Opportunity Is Knocking. It’s Time for Richmond to Answer.
By Darlene Rios Drapkin, Principal, Urban Transformation
Over the course of the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with economic development officials from cities across the country. Whether speaking to participants at national conferences at which I was a presenter, or working closely with officials here on neighborhood revitalization projects in Oakland, I have seen first-hand how creative thinking and a certain amount of risk-taking has spurred the economic revitalization of communities across America—and indeed, throughout the world.
In fact, conditions are better now than they have ever been for redeveloping our commercial corridors. Study after study tells us that millennials prefer urban living, but so, too, do empty nesters. More and more Americans are saying they want to be able to walk to shops, restaurants and entertainment. Potential renters and home buyers look at walkability scores when choosing their next residence. A look at some of the most successful urban revitalization programs bears this out: in places like Minneapolis, Denver and yes, Oakland, commercial and residential vacancies are at near historic lows.
That means public coffers in these cities are enjoying a renaissance of funding from residential and sales tax revenues, allowing them to further their efforts to beautify their streetscapes, provide pedestrian amenities, and create walkable neighborhoods. Just look at places in our own backyard, places like Albany or Oakland’s Uptown and Temescal. Developers are hungry for the opportunity to redevelop vacant properties because they know the demand is there, especially among small local start-up entrepreneurs who view risk-taking as an inherent part of their risk-reward equation.
So is Richmond amply on their radar screen? Our commercial neighborhoods of San Pablo Avenue, MacDonald Avenue, 23rd Street, and Cutting Blvd are ripe for redevelopment. They offer existing building stock, population density and ample parking, yet without a cohesive economic development strategy, they remain largely forgotten.
Make no mistake: revitalizing Richmond’s commercial corridors will require a strong will and long-term commitment, best undertaken through a public-private partnership. But the good news is, there are plenty of models to follow, models that reveal some of the key steps to be taken, including:
Clean-up programs. To get started, something as simple as encouraging merchants to sweep in front of their storefronts daily or a neighborhood ambassador program to assist with things like power-washing sidewalks, removing graffiti, etc. can have an immediate impact. In fact, communities around the U.S. have had success in using non-profit programs that employ those with challenges to find the workforce needed to assist with these improvements.
The goal is to stop the downward cycle that has become known as the “broken window theory” which states that a failure to address vandalism and anti-social behavior often leads to more crime and disinvestment because the unspoken message is “no one cares.”
To fight this trend, I am excited to report that a pilot Leadership Ambassadors program, in cooperation with Richmond Police Activity and the Richmond Summer Youth program will kick off on July 11 and operate for five weeks on 23rd Street and near the Civic Center. If you’d like to learn more or support this program, please get in touch with me!
“Boots on the Ground” property owner and business inventories. Sometimes the best information is collected not via the tax rolls, but by simply hitting the streets and talking to people. Chances are the neighbors know who owns a building, where they are, what they do, etc. Only when we have a clear sense of with whom we need to communicate can we begin to encourage developers and businesses to listen to the vision we have. I’ve started getting to know the commercial brokers in the area and have established a relationship with a property owner who had a particular vacancy that didn’t look ready for “prime time.” We now need to help him, and other owners like him, keep their improved, but vacant, properties protected while they find the right tenants that will benefit the entire neighborhood. Working with the City of Richmond Depts, this kind of public-private partnerships is the embodiment of that drives successful revitalization efforts.
Creative thinking to enhance the business mix. Lower entry lease rates can provide pop-up bakeries, artists and other merchants who want to establish their own permanent presence an opportunity to do so. Some of our nation’s earliest examples of urban renewal (think New York City’s SoHo) were driven by the creative energy and risk-taking spirit that is inherent in what the author Richard Florida deemed “the creative class.” Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes, and can range from tech innovators to artists and bakers. With enough support, Richmond could host monthly art walks that would not only showcase the work of these talented individuals, but would also encourage people to see Richmond in a whole new light.
Incentivized façade improvement programs. It is amazing what fresh paint, a couple of new lights, nice signage, and some planters can do to give a storefront a completely fresh look. Vacant properties’ windows should be employed as artists’ galleries. We should model programs that have been implemented in other areas, such as matching grant programs and tax credits for building improvements and view them as short-term investments in Richmond’s long-term health. The goal, which often happens organically, is to create a domino effect in which merchants become inspired to improve their own properties after they see the positive impact beautification efforts have on businesses who make them. The successful Fruitvale matching grant façade program, utilized $225,000 CDBG funds, leveraging $2.7m private and $2.1m public over a period of 10 years totaling 120 façade improvements!
Host unique and well-organized community events. Fruitvale’s Dia de los Muertos Festival in Oakland attracts well over 50,000 people to the district annually. Over the course of the last 20 years, it has changed perceptions and demystified the area for those who are unfamiliar with it. It is an event all cultures can relate to and has caught the attention of sponsors who want new ways to reach the area’s rich Latino market. In fact, many of those who attend “Dia” return to further explore the neighborhood’s retail and dining offerings and may even consider setting up shop there themselves. In Richmond, the key will be to craft an event and make the first one a hit—well-run, accessible, and friendly with a strong mix of businesses and arts and crafts vendors —so that people will want to return.
I’ve been involved in the economic revitalization business long enough to know that this will take time and a community-driven approach that calls on public officials to consistently channel economic development resources to these neighborhoods. We need to apply for public and private grants and consider outsourcing projects, especially since the City of Richmond is understaffed and simply cannot devote the time necessary to successfully pursue these efforts.
Disinvestment does not happen overnight; nor does revitalization. But done correctly, the dollars invested can bring compound dividends when businesses and residential developers look at Richmond instead of past it. The resulting sales tax revenues will support commercial corridors that are clean and that attract businesses, including those in the arts and culture, so that Richmond becomes known as a vibrant, thriving and successful destination.