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From "Intractable Democracy": the revival of Myrtle Avenue required leadership, investment, and neighborhood involvement, not eminent domain

In Intractable Democracy: Fifty Years of Community-Based Planning, a new collection of articles and interviews by and with people associated with the Pratt Institute City and Regional Planning Program, there's a fascinating account of the revitalization of Myrtle Avenue in the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.

The bottom line: while Myrtle Avenue, once dubbed "Murder Avenue," had declined, its revival stemmed from prudent investment, strategic leadership, and neighborhood involvement, not by any declaration of blight and the attendant use of eminent domain.

In other words, Myrtle Avenue was seen as something that could bloom if carefully tended, not as something that should be cleared by the state, as with the Atlantic Yards site.

A MetLife award

It's a version of a case study by Charles Wilson for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). In November 2009, LISC administered the MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Award, sponsored by MetLife Foundation, that recognizes partnerships between community development groups and police departments.

The Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) and the New York City Police Department’s 88th Precinct were honored (among others) for creating a safe environment and spurring economic development and job creation.

(Here's coverage in The Local; note commenter Joe Gonzalez's point about the continuing divide at the west end of Myrtle.)

What was wrong?

As Wilson writes, more than one in five of retail stores were vacant by the late 1990s, with most property owners living outside the neighborhood; closed metal gates gave them "a foreboding feel."

There were a lot of bodegas--a suggestion that some were selling more than groceries, gven high crime and drug sales--but not enough retail to serve the diverse neighborhood.

What to do?

The first step, after MARP was formed in 1999, was to go after graffiti, which involved not just clean-up efforts but a strategy to identify the major offenders, via their tags.

Then came improvements in the streetscape: street trees (via the city), streetlights (via the Borough President's office), and sponsored streetlight banners.

MARP then turned to retail revitalization. It hired a part-time graphic designer to help businesses with their signage. It urged merchants to switch from solid gates to open mesh gates, bringing police officers around to counsel those merchants on crime prevention.

More than 50 storefront improvement programs have been launched, thanks to matching grants of $1000 to $10,000.

The BID

Then MARP began recruiting businesses that had been successful elsewhere to open new outposts: Zaytoon's, Bergen Bagels, Connecticut Muffin.

The big step was the creation of a Business Improvement District, a not-uncontroversial move (at least on Fulton Street) in which businesses agree to be taxed for additional services, such as street cleaning. The BID, approved in 2005, now provides $350,000 a year.

MARP began a closer relationship with the police, helping fight crime and, sometimes, defusing tensions such as when black youths felt they were unfairly targeted when a restaurateur called the cops on them.

The organization brought public art to vacant storefronts. It continued to recruit business owners: 97% are local, with more than three-quarters minority- or woman-owned.

Also, crucially, the Pratt Institute, the major local institution, stepped up and moved its art supply store from campus to a new store occupying a former parking lot on Myrtle that had been a locus of loitering.

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