Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Mesa, Community Groups Discover Power of Voice

Guest post by Gordon Walek. 

Everyone pays lip service to the notion that community involvement is a critical element in determining how urban areas evolve and change – that residents, and the businesses and institutions representing them, have a say in what gets built when, where and why.
Attendees at a Mesa Workshop. Photo: Gordon Walek

In older cities with histories of neighborhood activism and activists, such as Jane Jacobs in New York and Saul Alinsky and Gale Cincotta in Chicago, local governments have institutionalized systems for engaging local people in planning everything from new houses, businesses, and parks to highways and rail systems.

But what about newer cities, where such planning traditions don’t exist? There’s no blueprint that local governments can apply to ensure thorough and robust community engagement in shaping how they grow. But in Mesa, Ariz., they’re working to create one.

With 440,000 residents, Mesa, just east of Phoenix, is Arizona’s third largest city and receives about $3.5 million annually from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through Community Development Block Grants, HOME funds and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program – mostly for the development of affordable housing and other community-related assets. The money, of course, comes with a few hitches, including that the city prepare five-year plans laying out how the money will be spent. Those plans require public comment.

Planning without community voice
“Historically, that planning has been done without active community voice,” said Tammy Albright, director of Mesa’s Department of Housing & Community Development, which is responsible for creating those five-year consolidated plans. “Everyone, including the city, wanted that to change. But it’s very difficult to get people to engage. We’ve put it (notices of meetings for public comment) in the newspaper and on our website and maybe one person shows up. They don’t know what a consolidated plan is.”

Photo: Gordon Walek
That’s not a knock on the citizenry. Even in older, more established cities there’s rarely a public stampede to discuss arcane urban planning matters. But in Mesa, there’s no history, and no structure, for such comment.

That wasn’t lost on HUD, a couple of national community development intermediaries (Enterprise and LISC), and a handful of Mesa-based organizations engaged in local economic, housing and transportation development. During the last year, they set about working with the City to improve the process.

For the last few years, Enterprise had been kicking the tires in Mesa, identifying local community development organizations such as the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) and A New Leaf that were involved in new business, affordable housing and social services development, while at the same time assessing the city’s efforts to come up with a new plan to spend the HUD dollars. This was at the same time Valley Metro was extending the light rail system from Phoenix to Mesa and the Phoenix LISC office was promoting community development “along the line.”

Good time for planning
“This seemed to be an ideal time to start working with the community development organizations,” said Enterprise’s Ed Rosenthal. “NEDCO had already begun to assist the community in preparing for light rail and A New Leaf had just finished an affordable housing development (the 80-unit La Mesita Apartments) on Main Street near the light rail.”
Presenter Joel Bookman Photo: Gordon Walek

Rosenthal figured that if groups such as NEDCO and A New Leaf got additional technical assistance and training not only would they strengthen their development skills but they could also, with their community roots, be a catalyst for shaping the city’s five-year consolidated plan. In short, a win-win.

So he enlisted Teresa Brice, executive director of the Phoenix LISC office, which had done work in Mesa a few years before employing the LISC MetroEdge the consulting team of Helen Dunlap, Joel Bookman and Amanda Carney – specialists in community engagement and business development – to work with the neighborhood groups and the city.

“Mesa is kind of a conservative place,” said Rosenthal, who until he retired earlier this year directed Enterprise’s rural program from Santa Fe. “You don’t have a lot of active community development corporations, as in New York and Chicago. And solid groups like NEDCO and A New Leaf didn’t coordinate their efforts or understand the power they have. Part of training was to get them to understand the role they could play…in moving the city in a certain direction.”

Enter Helen Dunlap and company, who over the past year presented a series of workshops – open to community development organizations, arts groups, transit advocates, developers, city employees and anyone else – ranging from the basics of community organizing, to how to conduct a meeting, to the value of telling your story. All within the context of helping the city write its five-year consolidated plan.

New breed of Mesa community developers
NEDCO’s David Crummey, an urban planner and public transit advocate, was in the vanguard of whipping up local enthusiasm for the workshops and influencing the consolidated plan. His youth – he’s 33 – and his can-do attitude are consistent with the tone and demographics of many Mesa-based community organizations. Crummey was aware of the consolidated plan – and the opportunity it represented for NEDCO and other groups to influence it. He was troubled to learn that the original meetings to elicit public comment were scheduled on the same day, within an hour of each other.
Workshop Attendee Photo:Gordon Walek

“There’s no way anyone would get to those meetings,” he said. “We needed to make clear what we wanted and how we could leverage those dollars. How do we move forward with a vision for our community rather than just letting things happen?”

Meanwhile, Ryan Winkle, a Mesa native who studied urban planning and cut his community development teeth running an urban garden a couple years ago, acted as a connecting thread among Mesa’s community based organizations, hosting meetings, encouraging attendance at the NEDCO-sponsored  workshops, helping them see themselves as having a collective power when they acted together.

“People are now asking how they can get more involved,” said Winkle, 35. “They’re coming together. They’re talking about what they learned in the workshops. That’s pretty amazing.”

After hearing from Crummey, Winkle and others, the city scheduled three additional public meetings at times when working people could attend, to shape the consolidated plan.

It takes a village
“We have to put a big thank you out to Enterprise, LISC and NEDCO,” said Tammy Albright. “We wouldn’t have had the level of community engagement without their efforts. This is the most community engagement we’ve had on a consolidated plan.”
Photo: Gordon Walek

Crummey credits the workshops with not only boosting the skills of local community groups, but with allowing them to get to know each other.

“At the first one – What is Comprehensive Community Development – aimed at nonprofits and government employees, you could see a few light bulbs going on,” he said. “How do we come together, instead of just distributing the money? But the conversations at those meetings, and the people who met each other, were the most important part.”

Shay Meinzer, director of real estate and asset manager at A New Leaf, who’s spent the last 16 years working in the nonprofit and for profit housing and community development sectors in Pennsylvania and Ohio, noticed upon arriving in Mesa last May that the neighborhood dynamics – even the definition of neighborhoods – differed considerably with the what she was accustomed to.

“I don’t see neighborhoods fighting for themselves,” she said. “As developers, we can identify opportunities, but if you don’t have the backing of residents, you won’t go anywhere. It’s a very slow process. But whenever you can get people together, you can really start a discussion. Then you have to keep it going.”

As for the consolidated plan? A draft is on the city’s website.

“There’s not as much impact in the plan as I would have liked,” said Rosenthal. “There’s some important language that opens the door to transit-oriented-development planning, but it’ll be meaningless unless the groups apply pressure. They have to keep at it.”

One of the many Mesa workshops. Photo: Gordon Walek
Crummey and others now active in groups like RAILmesa (Retail, Arts, Innovation, Livability), which advocates for increased citizen participation, responsible development of housing, transit options and the creation of quality jobs along Mesa’s light rail corridor, agree. But he sees the planning experience as simply a prelude to an era of larger public engagement in Mesa development.

“The biggest thing that needs to be conveyed is that a group of people with a common purpose can bring about change,” he said. “If the community wants to see things happen, it needs to work together and speak in a concerted voice. This experience has changed the level of interest in downtown Mesa. And it’s reduced the fear that the community is some ugly beast that would bite you.”

Gordon Walek, a Chicago-based writer and photographer, has spent that last 15 years working in various communications capacities for Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Prior to his work with LISC, Gordon spent 20 years as a newspaper and wire service reporter in the Chicago area, where he also worked as an adjunct professor at Columbia College.

More photos of the events are included here.

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