Considering Programmed Housing

The old abandoned St. Joseph's School is a sturdy old building; a four-story block of red brick and arched windows -- every smart developer's dream. The surrounding neighborhood, Arbor Hill, is a bit run down, but the quality of the housing stock is high, and prices are still relatively low. The potential for an attractive, walkable community is high. To the southwest is downtown Albany and the stunning New York State Capitol; to the southeast, the Hudson River. Conditions being what they are, gentrification and displacement seem inevitable. And then, of course, comes the news: someone is going to turn the old school building into artists lofts. It's an all-too-familiar story.

But this telling has a twist: the artist housing, to be called Academy Lofts, is not an island unto itself; the plans call for the school's former gymnasium to be converted into a community art center where classes would be taught by the building's residents. These artists, who would qualify for the rental units only if they required affordable housing to make a career of their work, would be moving into a programmed housing development, where their residency required active participation in the cultural and social life of the neighborhood.

At the heart of the gentrification problem is the challenge of getting new residents with different sociocultural backgrounds moving into a neighborhood to engage with their neighbors -- and, on the flip side, convincing often very tightly-knit communities to open themselves up to new residents and see them individually as potential partners instead of a combined, faceless threat. If artists are the stormtroopers of gentrification, the set-up at Academy Lofts is particularly ingenious in that it quickly embeds the artists moving into the neighborhood into the existing community, directly connecting new residents with their new neighbors through free or low-cost community programming.

Listening to a Smart City interview with author Sean Safford a few months ago, I was struck by the author's explanation of why some Rustbelt cites in the US have fared better than others, and what this might mean for urban neighborhoods like Arbor Hill. In his book, Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown, Safford compares the steel towns of Youngstown, Ohio, which he describes as having had a very densely-woven social network during the decline of the steel industry, with Allentown, Pennsylvania, which had a looser, more flexible social network. His argument is that Allentown has fared better in the long run specifically because its loose network of connections was more amenable to creating the kind of broad coalitions that were able to adapt to change rather than resist it, whereas Youngstown's extremely dense network was too closely tied to the status quo.

Neighborhoods that are dealing with gentrification -- often places where ethnic or racial enclave communities exist -- the standard scenario over the past few decades seems to have been that of a very tightly-knit community resisting encroaching development. Safford's research, if it can be applied at the neighborhood level (and I don't see why it can't), suggests that these communities might be much better off accepting that the neighborhood will change, and working to build broad community coalitions to try to help the existing community adapt to these changes rather than fight them.

Urbanists around the country are abuzz with chatter about how the Obama Administration's stimulus plan could revitalize American cities and metropolitan areas. Check back tomorrow for more on why programmed housing developments like Academy Lofts should be a key part of that national conversation.

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