Over the past couple of years I’ve seen Tallahassee’s evolution firsthand. An area near Florida State University that was once a row of decrepit warehouses without even a sidewalk to tread on has become a pedestrian friendly zone jam-packed with attractive businesses, bars and restaurants. Hello, urban redevelopment.
The priciest student housing along with some of the trendiest bars around line a strip of buildings known as College Town. The region’s outskirts are slowly being drawn into its tractor beams of pseudo-mediterranean architecture, apartment complexes with names like Onyx and Catalyst, and bars that serve cocktails at brunch.
The area has exploded, both in vertical height and in property value. College Town is unique in that it sits right between the urban economic powerhouse that is any major university and the local art district. Known as the All Saints District, the area is hipster through and through, which, according to many, is a sign of impending gentrification.
This urban redevelopment of the city has been good for people like me—transient students with no real connection to or investment in the city they occupy just looking for a good time and a pricey craft beer. But what about the local residents who used to reside there? One common critique of urban redevelopment is that the resulting skyrocket in real estate prices often displaces local businesses and residents.
One of Tallahassee’s startup incubators, Domi Station, sits right on the edge of Railroad Square, an odd little cul-de-sac where you’ll find warehouses converted into art studios, galleries, boutiques, bars and other small businesses. Domi Station is so named because it occupies a converted space that was once part of Tallahassee’s railroad stop. Using existing spaces for redevelopment is one way that Tallahassee entrepreneurs have taken development into their own hands.
Lucas Lindsey, Domi’s community organizer, says his team is tuned into neighborhood development, infill projects and the like, and the role they play in altering the landscape of the city. “Gentrification happens in highly focused hotspots—for example, you see it to some extent with commercial storefronts along Gaines,” he says. “But at a macro level, I think Tallahassee is far from experiencing runaway growth that destabilizes whole neighborhoods. We’d need to experience an incredible surge in economic activity to see that happen.”
Like in Nashville, Tennessee, where economic growth is displacing not just lower-income, but also middle-class residents who are unable to afford rent in the city’s core. Neighborhoods that were virtually synonymous with crime and poverty are now veritable hot spots that bring to mind words like trendy and expensive.
So is it possible to achieve the positives of urban redevelopment, such as lower crime and economy growth, without the negatives, like displacement of locals and a perceived loss of authenticity?
“You have to plan for that tipping point,” Lindsey says. “Create proactive public policy that takes a legitimate look at trends five, ten, twenty years into the future and set contingent policy scenarios tied to milestones.”
Further, he says, tech and startups can help make a solution happen: “Any innovation that helps lower construction costs and time, such as modular, pre-fab housing, can help rapidly deploy more affordable units. Also, forget big floor plans. Be more creative. Every time we build one 1,500-square-foot apartment, we lose the chance to build three 500-square-foot apartments.”
In the end, there’s no single answer to questions like these, just people working hard to create a better city for all. Startups have the unique opportunity to create wealth and opportunity for the places where they live. Local communities can partner with entrepreneurship centers to become a driving force behind economic renewal, and create wealth for their communities. It is possible for growth and opportunity to occur without the perceived negatives of gentrification. I’m witnessing it firsthand. All it takes is a bit of creativity and cooperation.