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Archive: Roberta Brandes Gratz

Funding the Grassroots: New ArtPlace Initiative Makes Eminent Sense

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Sep 24 2011

For Release Saturday, September 24, 2011

Roberta Brandes GratzBy God they got it! They finally got it! Bravo to National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landsman, his staff and the consortium of government agencies, foundations and corporations for their pledge to invest generously in locally-formed, modest-scale cultural enterprises as generators of urban rebirth.

This group’s new program, ArtPlace, will distribute $11.5 million in grants and $12 million in loans to programs that integrate the arts into local efforts in transportation, housing, community development and job creation. For decades, exactly these kinds of efforts have been a prime renewer of downtowns. Denver, Sante Fe, Portland, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga. Name a reborn downtown district and you’ll find similar modest catalysts that added up to big change.

And this is not just about artists or even the arts as narrowly defined. It’s about the ancillary services and businesses that creative work attracts and, critically, it is about energizing an area so that all kinds of activities are attracted to locate there.
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Healing the Urban Heart: Chattanooga’s Next Great Challenge

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 07 2011

For Release Thursday, July 7, 2011

Roberta Brandes GratzIn 1969, Walter Cronkite, in one of his nightly newscasts, called Chattanooga “the dirtiest city in America.” The pollution was so thick that drivers needed headlights to see through the fog, men took two white shirts to work for morning and afternoon, and respiratory deaths were 20 percent higher than national average. Today, Chattanooga is one of the cleanest cities; its success on a number of fronts has raised concern of being too successful.

The city is indeed blessed with the spectacular Tennessee River snaking through it, a setting surrounded by small mountains and woodlands filled with recreational attractions. The 1970 Clean Air Act forced the issue of pollution and by 1972 clean air standards were met. In the meantime, the city was working on big plans for change.

“We were the smart ones,” Mayor Ron Littlefield, a professional planner, told a meeting with the Citistates Group last week. “The city produced a detailed plan, colorful documents and maps, gathered lots of figures and then delivered them to the people. We figured they would recognize our genius and run with it.”
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Stockholm Model: Planning Yields Dramatic Results

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jun 23 2011

For Release Thursday, June 23, 2011

Roberta Brandes GratzSTOCKHOLM — Imagine this: A major city center redevelopment scheme would take down two highway bridges and build one replacement, shrink vehicular access from 12 to 8 lanes (6 for cars, 2 for trams and buses), expand cycle, pedestrian and public transit capacity, diminish the number and height of proposed new buildings after public comment, and add a sizable park also at the urging of the public. No developer input is solicited or accepted until a final design is approved by the City Council and fully designed. Plus, the long and involved process, with its extensive public input, actually thrills city planners.

Sound like a fantasy?

For Americans, yes, but not in Stockholm, where this is the story of the Slussen redevelopment plan for the city’s central, most historic district — where Lake Maelaren meets the Baltic Sea and where the city was founded in the 13th century.

Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Stockholm is located on 14 islands on the south-central east coast of Sweden. Lake Maelaren is a freshwater lake feeding into the Baltic Sea. A lock has connected these two bodies of water since the mid-17th century and is critical for the prevention of flooding by the lake.
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How to Beat the Shrinking City Syndrome

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Apr 29 2011

For Release Friday, April 29, 2011

Roberta Brandes GratzNEW ORLEANS — Attention shrinking cities! New Orleans recently held an auction of blighted houses. More than 1,000 people showed up to bid on approximately 100 vacant houses and empty lots with an average of seven bidders per property. Officials were astounded. This stunning success has relevance beyond this beleaguered city and may offer a new clue about how to approach the shrinking city syndrome that is hollowing out other beleaguered cities with demolition-based strategies.

Before the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) auction, the city’s blight policy emphasized demolition on the assumption that people were not coming back, not enough new people were coming in, and that vacant property would sell better than damaged homes. Sound familiar? Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Buffalo and others use government funding to follow this path, assuming there is no other way.

Yet, in New Orleans, which experts erroneously thought would stay shrunk after Katrina, anecdotal evidence has long pointed in other directions. But since the city keeps no real records on renovation permits for blighted properties, and since, as well, there are more hurdles to property reclamation here than getting to the moon, this auction speaks volumes about a scenario different from official assumptions.
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A Biotech Disaster in New Orleans?

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Mar 24 2011

For Release Thursday, March 24, 2010

Roberta Brandes GratzIf you want to understand why New Orleans will remain a troubled city longer than it has to, don’t look at the disasters that have befallen it. Look at the big projects it pursues in an erroneous effort to recovery from them.

Since Katrina, an intense controversy has raged around the misguided, excessively large and overly expensive plan to build two new hospitals on 67 acres instead of retrofitting the hardly-damaged Charity hospital and Veterans Administration hospitals sooner and cheaper. (Citiwire, May 2010).

But out of the spotlight has been an even larger, equally questionable plan in the same Mid-City neighborhood. It’s to develop a BioDistrict on 1500 acres. The two new hospitals are included here, along with a very densely populated, economically and socially integrated community, reborn nicely after the storms. Several hundred restored, occupied homes are threatened. The homes on this footprint are the same quintessential New Orleanian predominantly-shotgun cottages, many two family, that are being lost from the footprint of the hospitals. Mid-City is the largest National Historic District in the city.
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Rebuilding Detroit the Sane Way — A Block at a Time

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Dec 24 2010

For Release Sunday, December 26, 2010

Roberta Brandes GratzDETROIT — Organic development, not “big bang projects” — that’s the sane, and effective way, to build and rebuild great cities.

For evidence check out hard-pressed Detroit’s corner of Michigan Avenue and 14th Street, located at the nexus of Corktown (Detroit’s oldest neighborhood), Mexican Town (the city’s largest Hispanic area), and downtown. This was abandoned territory, the desolation underscoring the fact it faces Detroit’s most visible failure — the extraordinary but abandoned 18-story, 1913 Michigan Central train station, designed by the same architects of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
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Upstate New York Revival: Genius – or Common Sense?

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Nov 05 2010

For Release Sunday, November 7, 2010

Roberta Brandes GratzMT. MORRIS, N.Y. — In recent years, when Greg O’Connell looked down the Main Street of Mt. Morris, this upstate village of 3,000 in the middle of sprawling farms 40 miles south of Rochester, he saw vacant derelict buildings. Some had walls and roofs falling in or about to do so; most were abandoned or foreclosed by banks.

But now O’Connell sees a Main Street on its way to renewal, with restored buildings filled with new businesses and upstairs apartments. A small theater occupies a former storefront church.

“It was a ghost town,” he said with a smile recently, as we ate a fabulous Italian dinner in a recently opened small owner-run restaurant. Nobody, however, had bothered — or had the funds — to tear down any of the classic 50-odd two story 19th century storefronts that were once fully occupied.
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Redeveloping an Old City the Right (Thoughtful) Way

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 16 2010

For Release Sunday, July 18, 2010

Roberta Brandes GratzSYRACUSE, N.Y. — “Rightsizing the city” has a different meaning here than in cities where the demolition of vacant homes is the primary but historically fruitless solution. In this upstate post-industrial city, an extraordinary coalition has come together around a multi-faceted policy of regeneration by adding the positive rather than straining to remove the negative.

No one seems left out of the loose partnership among the mayor, university chancellor, assorted neighborhood groups and business associations. The positive spirit is palpable just talking to local residents and activists and viewing reviving rundown areas spread around town.

“There is a ‘can do’ sense throughout the city,” says designer and preservation activist Beth Crawford, “a sense that neighborhoods can fight for what they need and want, oppose demolitions, achieve good planning and needed enforcement.”
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New Orleans’ Third Crisis: Suburb-Style Hospital Plan

Roberta Brandes Gratz / May 06 2010

For Release Sunday, May 12, 2010

Roberta Brandes Gratz

NEW ORLEANS – As if this storied city has not been beset enough with disasters, the oil spill is actually its third man-made catastrophe after the levee failures during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Gaining little outside attention is the real second on-going disaster, a thoughtlessly cited, destructively planned hospital complex that promises to cripple New Orleans in many unrecognized ways.

Everyone in the city wants both hospitals it had before the storms – Charity run by LSU and the Veteran’s Hospital. But the city, through a decision-making process that was glaringly non-transparent, has approved a complex requiring the destruction of a tax-paying, historic neighborhood of homes restored with government money. The hospitals will form of a suburban-type campus, away from the already struggling downtown core, in a location that may make regeneration of the historic center close to impossible.

While Charity’s minimally-damaged, perfectly reusable historic downtown facility sits empty, LSU is being given at least twice the land it needs to build a new, car-dependant campus with considerable extra acreage for future profit-making commercial development that will compete with and further erode the fragile business district. Together with the VA Hospital, Charity will share 67 acres built on a platform 22 feet in the air. Streets disconnected from the grid with minimum pedestrian access, this suburban-style campus will be totally car-dependant and isolated from the existing city, which has been showing real healthy signs of regeneration.

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Demolition a Wrong Answer For Imperiled Neighborhoods

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jun 18 2009

For Release Thursday, June 18, 2009

Roberta Brandes Gratz America is in peril of a Demolition Derby, financed by public dollars, striking many of our grand old cities.

Flint, Youngstown, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Detroit are typical of the post-industrial cities in which troubled neighborhoods are experiencing abandonment and foreclosure and public officials are talking of using public funds to demolish whole blocks if not whole neighborhoods.

But is the bulldozer the best solution? One is hard pressed to find a city or even a neighborhood that was ever regenerated through demolition of vacant buildings. Didn’t we learn of the hollow results from the discredited post-World War II urban renewal policies that destroyed — and for decades left bereft — vast tracks of troubled residential structures?

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