Part II 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

A Strategic Framework for Revitalizing Commercial Corridors in Distressed Communities

Urban commercial corridors have long suffered from poor image and disinvestment. Politicians, city agencies, and corporations in Newark and other cities have turned their attention and their capital to the revitalization of the traditional commercial business district. Neighborhood-oriented districts like West Side Park are left to revitalize themselves, building upon internal assets and resources.

Revitalization, however, is the culmination of years of commitment, trust-building, organizing, motivating, and planning. Veterans of the process cite dissenting or disinterested business and property owners, long hours, late-night meetings with poor attendance, and mass mailings with little response. Experts like Don Smartt of the Community Advocates estimate a strategy implementation time of three to five years. The process was as short as two years in Jersey City's Journal Square (following two earlier failed attempts) (Garbarine, 1994) but was six long years on New York's Lower East Side (Garbarine, 1992). The road to success is a long one, but the payoffs and benefits to the community are tremendous.

This section is intended to serve as a framework for organizing revitalization efforts in distressed communities. Phase I of the organization process includes the recognition of a need for revitalization, identification of its leaders, and initial efforts at organizing the business community. Phase II involves the formalization of an organization, formation of its identity, and planning of revitalization projects and activities. These phases form the foundation for a strong, community-led organization, and that organization is prepared to choose and implement a revitalization strategy tailored to the needs, resources, and conditions of the neighborhood. In Phase III, we look specifically at the formation of Special Improvement Districts as per the request of our clients, the New Community Corporation and the Corinthian Housing Development Corporation.

Phase I: Recognizing the Need for a Neighborhood-Oriented Commercial Revitalization Strategy and Organization

Identifying Community Concerns

Commercial revitalization efforts begin as responses to neighborhood concerns: littered sidewalks, graffiti-covered storefronts, low business traffic, high vacancy or crime rates. Neighborhood residents, business or property owners, local government, or other community stakeholders may voice these concerns. However, the concerns must be matched by a genuine desire to address and correct them. It is this desire that will drive the revitalization effort.

Identifying a Lead Organization

Without exception, the findings from our interviews and other research stressed the need for neighborhood-oriented commercial revitalization to be sustained and led by its local business and property owners. However, it takes a strong, established organization to begin, sustain, and initially lead the process. The organization must be committed to the lengthy and complex process of building the trust, first, of community leaders and then among the business community as a whole.

The lead organization can be a merchants or neighborhood association. However, in many cases larger entities or combinations of entities have assumed the sponsorship role:

These sponsoring organizations provide an existing and established support base, leadership experience, a network of contacts and resources, staffing, and funding to the initial community revitalization effort. They pledge themselves to leading and sustaining the initial efforts and to supporting future business and property owner-led endeavors.

Identifying Community Leaders

The identification of potential merchant-leaders is key for sponsoring organizations. Is there a business or property owner who currently holds a community leadership position? Is there an individual who has earned the respect of the local business community? Is there someone who is vocal either in identifying neighborhood problems or in pushing for revitalization? Who recognizes their stake in the community and the need to protect that stake?

Elizabeth Development Corporation officers traveled door-to-door on Elizabeth Avenue soliciting business and property owner support and participation in a SID steering committee. The 20 owners who volunteered now form the Elizabeth Avenue SID Steering Committee and represent a variety of constituencies: business owners (some are third generation owners), property owners (some are also business owners), residents, and owners who live well outside the area. They identify a variety of reasons for their own involvement in the endeavor:

Selling and Organizing the Business Community

According to Leonard Battle, Executive Director of the Grand Street BID, the hardest part of commercial revitalization is selling property owners on its advantages. "The rest," he notes, "is paperwork." Again, organization becomes an exercise in trust-building. Many owners will require proof that this can, and does, work and that the sponsoring organization is dedicated to that success.

A number of Elizabeth Avenue merchants and owners were sold following the city's completion of several "model blocks." They were examples of what could be done with a partnership of city and business owner resources and commitment. Said one merchant, "The city has finally put its money where its mouth is." Members of the SID's Steering Committee were also impressed by a visit to Jersey City's Central Avenue SID. They raved about the street's cleanliness and vitality as well as the "we" attitude and enthusiasm of the business community.

Improved crime and vacancy statistics have also sold many community stakeholders. Journal Square business owners were won over by the Bryant Park triumphs. Tom Kelly, senior vice president of a company in Journal Square which also owns a building in the Bryant Park BID, was convinced by the dropping vacancy rates, rising building rents, refurbished park, and cleaner, more secure neighborhood of the Manhattan BID (Garbarine, 1994).

Perhaps most important are the sales efforts by revitalization leaders. Their word-of-mouth marketing and enthusiasm are essential both for bringing fellow owners on board and for sustaining the neighborhood's energy.

Organization of small community improvements projects like neighborhood or vacant lot clean-ups and tree or flower plantings can serve a number of functions for revitalization leaders. First, these projects bring stakeholders together to work as a community. Participants have the opportunity to meet and develop relationships with fellow community stakeholders. Second, it shows both those who participate and those who choose not to participate what a team can accomplish. Third, the project is a neighborhood improvement that benefits everyone. All of these build neighborhood energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to the revitalization cause and even larger efforts.

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