As recently as ten years ago, DC’s bustling 14th Street corridor was riddled with crime and blight. Its rapid transformation is one version of the same story you can find all over the District. How can change of this magnitude serve existing communities rather than displace them?
On August 6th at The Studio Theater, a panel of speakers hosted by The Washington Post gathered to discuss this challenge, providing personal insights into how rapid transformation can be better managed and implemented so that it benefits everyone.
The panelists included Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, Mindful Restaurant Group owner Ari Gejdenson; Erik Bergman, a director of operations with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group; JBG Companies vice president Evan Regan-Levine; and Meridith Burkus, the managing director of Studio Theatre. Local Washington Post columnist John Kelly moderated the discussion.
The panelists discussed two separate (but interrelated) forms of gentrification. One is economic gentrification. In the context of the discussion, economic gentrification is the result of unsustainable costs of living due to the regulatory climate imposed by local government (for example, the expensive and unsubsidized cost of purchasing land).
Evan Regan-Levine summed up this challenge “How can we pair smart legislation with the desire to have the private sector invest in and redevelop neighborhoods without destroying that fabric?”
Then, there is cultural gentrification. In the context of the discussion, cultural gentrification is the result of residents feeling marginalized and unwelcome in their own neighborhoods, with their interests being superseded by surrounding business interests. To that end, businesses moving into newly developed neighborhoods hold a level of responsibility for ensuring that members of the community are welcomed and included.
Better public policy can shape the outcomes of economic gentrification
“A city is not a bank, it’s not a business. It really needs to think in terms of ‘What is our responsibility?’” said Andy Shallal. “First and foremost, it is for the citizens. And it’s not just the new people moving in. It’s the people who have lived here. Gentrification isn’t gravity…it happens because it’s intentional. It’s intentional by the city, it’s intentional by government.”
Part of the responsibility falls on government to make diverse and affordable development feasible for developers.
It starts with the price of housing, which is driven by the cost of land. And cost of land is, to a degree, controllable by government.
Communities are marginalized when they are displaced from their homes, so if housing could be made more affordable, the level of displacement would decrease. In an attempt to level the playing field, government needs to be held accountable for ensuring that all residents can afford to live in DC, while balancing the power of developers and special interest groups.
One way to create more affordable housing is through public-private partnerships between developers and the city government.
“We have been really willy-nilly about giving away public property, and I think that’s been one of the problems. You have to hold the city accountable, and say, ‘You cannot give away land unless you do some really serious concessions.’” said Shallal.
An example of such a concession is subsidizing the cost of affordable housing, so that the burden of charging reduced rates for affordable housing doesn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of private developers.
“The Housing Trust Fund has $100 million, but it needs to at least be doubled,” said Shallal. “And there is money, this is the time. The city has almost $2 billion in surplus. This is the moment to say, ‘Let’s invest and let’s plan for the future’, otherwise we’re going to sit and have this same conversation next year, and the year after, and the year after.”
While the Housing Trust Fund was infused with nearly $100 million during last year’s budget process, there’s still lots of remaining work to be done to ensure the fund ultimately helps those who need it most.
Businesses share responsibility for welcoming members of existing communities
“The government can play a role, but I think we have to play a role as well”, said Meredith Burkis, regarding the need for local businesses to be conscious of their impact on existing communities.
“One of the things we’ve been doing over course of the last year is asking how [The Studio Theater] can play a role in that challenge. We all have to have a commitment to understanding that there are people who have been here, it’s their community. What role can we play in that community? There’s not one answer. Government, yes, has to play a role. But we have to make it a priority too.”
There are many examples of how this can be put into action. It starts, as Shallal pointed out, with raising awareness of cultural divisions and proactively working to avoid them.
Shallal stated, “It’s not just about a business opening and saying ‘I’m successful, I’m doing well’. It’s about a business saying that success doesn’t stop at the bottom line of a dollar, but it stops at ‘Am I really representing and feeling good about being here, can I walk outside my door and have my head raised up high, and feel like I’m not contributing to the destruction of somebody else’s life or culture?’ That’s the question that us as business owners have to ask ourselves every single day.”
The construction of the menu itself at Busboys and Poets is an example of maintaining this awareness. Initially, Shallal hired a chef who put together an upscale menu that would likely leave many members of the local community feeling disregarded.
“I looked at the menu, and half of the things on there I couldn’t understand let alone would want to have on the menu. In order for us to be accessible to the neighborhood, we had to have food that [customers] feel comfortable ordering without having to feel stupid about looking at the menu.”
“In order to be friendly to the neighborhood that you’re coming into, you can’t just parachute into it. You need to build from the bottom,” Shallal concluded.
This is a powerful truth to be acknowledged when it comes to new businesses planting roots in revitalized neighborhoods, if they hope to embrace the past while welcoming the future.