Redevelopment Conference Stresses Community Involvement, Equity
A performance by spoken word artist Sean Battle invoked “U-N-I-T-Y” as a theme of the 2019 Conference of New Jersey Future, even though the annual forum was officially entitled, “Redevelopment”. But in the eyes of the organizers, this was not a contradiction in terms. The NJ Future hosts stressed that the redevelopment of so much of New Jersey’s “left over” construction should depend on reaching broad consensus of the people who live nearby. In other words: “unity”. (Click here to hear Sean Battle)
It was a theme echoed by the very eloquent keynote speaker Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of the nonprofit PolicyLink Institute, who advocates for equity and inclusion in American cities. “When you solve the problems of the most vulnerable,” Blackwell says, “the benefits cascade out to everybody.” She calls this the “curb-cut effect”, a reference to the 1970s campaign to smooth out the border between curbs and streets for the sake of wheelchair users - a feature that is now almost universal, and enjoyed by bike riders, stroller-pushers, and the average pedestrian. “Equitable development would integrate people in place. You need to develop in partnership with people whose voices are heard. When you do it that way, you end up benefiting everybody,” Blackwell concluded, to a standing ovation from the hundreds of municipal officials, developers, and community nonprofits in attendance.
The need for what Jennifer Vey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution calls “transformative, place-based solutions” in New Jersey is undisputed. The opening panel - comprised of an academic, a developer, a community organizer, a mayor, and a state official - covered a list of problems to address: inner city blight; abandoned retail, industrial, and office park facilities; people left behind by the “knowledge economy”; and large wage disparities that favor one ethnic group over others. The panelists also acknowledged some of the so-called “good trends” that are changing the New Jersey landscape: greater collaboration on all fronts; revitalization of some cities; and a millennial mindset that wants more walkable, user-friendly neighborhoods. And though these panelists all agreed on the importance of community buy-in, not all shared the same motive. Bluntly put, Eugene Diaz of Prism, the developer who turned the old Thomas Edison battery factory in West Orange into luxury lofts said, “It’s not a philanthropic effort. We’re capitalists.”
NJ Governor Phil Murphy spoke at the NJ Future conference, about “not just the New Jersey we are, but the New Jersey we want to be.” He listed his administration’s policy efforts to foster a growing middle class and sustainable future, including clean energy by 2050. That was not good enough for a handful of protesters who briefly interrupted the governor with shouts of “no more fossil fuel projects” before being escorted out of the plenary hall. “You notice I didn’t say ‘shut up and sit down’,” he quipped.
A number of workshops at this conference were meant to search for solutions, not only to the physical redevelopment of distressed properties, but also to the social disparities in our communities. One session in particular, entitled “Ignite! Redevelopment” was more like trying to drink through a firehose, so intense was the flow of information. The session consisted of a dozen rapid-fire five-minute presentations on a variety of ‘smart growth’ development efforts ranging from public art to transit, clean energy, and flood mitigation. Taken as a whole, it was clear that none of these projects could have succeeded without some degree of community consultation.
So if collaboration is key, how do you get the community involved? That was the topic of the final workshop attended by this reporter, on “Democratizing Development Decision-making”. Civic engagement is one of the most intangible factors in the development process, and it is overlooked by developers only at their own peril. “When you tackle tough stuff, you have to get buy-in,” was the advice of Edwin Cohen, another member of the Edison Lofts development team, who says it took them 14 years to complete that project. But all in the room admitted that community buy-in does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. “There is no model. Community work is a very messy process,” explains panelist Jaymie Santiago of New Brunswick Tomorrow. And that’s why at the end of the day, equitable community development depends above all on listening to the people who live there.