Community Development Partnerships are Ushering in a New Era of Citizen Power

I moved to Washington, D.C. a few years ago. Previously, I called Chicago and Phoenix home. I came to love both the complicated heritage and “make no small plans” attitude of Chicago as well as the strange and inventive impulses inspired by the relatively young city of Phoenix. While acclimating myself to both cities, I learned that you only get out of a city what you put into it. I applied this same mantra when arriving to D.C. and hit the streets to find what made the city tick.

The Save McMillan campaign flyer seeking to rally community residents.

When I arrived, I noticed a large, fenced off and seemingly abandoned piece of property across the street from my apartment. It spanned multiple city blocks. My view of what was beyond the fence was almost entirely obscured by overgrown vines and weeds. I could only see the top of a few brick towers peeking over the fence. I later learned this was the old McMillan Sand Filtration Site, an obsolete water filtration plant shut down in 1986. I was disappointed to see such a significant portion of land sitting unused in a city known for its soaring housing prices and low residential building stock, not to mention the neighborhood’s lack of green space and other important amenities. A few days later, I came across a flier publicizing a community meeting to “SAVE MCMILLAN.” If I wanted to understand my new community, this seemed like a good place to start. Little did I know I was about shove my hand into the community equivalent of a hornet’s nest.

The site had an interesting history. A prime example of the City Beautiful Movement, the plant filtered water using sand and the space above the catacombs where this occurred was made into a publicly accessible park. Following World War II, it was closed to the public and several decades later was entirely shut down. The site was purchased by the District of Columbia in 1987, designated a historic landmark in 1991 and has been identified as a prime site for commercial and residential development in numerous city plans since. I learned all of this while reading a handout given to me when I entered the eclectic rowhome that served as the meeting space for the Save McMillan campaign. I anxiously waited, noticing the hugs and handshakes between people. I introduced myself to a few people and quickly discovered how deeply entrenched they were, both in their community and in this campaign. I was the newest of the new, by what I imagine was years.

I witnessed a handful of impassioned speeches by a collection of community leaders, all of which boiled down to this: the District of Columbia’s process for redeveloping the site was rushed and thus ignored community concerns about open space, traffic and neighborhood affordability. In response, the Save McMillan Coalition, DC for Reasonable Development and Friends of McMillan Park joined forces to bury the District’s plans in lawsuits, resulting in an ongoing 14-year battle between the District government and community activists. At the conclusion of the meeting, I quickly rushed out, realizing this was not my fight.

That day was parked in my mind for a while. I thought a lot about the anger and frustration the McMillan plan had elicited. In the days that followed, I began reading the various site plans and realized how, from an urban planning perspective, they addressed a lot of community needs. Most, if not all, of the historic silos would be preserved and featured, there would be publicly accessible open space, retail space for a grocery store and 800 new residential units, half of which would be designated “affordable.” This new plan replaced the previous plans dating back to 2007. Clearly, the D.C. Department of Planning and Development learned from their early mistakes and worked hard to understand gaps in services and amenities in the neighborhood via a more inclusive public input process. This was in stark relief to the meeting, where I never heard a unified alternative vision for the site. Some people wanted it to become urban agriculture, others wanted a destination open space with music venues, while others wanted a new planning and bid process that centered on an open design contest. They only agreed that D.C.’s plans had to be stopped.

Proposed renderings of the McMillan Development (Source: Envision McMillan)

This felt dangerously counter-productive and I was prepared to waive this off as an extreme example of NIMBYism, until I had a brief discussion with a neighbor at a neighborhood party a few months later. She was also a new resident and had become involved in the Save McMillan campaign. I expressed that I had attended a meeting but was concerned that the obstructionist tactics would exclude much-needed amenities from the neighborhood. She responded, in a distrustful tone, “much-needed amenities for whom?”

She raised a good point. Of course, there were plans for affordable units on-site and the laws of economics state more supply to meet demand drives down prices. But recent research suggests new development may lower housing prices regionally while simultaneously increasing housing prices at the neighborhood level. The McMillan development was going to provide necessary amenities but at the expense of the original residents who would have benefitted most from their arrival. And yes, the community was consulted numerous times through engaging design charrettes but those who attended may not have been representative of the more vulnerable neighborhood populations with irregular work hours, the very same populations that were dwindling in number due to already increasing housing prices. It dawned on me then that long-time community residents, the ones at risk of displacement, were the ones objecting to a flawed process that never incorporated them. When D.C. tried to amend for their previous sins, it was too late – the damage was done. It is difficult to close the gap of distrust once it is suddenly ripped open. This was not another NIMBY group; this was the few remaining working-class residents revolting against a system that was not designed for them. The McMillan saga displays the inadequacy of traditional community engagement for development projects in 21st century American cities. Residents want development but they want it done in a way that preserves their right to live in the community they call home.

A New Era

Cities and neighborhoods have been undergoing radical change over the past decade. Low-income communities are facing emerging development pressures, resulting in skyrocketing costs of living and the displacement of long-time residents. Local governments are eager to approve new developments to help ensure much-needed infrastructure upgrades. Yet, in their rushed, albeit well-meaning, push to upgrade infrastructure and spur development, local governments and partner developers have been caught doing just about the bare minimum when it comes to community engagement. There is a phrase for this that has been popular within urban planning circles for years: they are “checking a box.” This touch-and-go process of community engagement – in which project teams present mostly complete plans and gather comments not required to be addressed in the final plan – has only become more exclusionary under our virtual pandemic world. It is no surprise, then, when communities revolt against plans deemed to be in their best interest. This breeds distrust between local officials and the communities they serve, ensuring a continued adversarial relationship throughout future planning and development processes. Stop me if you have heard this before.

Of course, not all planning and development teams keep the community at arm’s length. While some project teams seek to only “check a box,” others bring the public in early and often to comment on a variety of elements within a plan. But, at the end of the day, the framework of a plan or the adjustments made for a development are solely controlled by either the local government or the developers. Increasing the number of touch points with the public will not bridge the gap between development priorities and community desires. Instead, local officials, developers, and communities need to begin working together to build systems that fully integrate residents into the planning process.

Shelley Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

Advocates for more inclusive planning processes owe a lot to Shelley Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Published in 1969, Arnstein’s guide revealed the hierarchy of citizen participation in planning processes, ordered according to the public’s influence on important decisions. Arnstein believed most public participation efforts at the time fell under the “nonparticipation” rung at the bottom. Today, we recognize steps (4) Consultation and (5) Placation as the prevailing form of public participation. Arnstein’s hope was to one day have citizens regularly enter into Partnerships (6) with traditional power-holders and therefore negotiate key decisions on behalf of the community. Five decades later, this vision of citizen power is finally coming to fruition. Driven by the urgent desire to stabilize neighborhood development, city residents are forming unique partnerships that help ensure planning and development decisions reflect the desires of the community.  

Community Development Partnerships

Property development has long been the territory of real estate magnates and investment trusts and has been the biggest force shaping our cities for the last century. Some community groups and local governments have identified the power for change inherent to private property development and are now seeking ways to guide this energy towards more equitable results. Several unique development partnerships have emerged in U.S. cities over the last quarter-century. These include community land trusts, community benefit agreements and New York state’s brownfield opportunity areas. Some folks reading might already be aware of these frameworks, and for good reason – they have all been cited as innovative approaches to creating community-driven development.  The growing prevalence of these unique partnerships are indicative of a larger trend of the public being granted more direct power over public decision-making. Some developers may fear that including the public in the planning process will delay the project and increase cost but, given how many projects – including the McMillan redevelopment discussed earlier – are faced with rabid opposition and lengthy legal delay from disgruntled communities, partnering with public representatives early is a small price for preventing more costly delays down the road. These partnerships are tools in a larger toolbox and discussing how and why they have been used will help communities and cities create similar, or even iteratively improved, tools for their planning processes.

Community Land Trusts

Community land trusts (CLTs) can have a variety of functions but, for the most part, they have been used to preserve housing affordability for residential developments. They neutralize the market factors that cause housing prices to skyrocket and plummet by separating land and housing ownership. The trust – a nonprofit organization made up of community members and public representatives – acquires land using public funds and enters into a long-term lease agreement with low-income families living in structures built on the land. Doing this ensures the purchase price of a home on trust property is affordable because the homeowner is only purchasing the price of the structure, not the land. As part of the lease agreement, the homeowner will sell the home at a similarly reduced price to keep it affordable in perpetuity but may be able to realize appreciation from improvements and increased property value. Most importantly, CLT decision-making is made by community members on the board, ensuring community control over local assets and that development of those assets is done in the community’s best interest.

Members of the Durham Community Land Trust putting the finishing touches on a newly-constructed home (Source: Durham Community Land Trustees)

CLTs offer a lot of promise, beyond residential development – some recent CLTs have broadened their focus to help build inclusive and affordable mixed-use communities. CLTs can be a stable and empowering force for long-time residents and the fullest extent of their impact is only just starting to be realized. There are now over 270 CLTs in the United States, a total which jumped nearly 70% in just 15 years. City governments across the country are beginning to pass bold affordable housing plans to counteract rising housing costs; if they are serious about creating lasting affordable living for their residents then funding for CLTs is a given.

Community Benefit Agreements

CLTs largely play out parallel to the real estate market. They are an alternative approach to development, a community planning process rebuilt from the ground up with residents at the wheel. But the real estate market remains a dynamic force in community development and local leaders have found a way to ensure new development serves the larger community’s interest – by requiring developers to sign a community benefit agreement (CBA). A CBA is a contract between community groups and a developer that ensures the developer provides certain amenities and protections to the community in which a property is being developed. It emerged in the late 1990s as a tool to help urban communities see measurable improvements from the growing development occurring in American cities.

The first CBA negotiated was for a planned development of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Los Angeles, CA. The community had concerns about the traffic and environmental impacts and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg requested the developer work with community groups to come to a mutually beneficial agreement before she approved the permitting and $90 million in subsidies for the project. The result was the basis for future CBAs: in exchange for community and financial support, the developer would finance traffic improvements, source hiring from the adjacent neighborhoods, and pay workers at the center a living-wage. CBAs have now been used to ensure a wide swathe of benefits, including affordable housing, green infrastructure, recreational and community facility access, and MBE/WBE contracting. CBAs have the power to create developments that are simultaneously profitable and beneficial to the larger community. The next step in the evolution of CBAs is to codify them into the public approval and financing process. For a good example of this, just look to Atlanta. The City of Atlanta requires that any developer seeking public monies – like tax-increment financing – to finance a portion of a project must sign a CBA with the district’s community groups. I cannot help but imagine how much smoother the McMillan Redevelopment process would have gone if the developer were required to enter a CBA with local community groups.

Brownfield Opportunity Area Program

The New York Department of State runs the Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) Program, which funds local governments and community groups to develop plans for brownfield redevelopment. Like CBAs, the BOA program seeks to balance development pressures and community concerns. But unlike CBAs, the BOA program pushes community groups to the center of the planning and development process. BOA Plans are created by a coalition of community-based organizations (CBOs), local municipal officials and often a partner developer. These plans identify neighborhood priorities, strategic development sites, and key policies to help ensure that future development aligns with the community vision.

Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

The Newtown Creek BOA in Brooklyn, New York is well-known for being the most prominent example of the “just green enough” approach to redevelopment. The plan focused on creating “a 21st century industrial corridor” by prioritizing both local prosperity and environmental improvements. BOA plans are non-binding but they help create community and municipal buy-in. With the community and local government working in tandem, they can more effectively dictate the form development takes moving forward.

The BOA Program should be replicated in other jurisdictions but it should also serve as a model – let’s call it the coalition-planning fund model – for states and municipalities wanting to rebuild and re-invest equitably in underserved neighborhoods. Unfortunately, New York stopped funding their BOA program several years ago. The program began in 2005 and, although it has already funded over 20 plans for brownfield redevelopment, 15 years is not enough time to fully understand the impact of this program. Funding should be resumed so researchers and planners can evaluate the effectiveness of the program and find ways to optimize it in other states and for other development objectives.

Looking Forward

Providing grants to community groups to found community land trusts, requiring developers seeking public monies to sign CBAs, and funding local coalitions to create community-driven development plans; Innovative partnership strategies like these are emerging in cities across the country and are part of a movement to give citizens more power over the development of their neighborhoods. This is not just about throwing communities a bone; this is a radical ideological departure from the traditional approach to community development. I like to think Shelley Arnstein would be proud to see the dawning of this new era of citizen participation.  Community leaders, local officials and city planners should keep pushing for strategies that put the community at the wheel. After all, our cities have evolved; so should the processes used to develop them.

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