open space and an attractive environment for families helps to recruit talent and to encourage the university graduates from the community to stay in their hometown.
“Like any other resort area, we thrive on hotels, restaurants and amusements — yet the folks that service those, the workforce, finds it difficult to find affordable housing,” she said. “It’s not specifically out of the smart growth grants, but we are working with Habitat for Humanity and the city of Myrtle Beach on potential housing opportunities that are more affordable. It’s all part of the focus on quality of life and placemaking.”
In Indiana in 2014, the South Bend Area REALTORS® was awarded an NAR Smart Growth Grant to fund a Better Block project to improve a two-block stretch of Western Avenue. The pop-up event exceeded expectations and spurred enhancements for an 11-block commercial corridor, resulting in millions of dollars during the following five years.
The South Bend association partnered with organizations such as La Casa de Amistad, a longstanding community center, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and the city. Sam Centellas, of OutSight Design and Consulting and a consultant that assists with community development funding in South Bend, was the executive director of La Casa De Amistad when the interventions took place.
“We were a test bed for what the smart streets initiative in South Bend was turning out,” he said. “Western had two lanes in each direction. For that pop-up event weekend, we went to one lane in each direction with a center turn lane. Now it’s permanent with one car lane each way, a center turn lane and on-street parking for the merchants.”
The NAR-funded event transformed the corridor with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, live music, food vendors and a beer garden with outdoor seating. According to an NAR Success Story article, retired South Bend Area REALTORS® CEO Myron Larimer concluded that “The Better Block Program pulled the local business community together and showed the city the area’s potential.” Street and sidewalk improvements took place in three $2.5-million phases in 2015, 2016 and 2019.
“Western Avenue has been a hub for the Latino community for 25 years. With the corridor improvements, everything survived the pandemic. If anything, more businesses got started in that area during or immediately post pandemic.”
Centellas said it is much safer to cross Western Avenue with the traffic calming and sidewalk improvements. He said, for example, that his favorite Mexican restaurant is on one side of the street and his favorite paletas joint is on the other and now there’s no deterrent of dangerous traffic to deter him from visiting both the same day.
“It’s been almost a decade and today’s Western Avenue has a lot to offer. There are several great Latinx restaurants, grocery stores, apparel shops,” he said, noting the city also made grants available for improving facades.
In 2011, the Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS® (ACBR) actively participated in turning a smart growth plan into a viable commercial/residential development. The property was a surface lot at the Edgewood/Candler Park MARTA station. The site is in an older suburb of mostly single-family homes southeast of downtown.
The ACBR leadership recognized a growing market of buyers and renters who want to live in urban, walkable locations. According to Robin Godwin, ACBR executive vice president, ACBR completed a comprehensive design charrette to evaluate best options for the redevelopment of the 4.5-acre parking lot. “Through the support of a Smart Growth Grant given by the NAR, we were able to work closely with civic leaders and volunteers to transform both the site and the community,” she said.
The four-day workshop brought together stakeholders and was funded in part by the Atlanta Livable Centers Initiative. The goal was to study transit-oriented development for the parking lot site. Even at rush hour, the giant parking lot was never more than about one third full. Fenced off, deteriorating surface parking and sidewalks created a barrier between the isolated station and an adjacent park and nearby multifamily housing and retail sites.
The ultimate development became known as Spoke. It was planned by Atlanta-based TSW’s Landscape Architecture Studio, for developer Columbia Ventures. “The long-term effort succeeded through developing a variety of elements, including mass transit; affordable housing; parks and green spaces; and retail/office components,” said Godwin.
Bill Lennertz of Collaborative Design + Innovation in Portland, Ore., worked with the teams during the Edgewood/Candler Park MARTA station workshop. “That was a great charrette. I remember that an underlying goal was to get all the important parties to the table, which happened,” he said. “The MARTA station transit-oriented development vision proves that patience wins out. Though it took many years, a great urban infill project is finally coming on line.”