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Creating Green Space Without Displacing The Neighbors

By Conni Kunzler | July 24, 2017

Source: Aamer Madhani, “As cities look to get greener, lower-income residents fear gentrification,” USA Today

Chicago, IL (June 29, 2017) – By many measures, the 2.7-mile recreation trail, known as The 606, built on old Chicago & Pacific Railroad line is a model use of public space since it opened two years ago. While it brought much-needed green space, it also drove up property values and uprooted long-time residents. How can cities balance revitalizing green space and neighborhood affordability?

Photo courtesy of Brandon Harris

The 606’s charms notwithstanding, some residents along the western portion of the trail say the recreational space has been both a blessing and curse. It brought much-needed green space in a part of Chicago that lacked it, but is also driving up property values and rent prices in their once affordable neighborhood.

Call it the greening neighborhood conundrum. The paradox that Chicago faces with its new-ish gem to its park system is one playing out in other big cities around the U.S. that are also finding it’s difficult to add marquee park space on derelict tracks and bridges in low-income areas while also keeping housing prices in check for longtime residents.

Now, designers and city officials seeking to create recreational space on abandoned industrial eyesores are increasingly recognizing—some albeit belatedly— that they have a chicken-and-egg quandary on their hands: How do you add green space in lower-income areas without inevitably setting those populations up to be displaced by more well-heeled neighbors looking to enjoy the amenities?

“This issue calls for cross-sector collaboration,” said Adrian Benepe, director of city park development at The Trust for Public Land, the San Francisco-based nonprofit group that worked with Chicago officials on developing The 606. “It’s not enough to say you’re going to build a park and stick your head in the sand and say, ‘We only care about the park. We don’t care what else might be going on.’”

Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans for a new fund in April to help residents living near parts of Atlanta’s Beltline pay their rising tax bills in the area that has seen a rejuvenation during a years-long plan to rebuild old railway into a multi-use trail.

In Bozeman, Mont., the city of about 41,000 has set aside five acres for development of affordable housing adjacent to its forthcoming signature Story Mill Park, Benepe noted. The city is set to break ground on construction for the project this summer.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., organizers of the 11th Street Bridge Park, a $45 million proposal that would transform a dormant bridge into recreational space, have drawn up an “equitable development plan” that sets goals for affordable housing and job creation for residents in a low-income neighborhood that would be impacted by the project. The non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corp. has committed to spend $50 million to support groups providing affordable housing, early childhood education, food support and other services in area around the park.

The founders of the High Line in New York City—the much ballyhooed 1.45 mile trail built on abandoned railway on the lower West Side that was the forerunner to the 606 and similar “rails to trail” projects springing up throughout the U.S. and beyond—last year launched the High Line Network, a consortium that includes representatives from 19 adaptive reuse park projects across North America to help more easily share lessons learned.

The High Line which opened in 2009, saw property values spike 103% for real estate within a five-minute walk from the trail between 2003 and 2011, according to NYC government data.

The dazzling park, which has drawn more than 20 million visitors as of July 2014, has been criticized for becoming a tourist magnet rather than a neighborhood amenity. A 2016 study by Queens College political scientist Alex Reichl also found that fewer than 7% of High Line users were black or Latino—a striking observation considering the trail was built near two public housing complexes with large black and Latino populations.

“I want to make sure other people don’t make the mistakes we did, and learn how to deal with these issues,” Robert Hammond, co-founder of the High Line, told the website City Lab earlier this year. “We certainly don’t have all the answers.”

In Chicago, three city council members last month proposed a pilot ordinance that would require developers to pay as much as a $650,000 fee if they want to demolish and replace habitable housing near parts of the 606 trail that have seen property values increase by 48% since 2013.

The monies collected for the proposed Chicago program would go into an affordable housing trust, which would help homeowners pay for property taxes and needed home repairs. The ordinance appears to face an uphill battle of passing.

While real estate values in the neighborhoods around the trail have been rising for years, housing prices have risen sharply along the western segment of the trail that cuts through Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods—areas that historically have had large Latino populations, and until recent years, plenty of reasonable-priced housing.

The 606 has had more modest impact on the already-gentrified neighborhoods on its eastern edge, but real estate prices on the once affordable western side have skyrocketed by 48.2% since ground was broken on the trail in 2013 and by 9.4% during the first year the trail was open, according to a November 2016 report from the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University.

In the six years prior to the 606 opening, between 15% and 19% of single-family home sales went to investors and developers. In 2015, the year the trail opened, the figure reached 21%, and in the first quarter of 2016, it was almost 31%, the study found.

“It’s much more difficult to take action retroactively now that the market forces have already started to take force and gain momentum,” said Geoff Smith, the lead author of the DePaul study. “It’s a lot more expensive and complicated to intervene after the fact.”

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