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What’s the best way to approach the challenge of gentrification? This was a wonderful and timely question posed by our Greenville City Council member, Ricky Smiley at our City Council Meeting on Feb 6th. We’re talking about the gentrification of West Greenville and this time the development is staring us right in the face with the Imperial Tobacco Site project underway. The project development firm – D.F.I. is now in the process of soliciting feedback from community members to use in deciding what kind of project to design. It’s awesome that our city has taken a proactive approach in steering the development for this site, because of its unique position right where Uptown meets West Greenville. The site rests between the historic Black Business District with the Roxy Theater of West Greenville and the old Dickinson Ave Corridor strip – a space that has become a hub for the local arts community. This community, too, has a vested interest in seeing an Imperial Project that plays to their strengths rather than to their weaknesses. Uptown Greenville is a major stakeholder in this conversation since they have been tasked with promoting the vibrancy of our local downtown district by generating investment and social engagement from all the different cross sections of our community.
Speaking directly for West Greenville, though, as this seems to be the area of most concern over displacement, how do we approach the challenge of gentrification? Development is necessary, but it does not come without change – change in property values, and therefore changes in rents and property taxes, as well as significant changes in culture. Still new development brings possibly the only way to usher in this change in a positive way, because with new development there is the opportunity to integrate a community into the structure and the policy of growth. The “but” is that if we miss the opportunity to integrate our West Greenville community with the new development, then we become like every other city who has failed at this attempt. Since we are the next in line to take a crack at this, I’d like to encourage our city to not simply follow other cities in their approach, but to lead the way for innovative city planning.
I’d like to introduce an unfamiliar term that, for now, I will call “high touch integration”. This is an idea that I believe should be considered along with the considerations given to ensure that the developers deliver a marketable building that will actually sell. This is a guiding principle that asks that they actually build something that the West Greenville community can make frequent use of, generating high contact. This high contact is an opportunity to start building the West Greenville community into the development efforts by allowing them to participate in a process that intentionally lends to the further development of West Greenville.
An example of this would be if, in accordance with the mixed use of office, retail, and residential space, one of those offices were earmarked as a business incubator for West Greenville. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the property or from all business activities conducted within the new facility could go towards operating costs for this incubator. The many professionals who would live, work, and conduct business at the new development facility would have opportunities to offer both volunteer and paid services to help offer training, coaching, and guidance to West Greenville residents interested in community development projects, as well as offering consultations to resident groups interested in investing in West Greenville. One of the small business grants that is already granted through the city could be earmarked for projects coming out of this incubator.
The benefits created by this concept or something similar are:
- West Greenville residents would come in constant contact with the new facility, further ensuring a strong connection between the residents and the new growth, rather than the feared disconnection.
- The new facility would become a functional “beacon” contributor to the community’s development, as well as a figurative beacon.
- This would be achieved without turning the entire facility into community development project that, in theory, can’t respond to market growth.
The grassroots projects that would come out of this dedicated project space would present an easier platform to guide cross sectional collaboration and, therefore, less stressful integration between the arts community stakeholders, Uptown Greenville and West Greenville stakeholders, ultimately easing the growing pains of gentrification through collaboration and mutual benefit.
Of course, an idea like this would require that the private firm purchasing this property be willing to sacrifice some potential market earnings from that small allocated space, but this is what I would consider a basket of faith in our community. This basket of faith could feed the inspiration of a multitude of people and generate growth that would actually help drive the market. It only asks that, along with investing in the building, we agree to invest something in the people of West Greenville, betting that the growth of a population would render common good benefits that and produce monetary gains for years to come for the multitudes. This basket of faith should be the base requirement of anyone wishing to profit individually in the face of people who are losing collectively.
As the founding director of NC CIVIL, I have committed to partnerships that can enhance collaborative interaction and involvement in West Greenville and around the Pitt County area. Along with being the director of NC CIVIL, I am also an Uptown Greenville Board Member and a member of the Arts District Committee. My experience in service has taught me the importance of leadership organizations who can act as relationship brokers. The history of relationship brokers in America though, bears in it a recurring theme of “selling out” and sacrificing a many for the gain of a few. Let’s build something where many can share and collaborate, broker relationships and invest together. Although we don’t know the outright solution to this conundrum, with the right guiding principles, we can champion this thing called gentrification.