Event Recap: Gentrification vs. Revitalization

Gentrification has been a growing concern in the San Diego region. In our attempts to revitalize and improve our neighborhoods, we end up displacing lower-income families and small businesses that can no longer afford to stay in the area.  On Friday, February 19th 2016 the San Diego Section of the American Planning Association hosted a luncheon to discuss gentrification in the region. The event included four panelists: Councilmember David Alvarez, Senior Vice President of Community Housing Works Anne Wilson, Chair of the North Park Planning Committee Vicki Granowitz, and Project Manager at Trestle Development Zaheen Chowdury. The diversity of this panel was certainly refreshing. To get a councilmember, a planner, two housing developers, and a resident (Vicki Granowitz is a resident of North Park as well as the Chair of the North Park Planning Committee) engaged in dialogue regarding community development is rare. With such a diverse group of individuals on the panel, the discussion was certainly valuable to those in planning and related fields.

Councilmember Alvarez stated that gentrification is not necessarily a negative concept. Gentrification can actually have a positive impact on a community if the community is involved in the plans and development for the area. Including art and culture within development could help to alleviate the negative impacts of revitalizing a neighborhood. Ms. Granowitz agreed with Mr. Alvarez’s emphasis on community involvement. From the housing developers’ perspective, the negative effects of gentrification could be alleviated by increasing affordable housing in the area, but also by involving the community more deeply. If there is community-owned property in the area, like community centers, long term residents may be more likely to stay in that area. It would be difficult to displace residents of a community if they view redevelopment as an asset to their community, rather than a paycheck for landlords.

Another possible solution to the problem of gentrification would be to give priority to those already residing in a community when new housing developments are planned and built. In this way, the community can retain its culture and residents while also revitalizing old buildings and areas in the neighborhood. Although most speakers thought a “neighborhood priority” policy might violate federal fair housing laws Ms. Wilson said it had been done before in Boston. If such a policy has been enacted in another city, could it not be possible in San Diego? Or, as one of the speakers suggested, communities could stay within the federal fair housing guidelines by supplying residents around the new development with flyers and information to attract and inform nearby residents early so that they have a chance to apply.

It is no surprise that redevelopment can face community opposition. However, the panelists agreed that this opposition is not necessary. In fact, community opposition can be avoided by informing a community of what revitalizing the community will look like. Each panelist agreed that the community should be involved early in the process through public meetings and forums. Communities understand that growth is needed for progress to be made. However, only by showing communities exactly what density and redevelopment looks like will there be enough support to proceed with redevelopment and retain current residents and culture within a community. Such community involvement requires strong leadership at the city level and a willingness of public officials to work together with members of the community, including residents and local businesses. The feeling among all of the panelists, including Councilman Alvarez, was that the city officials are not taking a leadership role in facilitating community revitalization. Without that leadership gentrification, is a foregone conclusion.

Everyone wants an improved quality of life in their neighborhood. The factors that influence whether those improvements lead to gentrification or neighborhood revitalization are complex. The panel hosted by the San Diego Section of the APA raised interesting issues and conundrums that planners should be thinking about as they plan for the future of a community.