Gentrification is not a four letter word [7]

Gentrification is a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.
- Wikipedia

This week I’m focusing my thoughts on series of articles related to gentrification and urban development. It worries me that people use the word gentrification as ammunition to fight development and urban investments. Change is inevitable, and more often than not, change can be fore the better.

We are in an age where we are transforming our cities to make them better for people, as we look to future needs and ways to address the climate crisis. Seattle just ripped out a highway cutting off the downtown from the waterfront, opening up this desirable real estate for new development and better uses than moving cars and trucks. New York famously turned half of Times Square, one of the busiest intersections in the world, into a pedestrian zone. NYC and is looking at similar proposals to transform other parts of the city. The former industrial area of DUMBO in Brooklyn has been redeveloping for the past decade and is now one of the most trendy places to live.

New housing and office developments transformed the Burnside Bridgehead in Portland, Oregon while plans for a bike path connecting downtown and the residential NE neighborhoods had to be altered as local residents fought it with arguments about its potential to increase gentrification. In the SE area of the city, Division street has morphed from a quieter low-density neighborhood into a corridor of high-density mixed use buildings with housing built over fancy shops, cafes, restaurants, and breweries.

All of these were investments that made these places more desirable. They also coincided with a shift in demand for being in those locations from a housing and business perspective. Demand increased, prices rose, neighborhoods changed. Such is the life of a city.

In places from Seattle and San Francisco in the west, to Austin and New Orleans in the south, and Boston and New York in the East, gentrification is a hotly debated topic as cities invest in new infrastructure, wealthier people migrate to new neighborhoods, lower income people move to others, and we build new housing, offices, and infrastructure. With these changes, people are quick to blame gentrification for the negatives they associate with the result of these changes.

Every project has side effects, and I am not arguing that isn’t the case. Some of those side effects negatively affect some people. This is definitely true. At the same time, gentrification isn’t necessarily a wholly negative thing. Gentrification is just a word describing the natural evolution of cities and it comes with many positives. Urban investment benefits long standing residents just as it does those moving to gentrifying areas. Better streets, more transit options, nicer parks, lower crime, new businesses, new public amenities, better funded schools, more job opportunities, and higher wages, are all byproducts of gentrification.

As discussed in some of the articles in the weekly reading below, displacement isn’t necessarily a direct biproduct either, even though it is used as one of the main arguments against neighborhood investments. Adding market rate or luxury housing doesn’t necessarily drive up rents or housing costs in the surrounding areas, especially if it is increasing housing density. And fighting against new housing, and therefore limiting supply, as the Bay Area has demonstrated, can make matters exponentially worse - driving up housing prices so high that only the wealthy can afford a place to live. In San Francisco it is the lack of development and investment that has caused it to become unaffordable. As the demand for a neighborhood or city increases, so too must supply to keep housing prices in balance.

My point is that cities are like organisms. They are constantly growing, changing and evolving to adapt to the ecosystem they are a part of. Gentrification is a natural and inevitable part of this evolutionary cycle of cities, and not something that we can control and not a reason we should prevent development. Rather than blame the word for our problems, instead we need to look at the root issues and address those directly.

If housing is getting too expensive then we need to BUILD MORE HOUSING. If wealthy individuals are buying up cheaper houses and renovating them into expensive homes, we need to build luxury housing to respond to the demand in that market, so cheaper homes are still available for others. If increased property values and taxes are driving low-income families out of the neighborhood we should look to implement a more progressive tax code that doesn’t unfairly burden low-income residents. At the same time we can use gentrification as a way to give people more opportunities and life in better, safer, more diverse neighborhoods.

Preventing change isn’t the answer. Fighting development is counterproductive. We should be building to meet the demand that the change brings.

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Reading Assignments

  1. How Gentrification Benefits Long Term Residents of Low Income Neighborhoods
    As the title of this weeks newsletter states, Gentrification isn’t necessarily bad. There are many benefits for people of all income levels.

new study from Quentin Brummet of the University of Chicago and  and Davin Reed of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, is the best evidence yet that this view of gentrification is fundamentally wrong.  Gentrification creates substantial benefits for long time residents of low income neighborhoods, and causes little displacement. 

  1. State Incentives For Local Abundant Housing Policy
    I love this idea. Rather than impose new rules on places that may initially be frustrated or resentful, why not use the carrot rather than the stick. A state offering local jurisdictions financial incentives if they adopt more flexible housing policies sounds like a win-win, and hopefully will convince local politicians to start enacting new laws.

  2. Five Steps To Prevent Displacement
    This is really what people are fighting against when they villainize gentrification. Displacing long term residents can have detrimental impacts on a community and prevents those residents from benefiting from the positive aspects of gentrification. We should be aware of this and aim to implement programs that can allow new development and neighborhood improvements without displacing the people who call that neighborhood home.

  3. If You Want Less Displacement Build More Housing
    Somehow, against what I see as common sense, an argument has arisen within the NIMBY crowd, that to prevent displacement you can’t build anything new. However, people need to move from time to time and they have to live somewhere. So if we aren’t building new housing and offer a range of housing options for ALL income levels, housing prices will keep rising and people will continue to be displaced as they no longer can afford to live in their desired neighborhood. We need to build more housing in all neighborhoods.

  4. How Stuff Works: Gentrification
    Let’s learn about what we are actually talking about. I hear the word “Gentrification” used in different contexts and it becomes clear that we aren’t all talking about the same thing. We need to understand the definition, what the causes are, and what the potential benefits and detriments.

  5. In Defense Of Change
    A great article from a few years ago about some of the struggles Portland was, and still is, going through as some fight to freeze the city in time, and others want to build the city we need for the future.

Cities are dynamic, cultivators of change. Jane Jacobs understood the importance of maintaining both new and old buildings in order for cities to thrive. A city must be adaptive as technology and culture changes, and Portland has utilized its natural setting and resources to quickly respond to our industrial heritage and move toward a climatically-sensitive future. In order to be sustainable, Portland must be able to change, and change again when need be. As Heraclitus once noted “the only thing that is constant is change,” and 2,500 years later Portland native Chuck Palahniuk similarly advised “hey, even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.” As a city, we must embrace change, because it occurs everyday whether we want it or not…


Weekly Design Inspiration

Dumbo Townhouses - Designed and Developed by Alloy

This project is unapologetically contemporary yet does well complimenting the historic context of the Dumbo neighborhood.

Elegant materials, simple form, and dynamic façade patterning is what draws me to the project. The scale fits in with the context, there is a nice distinction between the ground floor that interacts with the street and the mass of the building above. And the interiors take advantage of views of the Manhattan Bridge and historic brick buildings all around - bringing color and texture into the homes.


Sharing the love.

a person/organization that deserves more attention

Kevin Cavanaugh | Guerilla Development

Kevin and his company, Guerilla Development, are behind some of the most creative, and controversial, commercial real estate development projects in Portland, OR. He is also one of the reasons I’m interested in development rather than traditional architectural practice. Trained as an architect, Kevin is the guy who sees a car repair shop and envisions the future home of hip micro-restaurants, or takes a parcel of land surrounded by traffic-clogged roads and builds this:

I understand this isn’t everyone’s idea of great architecture. Heck, I wouldn’t have the audacity to design something like this - twin warping cubes, punctured by seemingly random square windows, covered in bright murals. But I’m sure glad someone did. In a city that is blanketed by gray skies for over half the year, and is being transformed by boring “SketchUp architecture” by developers and architects who care little about quality or community, it is refreshing to see splashes of color and a developer who wants to experiment.

Although the Fair-Haired Dumbbell is the most high profile project in their portfolio, it is a few of their other projects that are what I want to highlight here. While most developers are are focused on maximizing profits in gentrifying neighborhoods, Kevin is focused on “enough.” How much does a project need to generate to satisfy investors, and what is the community of people that a building can serve? What does the city of Portland need and how can they wield their expertise to help address communal problems? In Jolene’s First Cousin the answer is smaller profit margins but affordable housing for former homeless people. With SROs, $290/month rent, and shared amenities, this building is the first in a series of projects Kevin is developing across the city that provide government-subsidy-free affordable housing, while still working as a for profit investment. It is the type of development that contributes to the quality of the neighborhood - bringing new ground floor retail spaces and new neighbors and shoppers to the area, while helping transition away from living on the streets. An honorable mission and values that I’d love to see more developers embrace.

Side Note: I was lucky enough to work on the design for small business - Unicorn Bake Shop - that moved into one of the ground floor retail spaces in the Jolene’s First Cousin development. If you happen to find yourself in SE Portland, go check it out.

Hear more about Kevin’s work and his interest in “Enough” with this TEDxPortland talk he gave a couple of years ago.


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