Creating mixed use urban areas is not a mom and pop task

The dream is determined, smart people can move into a decaying urban area, buy a little building, open up a store downstairs, live upstairs, and then the area transforms, with walkable streets and a small-town vibe. The problem is, this is really difficult to do unless they pay cash for a building, and even then it can be problematic.

Old buildings are often non-conforming. They need upgrades to bring them up to fire, zoning, ADA code, and more. This can be expensive. Local banks have strict rules about what they will fund because they will probably sell the mortgage to a financial entity that wants plain vanilla buildings only. Plus, if the building is too cheap, they won’t fund it because there’s no money in it for them.

So then big money comes in, fixes up the buildings in a nice but cookie-cutter way and rents them out. As the area improves, rents will rise. This often means the pioneers who bring back an area eventually get priced out and have to move on. Unless they own the property. This often happens to artists who move into battered industrial areas, bring them back, then have to move because it became gentrified and they can no longer afford the rent.

The scenario I see all over the country is formulaic. Older buildings in formerly derelict neighborhoods are bought and renovated by well funded and skilled firms who specialize in this kind of development. Shops and apartments are then rented to individuals. These legacy districts become amenity centers that add value to new large scale infill development of the Texas Doughnut variety. There are exceptions, but that’s mostly what I see. It’s neither good nor bad. People sometimes complain about gentrification, but the alternative is for these neighborhoods to continue to decline until they can’t be saved at all. It might be nice if every aspect of society changed to allow other options, but I’m not holding my breath. At the end of the day we live in the world we live in. We have the rules and procedures we have. Shrug. Mom and Pop need to find a new gig.

Local groups can absolutely help in revitalizing an area, as it happening in Dallas in a creative way.

Dallas locals like Jason Roberts of Build a Better Block as well as fellow participants from out of state like Street Plans Collaborative advocate fast, cheap, temporary, and iterative programming for neglected neighborhoods. Potted plants, inexpensive outdoor furniture, food trucks, street vendors, bicycle accommodations, string lights, outdoor movie nights, and live music can reactivate otherwise dead streets, vacant lots, and disused storefronts. If done sensitively with the active participation of the people who already live in the neighborhood these techniques can be transformative.

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