Speaker series focuses on reshaping Rochester’s neighborhoods

ROCHESTER — A national nonprofit development organization provides a model for improving low-income communities.

In 2016 alone, Enterprise Community Partners raised and invested $6 billion to create or preserve 24,000 affordable apartments or houses across the country, explained Katie Swenson, the organization’s vice president of design and sustainability.

Swenson made her remarks during a Feb. 28 presentation that was part of the 13th-annual Reshaping Rochester Series presented by the Community Design Center Rochester (CDCR). CDCR is focusing this year on “Our City, Ourselves: Connecting People and Places.”

To expand its creativity in redeveloping lower-income neighborhoods, Enterprise created a fellowship in 2001 for young architects to work in partnership with community development corporations or design centers like CDCR, Swenson explained. She was a member of the second class of the Enterprise Rose Fellowship and has headed up the program since 2007.

Swenson, who also wrote the book Growing Urban Habitats, said 79 Rose fellows have worked around the country, including New Orleans, Houston, Venice, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn., she said.

“What it means to shape or reshape a community is an interesting idea,” she said. “What does that mean, shaping your city? By who and for whom? Who’s shaping the culture? Who’s shaping the policy, finance and investment? These are all questions you should be asking.”

The redevelopment work of the Rose fellows often begins by looking at redlining maps of a city, Swenson noted.

According to information from the federal Fair Housing Act (https://bit.ly/2Enepi1), “redlining” is the practice of denying a creditworthy applicant a loan for housing in a certain neighborhood even though the applicant may otherwise be eligible for the loan. The term refers to the presumed practice of mortgage lenders drawing red lines around portions of a map to indicate areas or neighborhoods in which they do not want to make loans.

Policy and procedures that went into effect through redlining are still part of current real estate systems, Swenson added, noting that the Fair Housing Act of 1933 outright called for segregation by race.

“You take a look at these maps and you see how a city is shaped,” she said. “(Redlining) continues to reverberate in our communities today.”

To reverse the negative effects of past policies that have created concentrations of poverty and segregated populations, Enterprise and the Rose fellows focus on design excellence as a way to improve lives. It’s a concept that Rochester could replicate, given its many neighborhoods and demographics, Swenson said.

“You have a pernicious poverty problem you need to figure out … maybe make a commitment to provide dignified housing for all residents of Rochester,” she said. “You need to invest in upfront neighborhood building … by engaging with residents first.”

Resident engagement is what led to an award-winning design for a mixed-use building that helped get homeless people off the streets on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Swenson said. The Star Apartments, which is part of the Skid Row Housing Trust project, includes more than 13,000 square feet of community spaces, such as a garden, a computer lab and exercise rooms, she said. Providing outdoor space was a vital design component to serve people who had lived on the streets, Swenson added.

“The poor deserve the best quality intervention, because they’ve been given the least by luck and circumstance,” she quoted from the book Design for Good by John Cary.

The projects Swenson presented offer good insight into potential creative solutions for Rochester, said Eugenio Marlin, executive director of Ibero-American Development Corp., who recently joined CDCR’s board of directors.

“One of the challenges in developing affordable housing is the fact that you have to take advantage of available resources, and sometimes those resources are guided by many things so you can be funded,” he said, such as following state and federal regulations.

“That is not to mean we couldn’t do creative affordable housing in this area … but it requires a lot more time,” Marlin added.

The development process is slow as it is, he noted, as IADC moves forward with a $28 million development in the North Clinton Area for which it submitted plans to the City of Rochester last fall. In partnership with developer Edgemere Development, the Pueblo Nuevo project includes a total of 92 units in single-family homes and duplexes in northeast Rochester. The project is still under review in Rochester’s zoning office, said Zina Lagonegro, the city’s manager of zoning. IADC also is now in the process of obtaining design approvals from the city’s planning commission, Marlin said.

“That’s a very fluid and slow process,” he said, with a goal for construction to start late this year or in early 2019.

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