The G Word

There’s a new book out about the gentrification of Brooklyn and how it went from crime riddled to cool.
As the book “The New Brooklyn: What it Takes to Bring a City Back” notes, ask any mayor–well not any mayor– what they want and they’ll say safe and bustling streets,  events, culture, busy stores and restaurants, jobs and visitors.
In other words, gentrification. Only we don’t say the word.

Because it’s loaded.
Because gentrification often comes with displacement. When values go up, poor and middle class residents often get priced out. And when rents go up, it can mean the loss of treasured retailers and restaurants.
Gentrification yields winners and losers. There’s no doubt. But the book on Brooklyn notes that when cities decline everyone loses. So why not just leave everything alone then?

Well, it’s just not that simple in most cases. Change is a constant–unless you live in an historic district. Most of us don’t.

I was thinking about this when we ventured to Olio restaurant on a recent beautiful Saturday night.
We hadn’t been to Olio in a while.

It’s located south of Atlantic in what some are calling the “Sofa” district for south of the avenue.
Downtown was mobbed, lots of people walking, dining and riding the Downtowner.
We ran into two friends from Pittsburgh who visit for a month every year and they were astounded and delighted by the action and the new businesses.
They loved it.
Sitting outside at Olio and enjoying a wonderful evening, I thought to myself if I didn’t already live here this is where I’d want to be.
A small town with big city amenities–great restaurants, interesting shops, great hotels, culture and a beautiful beach.
At least that’s how I see downtown Delray Beach.
But we had to park a block and a half away and when we left the restaurant and went home there was a back-up at the intersection of Swinton and Atlantic. For us, we didn’t mind at all. It’s ok to walk a block or so to park. If we wanted too, we could have taken an Uber or a Lyft or the aforementioned Downtowner, which fortunately serves my neighborhood.

As for the back up at Swinton and Atlantic— eventually it moves and it doesn’t happen all year–only during “season” or during weekends when stores and restaurants are doing brisk sales. I can live with the slight inconvenience (emphasis on slight) because I want to see downtown businesses thrive.

But others don’t see it quite the same way. They consider parking a hassle or worse and traffic and congestion as a terrible inconvenience.
They see some favorite businesses close or move and it bothers them. I get it. I miss a few of those places too. (To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel: “where have you gone Green Owl, a breakfast crowd turns its lonely eyes to you”).
Things change.
Cities change.
Downtowns evolve.
Sometimes they boom.
Sometimes they bust.
When they boom there are winners.
And there are losers.
But when cities bust, there are only losers.
I’ve lived here 30 years.
Our downtown has changed during that time.
There wasn’t much south of the avenue in the 80s and 90s–a sausage factory, empty lots and blight. Today, there’s Sofa, the apartment complex, an indoor cycling facility, Olio and more.
I like it. Based on the crowds we’re seeing and the property values of nearby neighborhoods I’m guessing others do too.
When I moved into town, Pineapple Grove was anchored by a tire store, empty streets and a self service car wash. Today, there’s Brule, Papas Tapas, the Coffee District, Christina’s, a bookstore, gym, other great restaurants, the Arts Garage, Bedner’s and Artists Alley.
I like it. It’s better than it was. A lot better, in my opinion.
There wasn’t much happening on 4th Avenue north of the avenue. Today, Beer Trade Company is killing it and Ocean City Lofts is a coveted address.
West Atlantic Avenue has been vastly improved since the 80s.
It still has a long way to go but it’s been beautified with paver bricks, the Elizabeth Wesley Plaza, a gateway feature and improved by investments such as the Fairfield Inn and Atlantic Grove which has some great spots including Ziree and Windy City Pizza.
It’s a lot better and vastly safer than it was when hundreds of people would be hanging out near the old Paradise Club on Sunday nights. Police officers and firefighters were routinely showered with rocks when they responded to calls for help.
Change is not always easy and it always comes with trade offs–create a place that is attractive and you get traffic.
Raise rents because your successful and beloved stores may leave. But because your successful you won’t see vacancies.
You get the picture.
Gentrification has winners and losers, decline has nothing but losers.
The key is to be aware and to be sensitive to those impacted and find creative ways so they can win too.  Create housing, job and cultural opportunities for all, get involved in your schools, encourage the private sector to offer creative space and not chase away artists, develop other parts of your city. But don’t stop paying attention to your core.

Be hyper vigilant about what’s happening and do what you can to create opportunities for all–small businesses, young families, kids returning after school, retirees, start-ups and growing companies.

Manage but don’t stifle.

Encourage ideas.

Reach out to your citizens  and don’t keep your own counsel.

Lead with humility, praise others, model civility, inclusiveness, exhibit gratitude and foster civic pride.

Repeat. Because you are never done. And that’s what’s so fascinating about cities.

Gentrification: A National Trend With Local Examples

Sofa is one of several projects on the drawing boards in Delray

Sofa is one of several projects on the drawing boards in Delray

Gentrification is back.
So declared The Wall Street Journal today in a piece that talked about neighborhoods across the nation that are spiking in value as the housing market recovers.
According to the Journal, there is a cultural shift taking place in which people are flocking to walkable, urban neighborhoods where they can access retail, dining and cultural amenities unavailable in the suburbs.
Locally, downtown Delray Beach has been hot for awhile now, but for many years there was a lull in development downtown, especially residential development.
But recent projects including SOFA, Uptown, The Strand and Atlantic Crossing indicate a strong desire in the marketplace for downtown living.
Some residents are concerned about the number of units being added, fearing traffic, noise and a change to the “village by the sea” ambience that Delray has been known for.
Others don’t mind the new development but worry about the mix, saying that projects should be owner-occupied, not rentals and that developers should shun efficiency and one-bedroom units and aim for couples and empty-nesters rather than young singles.
“I am very interested in finding a unit downtown,” says Ryan Carr, a recent transplant from Maryland. “But I really don’t want to live in a Melrose Place type of situation with a lot of young people interested in partying on the avenue for a few years. I’d like to find a place where people own and will settle in and really make Delray Beach a long term home.”
Supporters of downtown housing say they don’t worry about traffic because urban dwellers want to live in a place where they don’t need or use their cars much.
“The whole idea of living downtown is not to drive,” says Sabrina Lebeau, who is renting this winter with the intention of finding a place downtown for a permanent home. “I love seeing the bikes, the golf carts and the trolleys and Downtowner. That’s the lifestyle that I’m seeking. And if I use a car, it will be for short trips to Publix or the pharmacy. I want to live in walking distance to shops, the beach and restaurants.”
Downtown Boca Raton is also beginning to take shape.
Mizner Park has a very lively restaurant and retail scene and east Boca is rife with amenities attractive to urban dwellers from boutiques and organic markets to concerts and downtown exercise classes.
But what about local emerging neighborhoods?
Local experts say all of east Boca is hot right now and in Delray locals are keeping a close watch on “south of the ave” where developers such as Related are making big bets.
Here’s what the Journal says to watch for to determine whether an area is gentrifying:
Median Household incomes are rising
Home values are appreciating faster than the city on average
Government is investing in local infrastructure
Has a dense, urban population
Is located near job centers
Has a strong retail base
Has an older, attractive housing stock
Home renovations are common.