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Today, many cities fully embrace redevelopment as a strategy to revitalize whole districts, as we are witnessing in old manufacturing centers such as Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Even smaller cities such as Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, are getting in on the action. Instead of greenfields, brownfields and their classic, historic architecture, their raw industrial grit, are back in vogue. Redevelopment, renewal and adaptive reuse are no longer buzzwords, but well-established strategies with an impressive track record.
Our firm tends to go into places that have not seen the same degree of rebirth and renewal — places where people want to see their towns spring back to life, but cannot quite find the economic momentum to make it happen. Not all of these communities are in the country. A lot of them are in isolated corners of big cities, such as old manufacturing neighborhoods with few residents and low population density. These places have a lot of brownfields and abandoned properties with immense potential, but little in the way of a business model that can overcome the risks of economic stagnation. What is a developer to do? Are these special, historic properties doomed to disuse and eventual dilapidation?
The key word in the above paragraph is risk, although it is one discussed less frequently in economic development circles where the field tends to focus on gains, growth and potential. Just because one redevelops a brownfield does not mean that customers (or tenants) will flock to it if the community is far from customers, if it exhibits signs of social and economic decay or if it lacks sufficient amenities that many modern workers and entrepreneurs expect from their community. Any successful strategy will not only have to meet the market, but address complex risk factors that include social, political and environmental risk. The social and institutional side are discussed less often, so let us turn to those first.