The East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta was originally developed as a summer getaway for local city dwellers in the late 19th century, which featured a prestigious golf course that was converted from an amusement park.
The community grew through the 1940s and became more integrated with the rest of the city after World War II. By the mid-20th century, like many other communities, the neighborhood experienced White flight. The area that was more than 90% White in 1960 turned more than 90% Black come 1980, which was followed by a sustained period of disinvestment.
By the early 1990s, as the city was preparing to host the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $35.5 million to the Atlanta Housing Authority to renovate the area’s East Lake Meadows public housing site, an investment that residents considered long overdue, according to an Urban Institute report released Thursday.
The study from the nonprofit research organization evaluated the long-term impacts of that place-based revitalization effort. The group also assessed the impact that a place-based or comprehensive community initiative had on San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood.
Place-based initiatives are designed to transform disinvested areas by developing apartment buildings, funding small businesses, organizing residents, providing tax breaks, paving streets, revitalizing arts centers, and more, the report states.
The studies reveal that such place-based revitalization initiatives can often experience two conflicting pitfalls: They contribute to gentrification or leave neighborhoods as impoverished as they were when efforts originally began. But Urban Institute senior researcher and report author Brett Theodos said these challenges are not insurmountable, and city leaders now have ample resources and knowledge to support the goals of those efforts.
Atlanta’s East Lake Initiative
Atlanta’s East Lake place-based initiative has directly invested or leveraged over $600 million into the community since 1995, according to the report, with support coming from philanthropic gifts, government funding, and private market debt and equity financing.
The initiative established mixed-income housing, community facilities and retail redevelopments such as a new public golf course, a YMCA branch and the neighborhood's first grocery store. It also supported cradle-to-college education and community wellness.
The East Lake Foundation created 542 new mixed-income housing units on the site of a public housing development, becoming one of the "country’s first modern, planned mixed-income developments," according to the study. The third phase of development is also currently in construction and will include 108 new apartments — 70 of which will be available to families earning 50% to 60% of the area's median income.
Overall, Atlanta’s East Lake initiative led to "sizable local changes," the report said. Those differences include decreases in poverty and crime and increases in income, college degree holders and home values, according to an email from Urban Institute spokesperson Daniel Fowler.
However, those outcomes may not actually stem from the initiative's intentional efforts. "These effects may be driven by changes of people rather than changes for people, as the study also finds that the share of the population that was Black decreased and the share that was White increased," according to Fowler.
San Diego’s City Heights initiative
San Diego's City Heights neighborhood initiative, which was supported by philanthropic gifts, government funding, and private market debt and equity financing, has directly invested or leveraged over $212 million into the community since 1995.
Prior to these investments, City Heights, located just east of the city's central business district, was known as a "high-crime area." The rate of crime was in part due to the effects of the California Department of Transportation purchasing and boarding up several hundred homes ahead of a freeway extension that took decades to complete.
The City Heights revitalization effort has involved investments in physical redevelopment and human services, particularly for children and youth. The effort oversaw the development of an elementary school, in addition to a large adult continuing education building. The initiative has also provided various scholarships, mentorships, tutoring, summer programming and college prep for area students.
In addition to its investments in educational resources, the effort also oversaw new housing developments, while also supporting real estate for education, retail and community facilities.
The effort which invested hundreds of millions of dollars over 25 years, ultimately "did not have many measurable effects apart from population on the neighborhood," Theodos said.
So while the neighborhood population increased, its economic standing experienced little change over the course of the study. However, much of the initiative’s investments were human service-focused, which involved helping first-generation students get to college. Many of those students may not have returned to the neighborhood, he said.
It's possible the community functioned as a "launchpad," according to Fowler, with successive waves of new residents joining the neighborhood, benefiting from it and moving away. Thus, leaving the economics of the area unchanged as they are replaced by newcomers.
While the two place-based initiatives resulted in different outcomes and experienced many complex challenges, Theodos said there are some key takeaways he hopes city leaders can glean, especially as there are currently 22 place-based initiatives across the U.S.
First, leaders should understand that place-based developments are long and costly commitments. "If we are going to bring a disinvested neighborhood up to the point of being invested… we are going to need a large amount of sustained investment," he said. As such, these efforts also require an institution, typically a nonprofit, to guide the processes. Government-led projects can sometimes become too associated with one mayoral administration, according to Theodos, presenting challenges when leadership turns over.
The initiative should also be designed to help retain some control of the land, whether through solutions like long-term affordable housing or a community land trust. "If the strategy works… there needs to be a way to preserve community benefits for long-term residents so that they’re not displaced," he said.
Looking ahead, Theodos said that leaders today have a lot more clarity about the designs, tools, costs, programs and partners required to build place-based initiatives. But he said that sustaining enough investment in a particular place over the long term remains the fundamental challenge. The need currently dwarfs the resources, he said, "which means we don’t stay in a given place long enough or big enough. And that is a challenge that I don’t see as easy to overcome."