The three biggest mistakes in neighborhood redevelopment


Redevelopment means bringing a neighborhood back to life. And it’s hard to do. Really hard. When your Main Street or downtown is struggling, the idea of ever becoming a thriving place again can seem like a completely insurmountable challenge.

But you can do it.

Figuring out where to start on these projects is often the hardest part. That’s often where we start our work with a jurisdiction. Every town is different, their economic potential is different, and their best assets (often the people!) are completely unique. Our job is to find those hidden gems and help you make your hometown shine because of them.

But there are few things I can say for certain that are never the place to start. Here are three of the most common mistakes I hear in local neighborhood redevelopment.

1. “Let’s tear down those historic buildings.”
New buildings are nice, but your historic structures and the character they provide your town are priceless assets. Rehabbing buildings can preserve and enhance the character of a neighborhood, and they help to keep these spaces more affordable than a brand new building. Some historic (or even just older) buildings have commercial space downstairs and residential space upstairs. That’s a rare and coveted type of property for many small businesses. Put systems in place to support their renovation and reuse. Yes, sometimes buildings are past repair, but it should be a last resort in the center of your community.

2. “What we need here is a big developer.”
Some real estate experts recommend packaging up small parcels of land into a single huge lot for a developer to buy and build on. Sometimes a town might not even have a vision for the redevelopment in mind, they just want something new. And big.

Often we forget that helping local and small business owners or residents buy small buildings can bring those buildings back to life faster. That means you’ll have property owners who are invested in the success of the neighborhood, not just turning a one-time profit. And it often means the ground floor will be filled by a local business—and contribute to the street life in a way a large development can’t. (And if you go the route of a larger developer - be really, really, really clear on the mission, intent, and measurable outcomes of the project to serve the needs of the community.)

3. “Meet me at the corridor node.”
Urban planners will often recommend planning for the redevelopment of an entire commercial corridor at once — even many miles of a corridor all at once. It is important to think big and long-term, but thinking on that scale is sometimes too big and can stall out good work. Pair your corridor plan with action on one block or at one intersection where you really want to see your hometown shine fast. What is the personality of that place? What kind of businesses do you want to feel at home there? Who can you partner with to bring life to that corner now? It will help build momentum for the bigger projects on that corridor and show (not tell) people the potential of the place.

Take the better route. Celebrate your community’s history: it is why this place is special and it is what will help you stand apart.

Give your existing small businesses better access to land and space—and don’t give up that power to a real estate developer to choose for you.

And remember to experience your town at a pedestrian scale. Big plans work best when paired with a small place to start.

This approach can help any city or town struggling to get started on a redevelopment project and bring a neighborhood back to life. Chances are good that you already have more going for you than you think.

Ready to start?!