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Why Regeneration Needs to Accept Gentrification


In the nineties, I lived off Jackson Ave around Long Island City (LIC) while working in Manhattan. It was cheap, off the radar and had good public transport links to Midtown. Only downside was taxis wouldn't go there after 8pm, which makes it sound much dodgier than it really was, the reality being despite numerous taxi repair shops being sited there, it was not a big enough fare for cabbies to pay the return tunnel tolls and go off Manhattan for.

In the years since, as with much of the Queens and Brooklyn riverfront, it has been redeveloped as price pressure forces NYers to be ever more creative with their housing choices. But this latest announcement about the future of LIC has elements which will interest many communities not just in the Big Apple but around the world.

Worldwide, developers, city officials, planners and residents are wrestling with the challenges facing our cities. With changing work patterns, urbanisation and rising housing pressures all to be managed, stable, sustainable economic growth is the target. City planners have championed regeneration for decades - promoting the benefits of turning derelict warehouses, vacant yards and empty office blocks into new communities with live/work/play options. Regeneration is largely painted as a positive. But if the repurposing of empty and rundown districts leads to an influx of wealthier residents then it is scowlingly referred to as Gentrification - and roundly booed by many.

Regeneration - good. Gentrification - bad. Simple. In our trade there are numerous regeneration specialists and experts - not so many business cards presenting gentrification advisers or advocates I note! My guess is regeneration is considered something planned for a community to tackle social, economic and environmental ills - whereas gentrification is a consequence, an unwanted outcome of the supply and demand market.

This isn't a NY alone problem, at a Downtown in Business dinner last week in north-west England, we spoke about the rise of so-called 'islands of affluence' which many schemes in Liverpool and Manchester are now accused of creating. A better balance is required, a point acknowledged by Liverpool City CEO Tony Reeves when he called for "greater transparency in deal-making."

Long Island City was identified as the site for mega-retailer Amazon's east coast HQ. Plans promoted it as home to 25,000 new jobs providing work for software developers and online marketers to warehouse and logistics operatives. Operating 24/7 the Amazon campus would have seen welcomed business for the areas legendary Greek diners and delis, local barbers and dry cleaners - it may even have attracted NY's legendary yellow cabs back to the streets.

Yes, it would have changed the vibe in LIC and neighbouring Astoria and Hunters Point, but is that a bad thing? There would be jobs, new homes, vibrant businesses and a rejuvinated nightlife - as well as multi-million dollar tax receipts every year forever - funds which the local authority could redirect to provide vital services for residents. This is a deal nearly every community and city council in the land would bite your hand off for - so why has LIC said -"no thanks!".

It's partly the misunderstood G word and people not seeing the benefits in personal terms. It's partly the $3billion in 'corporate welfare' NY's mayor and governor promised, but it is largely the way the deal was done - privately.

The copy below is from Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post:

The WP's Eli Rossenberg writes - "Many said that their initial opposition to the deal was rooted in its secrecy. The plan had been negotiated among Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Amazon without going through the traditional public approval process that normally governs development proposals in New York City. Local elected officials said they and community groups had been kept out of the process.

“I learned about the deal, along with all of my neighbors, the minute that it hit the press, which is not exactly how a community should first hear about a huge project that would impact nearly every aspect of their lives,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D), who represents a nearby district in Queens where Amazon planned to include a distribution center, said in an interview.

“It’s about making sure public due process is respected. But also that there’s an understanding, especially from executive branches of government, that there are representatives for districts and neighborhoods exactly for this purpose — to ensure that community leaders have a seat at the table. This is a deal that wasn’t done with us and wasn’t for us.”

It seems reporters in the Amazon/Bezos web of businesses could pretty quickly uncover the problem, it's a shame the strategists and lobbyists paid millions by Amazon to sweet talk Gov. Coumo and Mayor De Blasio didn't bother.

There aren't many if any winners in all this. The re-energised 'left' in NY Democrat politics are claiming 'people power' but what have they to show for it - no jobs, no tax dollars - a hollow victory at best.

As WP reported, Mike Gianaris, the state senator at the center of the opposition to the deal, said in an interview that he would not describe the effort as a victory.

“This is a state that stood up for itself and was not willing to allow a giant corporate behemoth to dictate the terms of engagement,” he said. “Everybody wants jobs. But not at any costs. And not when the public doesn’t get to have its opinion represented in the conversation."

Lets hope Amazon come back to another community to base their new east coast HQ, but recognise the way to deliver this is with people, not despite them.


Martin Liptrot is a marketing, stakeholder engagement and reputation management consultant. Working with property developers, place makers and local authorities in UK and USA his agency 98Republic famously 'makes good ideas happen'

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