The Small-Scale Change That Can Start Bringing a Neighborhood Back

Everybody wants a big project. But as one effort in Cincinnati demonstrates, there are other ways to attract investment.
February 9, 2017
By Kevin Wright  |  Contributor
Executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation
By Joe Nickol  |  Contributor
A senior associate for Columbus, Ohio-based MKSK

It's been an exciting decade for urban development. We have witnessed a resurgence of most of our nation's major urban cores, from the east to the west and everywhere in between. Demographics are shifting; people are moving inward. Demand for urban living and urban economies continues to grow.

Now the development momentum is beginning to trickle out of downtown neighborhoods and central-city employment centers and into neighborhoods that haven't seen large-scale investments in over half a century. And yet it seems likely, when it comes to these "first ring" neighborhoods, that government subsidies will be much more limited compared to what has been poured into our city centers over the last decade. Not only are the political winds uncertain, but public funding is finite. Is this fair? It doesn't really matter. It's reality.

But there are reasons to remain optimistic. We're learning that it needn't always take big public subsidies to begin turning a neighborhood around.

What if, instead of spending massive amounts on a bricks-and-mortar project, we instead focused on what we're calling the "demand discovery" phase of neighborhood development -- where small expenditures on infrastructure and pop-up amenities can show market potential and draw in investment? In other words, if we know that developers are more likely to invest in neighborhoods with already established "third places," such as coffee shops and cafés, then why don't we get to work at creating those first?

This small-and-smart approach is cheaper for cities, less risky for developers and less scary for long-time residents. A real-time example of this new model at work is the Walnut Hills neighborhood in Cincinnati, where the neighborhood community development corporation, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF), didn't start by creating a new neighborhood plan but instead began by dusting off old plans to see what still made sense today. That, followed by a broad set of demand-creation strategies, quickly brought about small but still catalytic change to the neighborhood's historic commercial corridor.

One of those demand-building projects, the Five Points Alley, has become nationally known and is widely considered to be the spark that led the neighborhood down a path of accelerating reinvestment. The project, launched in 2013 at a time when market investment was basically nonexistent, has drawn in visitors, developers and business owners alike. The process was fairly simple and cheap, but not small in its ambition.

Neighborhood leaders first focused on Walnut Hills' alleys through crime-prevention activities and decided to do a clean-up project to reduce blight, litter and criminal activity. But that was just the beginning. WHRF began to engage in programming that tested the market for development in the neighborhood. One such effort took the form of a pop-up beirgarten. It was simple: a couple kegs of local beer, a local musician, a food truck and some 5-gallon buckets for seating. The outcome? An outpouring of support from neighborhood residents who had been waiting for someone to give them something to walk to, highlighting the untapped spending power of the community.

Over the following years WHRF prototyped other ideas within the neighborhood's unique system of alleys and observed who came and how they used the space. This programming and data collection, coupled with some property acquisition and small-scale infrastructure changes, have resulted in multimillion-dollar mixed-use developments that have helped the community begin to tackle larger social-justice and quality-of-life goals. Possibly more important, the process also has allowed the community to experience small change first, which helped lead to broader support for the kinds of bigger changes that were needed but that residents all too often fear.

Certainly we all still want that multimillion-dollar investment that, in a single stroke, pushes a struggling neighborhood over the tipping point. But we need to realize that smarter, more strategic and sometimes smaller investments in helping communities discover demand can be just as catalytic.