Choice Neighborhoods: HUD’s new urban remedy takes shape

Breathtakingly broad in scope, the Obama administration’s redevelopment plan tackles nearly every problem known to afflict city-dwellers.

New Urban News
Issue Date:

Sat, 2011-10-01

Page Number:


One of the brightest pieces of urban planning news this year has been the roll-out of the Obama administration’s Choice Neighborhoods program.

Last March the US Department of Housing & Urban Development awarded Choice Neighborhoods planning grants of up to $250,000 each to 17 communities across the country. In August, bigger money began to flow: five “implementation grants” of $10.3 million to $30.5 million, aimed at helping to turn around blighted sections of Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Choice Neighborhoods takes the ambitions that were at the heart of the HOPE VI public housing redevelopment program and raises them to a new level. Though the total federal funding available through Choice Neighborhoods is only a fraction of what HOPE VI distributed at its peak, the new program tries to grapple with a greater array of entrenched social problems.

In the five cities chosen for a total of $122.3 million in implementation grants, HUD’s goal is not only to replace or renovate troubled housing developments — a considerable undertaking in itself — but also to help set the distressed surrounding community onto a productive course.

Thus the plan for reviving part of the Woodlawn section of Chicago includes a substantial physical component:

• Demolish all 504 units of a dilapidated Section 8 housing development known as Grove Parc.
• Construct approximately 210 new Section 8 units on parts of the 12-acre Grove Parc site.
• Construct nearly 300 Section 8 units in the surrounding neighborhood.
• Erect an additional 461 housing units that will accommodate people with a mix of incomes. Some of the non-Section 8 housing will be on the Grove Parc site, decreasing the concentration of poverty there. Other non-Section 8 housing will be in the rest of the neighborhood.

Complementing the construction program in Woodlawn is a series of social interventions: improvements by the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community to poorly performing public schools; enrollment openings for Woodlawn adolescents at the University of Chicago’s respected Laboratory High School; greater involvement by parents in their children’s education; employment, mental health, substance abuse, and literacy programs lined up through the Jane Addams Hull House Association; anti-gang activities by the Chicago Police Department; and additional policing by the University of Chicago.

By tapping a variety of funding sources both public and private, Choice Neighborhoods is expected to generate investments far exceeding the amount of the federal grants. Woodlawn’s $30.5 million Choice Neighborhoods grant is estimated to produce total direct investment of $272 million.

Comprehensive action — combining physical improvements with an array of educational, employment, training, mental health, addiction, and other initiatives — is also a hallmark of the $4 million in planning grants, which HUD distributed to highly collaborative groups in cities across the nation.

“It’s a very wide-ranging interdisciplinary team,” urban planning consultant David Dixon, of Goody Clancy & Associates, says of a group he’s involved in, which is trying, under the auspices of nonprofit Jubilee Baltimore Inc., to revive a section of central-west Baltimore. Jubilee Baltimore won a planning grant of $213,000.

“We have a great retail consultant on our team [MJB Consulting],” Dixon points out. Why? Because “if you can’t figure out what kind of retail you can make work, you can’t improve people’s lives and make the neighborhood attractive to people of mixed income,” explains Dixon. Laurie Volk, a new urbanist market analyst, is examining central-west Baltimore’s housing options. Other specialists are tackling education, health, and transportation.

The Choice Neighborhood approach is a natural fit for New Urbanism, Dixon says, because new urbanists often work collaboratively, trying to mesh physical design with a variety of social objectives. “Community-building is physical design, but it needs to look at many different aspects and how to fit them all into a physical plan,” Dixon says. “HUD has become a poster child for cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

Who’s involved?

Whether all of the winners of the planning grants will adopt new urbanist designs is unknown at this point. What’s encouraging is that planners and designers who are known for employing a new urbanist approach are involved in several of the 17 planning grants.

Looney Ricks Kiss is planning coordinator for the Allenton Heights redevelopment in Jackson, Tennessee. Wallace Roberts and Todd is planning coordinator for the Paseo Gateway redevelopment, centered on rebuilding Choteau Courts public housing in Kansas City, Missouri. McCormack Baron Salazar is planning coordinator for the Eugene Field neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Center for Urban Studies at the University of Buffalo is helping guide transformation of Commodore Perry Homes and Woodson Gardens public housing in Buffalo. Some planning grants were garnered by local public housing agencies, many of which have had experience with HOPE VI and its distinctly new urbanist orientation.

Stephanie Bothwell, who worked at HUD for a year under former CNU Executive Director Shelley Poticha, reviewing proposals for the planning grants, alerted New Urban News to one of the critical differences between HOPE VI and Choice Neighborhoods. Public funds in HOPE VI — a program that dispensed roughly $600 million at year at its peak in the 1990s — were restricted to public housing sites (though some of those projects produced off-site units that were not public housing).

By contrast, Choice Neighborhoods can focus on other kinds of federally aided housing, such as Section 8 projects, and can reach across an entire neighborhood, including other distressed housing, vacant properties, schools, and businesses. The goal is to improve the neighborhood in a holistic way.

For HOPE VI, CNU conducted workshops around the nation on how to hire a good architect. That gave new urbanists the inside track on early HOPE VI work. CNU has no such role in Choice Neighborhoods. And in today’s intensely competitive business environment, new urbanist firms do not seem to be banding together under the unifying umbrella of New Urbanism. At this point in New Urbanism’s 20-year history as a formal movement, that may not be necessary.

The implementation grants appear to be largely new urbanist in their physical plans. “We tried to hide all the parking on the interior of the blocks, not let it be visible from the streets,” says Josh Collen, vice president of HRI Properties, which is redeveloping the Iberville neighborhood in New Orleans. HRI’s development partner is McCormack Baron Salazar. “Interaction and connectivity” will be key aims of the redevelopment plan, Collen says. Streets that stopped at the borders of the public housing project are being extended through the site.

On a similar note, Anne Fiske Vuniga, project manager for the Seattle Housing Authority, says that at the Yesler Terrace redevelopment in Seattle, pedestrian connections to surrounding areas have been poor: “streets that peter out into parking lots for residents.” The redesign will create more connections, including a “hillclimb” (terraced stairs).

Cady Scott Seabaugh, communications director for McCormack Baron, points out the applications for both the implementation and the planning grants offer a bonus point if the project is enrolled in LEED for Neighborhood Development. That’s enough of an incentive to commit a project to LEED-ND, she says. Every point matters.