Part III of an Exploratory Study to Establish a Special Improvement
District on Springfield and South Orange Avenues, Newark, NJ

Report to the Corinthian Housing Development Corporation and New Community Corporation

May 11, 1998

Neighborhood-Based Commercial Revitalization Plans


Commercial revitalization in neighborhood-oriented shopping districts is often a long-term process. Unlike downtown revitalization programs in large cities, which are supported by both large corporations and city agencies, neighborhood efforts must depend on neighborhood merchants, community-based organizations and residents. From the perspective of politicians and corporations, downtown districts are a higher priority because they form the basis of a city's image. With less capital and political clout to rely upon for both funding and sustaining the revitalization effort, the process of neighborhood-based commercial revitalization requires a strategy that emphasizes internal organization and capitalizing on existing resources, rather than hiring a management association to direct the revitalization effort. In the long term, a successful neighborhood revitalization effort will attract the support of both city agencies and corporate foundations, but a neighborhood will not be a priority for either city hall or large locally based corporations unless a neighborhood makes itself a priority. This understanding forms the basis of the CRP presented in this document.

The commercial revitalization efforts on both Grand Street in Brooklyn and Dudley Street in Boston demonstrate that even in the poorest neighborhoods, there are assets upon which a revitalization effort can be based. But capitalizing on existing assets takes a neighborhood-based actor who is willing to act as a catalyst for the revitalization effort, a limited amount of start-up capital, and a larger group of neighborhood-based actors who are committed to the neighborhood's future. A revitalization effort can then build upon whatever assets exist in the community to get the attention of actors outside the neighborhood, who can assist the effort by providing capital, technical assistance and other support.

Developing a coalition of neighborhood-based actors that can pool financial and human resources is one very effective way to take advantage of the neighborhood's existing resources. This type of group is well positioned to leverage additional funds because both foundations and government agencies prefer to interact with formal organizations, as opposed to individual merchants, when making grants available for neighborhood revitalization. A SID is one structure for a formal organization, and as Part II of this report suggests, establishing a SID may be one of the long-term options for merchants in West Side Park. However, without the initial steps at the neighborhood level, attracting the interest and support of actors outside the neighborhood who can provide financial assistance will be difficult, if not impossible.

The CRP for West Side Park is based on both successful neighborhood revitalization efforts in other cities and the study of West Side Park. In developing the CRP, it was important to recognize the neighborhood's unique history. As explained in the next section, attempts to replicate the revitalization efforts of other low-income communities in West Side Park will not work without some modifications. Thus, the history and conditions in West Side Park indicate the need for a new model of neighborhood-based commercial revitalization.

Conditions in West Side Park

While crime, a lack of capital, vacant buildings, poor physical infrastructure, and disillusionment are typical problems for businesses in many low-income communities, the severity of these problems and the area's unique history distinguishes West Side Park from other places. As discussed in Part I, about one quarter of all buildings or lots along Springfield and South Orange Avenues is vacant, creating a relatively low density of businesses; a physical survey of the remaining buildings along the avenues revealed that about 40 percent are in poor or bad shape. Yet, tax burdens remain extremely high. Crime and sanitation are also major problems, with one merchant complaining that his business is broken into at least once a month.

Merchants along these commercial corridors are struggling to keep their businesses going, and only a small portion reported having grown during the past year. Merchants explain that one of their biggest problems is a lack of financial resources to help improve their business; many asserted that they do not have enough customers to increase their revenue. In addition, most of these merchants are not using, nor are they even aware of, technical and financial business assistance programs. The size and type of the businesses in West Side Park may help explain these findings. Nearly all of the businesses surveyed could be defined as microbusinesses, employing few or no additional employees outside of the owner and his/her family. Unfortunately, the small businesses assistance programs available at the federal, state, and city level generally do not cater to neighborhood businesses operating on such a small scale. Moreover, interviews with assistance providers reveal that to access these programs, merchants must demonstrate a relatively high level of organization and initiative.

Crime, lack of capital, poor sanitation, and high vacancy rates are all indicators of the decline in business activity in West Side Park, a decline accelerated by the 1967 riots in Newark. West Side Park was one of the areas most severely devastated by the riots, and the area continues to suffer long-lasting economic, physical, and psychological damage resulting from that turbulent period. While the city as a whole is now making gradual progress toward attracting businesses and improving its image, many outsiders continue to perceive West Side Park as a dangerous place that offers little hope for revitalization. For businesses along Springfield and South Orange Avenues, this reputation creates a psychological barrier to people moving to, or shopping in, West Side Park. It also helps fuel the doubts of financial and technical assistance providers about the current and future viability of businesses in the area.

As a result of the conditions in West Side Park, merchants have little trust in either each other or outside providers, low expectations about the possibility of change, and a lack of interest or understanding regarding how collective action could help improve their individual situations. For example, the majority of merchants do not belong to any type of business, merchant, or trade association, and few talk to anyone (beyond family or friends) about the problems facing their businesses. Merchants also appear to be highly individualistic; many merchants believe that if they could secure additional financial capital, they could handle most other issues on their own. Yet, many of these same merchants say that drugs, crime, and high unemployment are serious problems that impact both the neighborhood and their business. Ironically, merchants also claim to be satisfied with city-provided services, including police patrols, despite their identification of crime as a major problem. As discussed in Part I, this high level of satisfaction probably stems, in part, from merchants' low expectations. These low expectations may be a result of the years of alienation from the city government and merchants' inability to influence redevelopment agendas. Although there are now some new planning initiatives focusing on Newark's neighborhoods (see Part II), it will still take many years before the impact will be felt.

While the conditions present among Springfield and South Orange Avenue businesses provide a different kind of challenge than the typical downtown commercial revitalization effort, the area does offer hope for positive change. Many of the merchants along these commercial corridors are also property owners and therefore, should have an even greater interest in revitalizing the area. Most of the businesses have been located in West Side Park for six years or more. The ability of these businesses to survive should help dispel doubts about the viability of preserving a commercial district in the area. The longevity of the businesses also means that despite their low level of networking, the majority of those surveyed already know other business owners and managers in the neighborhood.

There are also other indications that it will be possible to help merchants realize their common interests. Already, a sizeable number of businesses would like to, or plan on, expanding their business in the next five years, and/or would also recommend starting a business in the neighborhood to a relative or friend. These perceptions represent common interests around which merchants can be organized. More importantly, they indicate that there is a group of merchants who retain hope that positive change can occur. These merchants may be among the easiest to mobilize for participation in the CRP.

Why Is Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization Significant?

Revitalizing neighborhood-oriented commercial corridors in low-income communities is significant for several economic and symbolic reasons:

A Vision for Springfield and South Orange Avenues

West Side Park's commercial revitalization effort, as outlined in the CRP, should function as a component of the on-going revitalization effort that includes developing low-income housing, attracting new businesses and new jobs, and the operation of a business incubator. The goals of a commercial revitalization effort in West Side Park include:

The long-term benefits of accomplishing these goals will be a self-sustaining revitalization effort that can leverage additional funds from outside sources and the creation of a shopping district in West Side Park that is competitive with other nearby districts.

Accomplishing the Vision of Commercial Revitalization

A neighborhood-based commercial revitalization strategy in a low-income community like West Side Park requires a framework for planning and implementing programs to access capital and affect comprehensive change. The active participation of the people who are most affected by the revitalization effort, in this case the merchants, is necessary. Although merchants' interests are bound to clash on occasion, a revitalization effort requires participants to both recognize the significance of comprehensive revitalization to their businesses and trust the people with whom they are working.

The CRP has distinct phases, which are defined by the contributions of existing neighborhood institutions and the capacity of local merchants. Phase I and Phase II are described below.

Goals for Phase I
Based upon the experiences of other neighborhoods that have implemented successful commercial revitalization efforts, the goals for Phase I of the CRP are:
Generating interest among merchants about collective action

Building trust among the merchants, and between the merchants and outside actors

Raising merchants' expectations about the possibility of change

Creating a neighborhood identity

Increasing the financial stability of local businesses

Increasing the capacity of merchants to organize and implement activities

The approach to implementing a revitalization strategy should be incremental; as mentioned, the process is long-term. In West Side Park, the first phase could take as long as three to five years to complete. During Phase I, the process will be led by existing institutions, but over time, merchants should take a stronger role in both guiding the revitalization effort and implementing specific strategies. The financial commitment that is required from neighborhood institutions or outside sources should also decrease over time.

Goals for Phase II
The goals for Phase II of the CRP are to:

The formalization of a merchants association or other merchant-led coalition is probably the most important goal because it will enable merchants to interact more effectively with foundations, public agencies and commercial lending institutions that prefer to provide assistance to an organization. In Phase I, the merchant organizer may act as a liaison between merchants and these outside actors, but in Phase II local merchants should take a more active role. While community-based organizations should still be involved in the commercial revitalization process during Phase II, their role should shift from one of leadership to support. This gradual transfer of control will ensure that the revitalization effort becomes self-sustaining over time and that merchants will have the strongest voice in planning their future.

Is a Special Improvement District Appropriate for Springfield and South Orange Avenues?

Organizing merchants is one of the most effective strategies available for revitalizing neighborhood commercial corridors and that the creation of a SID is often the culmination of that process. However, the specific conditions present along Springfield and South Orange Avenues suggest that one should view this process as a long-term commitment, postponing the question of whether the creation of a SID is feasible or even desirable. Ultimately, the merchants must make the decision about both the type of formal structure they desire and the level of commitment they are willing to make.

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