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Creative Placemaking—A Cautionary Tale

Courtesy of Megan WilsonBy Megan Wilson

The term “creative placemaking”[1] is the latest spin on a decades-old strategy[2] of incorporating the arts into economic development models, the idea being that art can inspire shared economic prosperity while energizing the overall community. However, as I’ve learned from working closely on development and planning with many community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Bay Area over the past 18 years, if existing neighborhood stakeholders–i.e. longtime residents, CBOs, small businesses, social services, and public agencies that serve them–are not driving the process, community development (or revitalization, as it’s often characterized by city planners) can also be highly problematic. Outside interests (developers, real estate agents, corporations, policy makers, or new residents) without long-established roots in a neighborhood can end up destroying years of coalition-building, networks of trust, and community frameworks proven to be successful and integral to the health of a neighborhood and its residents.[3]

It’s important to establish a clear understanding of the term “gentrification” as used in the context of: (a) community-spearheaded development that provides greater amenities, services, and economic opportunities (e.g. more parks, public art and creative outlets, better schools, greater access to healthy food options, more jobs, increased public transportation); and (b) high-end housing development, upscale retail, more expensive services, and privatization. In the former context, these are virtuous goals for a city to aspire to for all its citizens; but the latter often leads to the displacement and destruction of existing communities, especially low-income communities of color. Artists and arts organizations often become unintended forces in the latter kind of gentrification—especially when deeply established relationships and existing organizing efforts become undermined by funder-driven arts projects that have not been a part of the rooted networks.

While additional funding opportunities for artists and arts organizations are a greatly needed resource, project-based funding, such as creative placemaking initiatives, are a matter for concern. What’s truly essential for the survival of artists and arts centers is general operating funds, or funds to secure affordable housing or studios. However, in many cases artists and arts organizations will jump on board and rally heavily in support of new funding priorities and models initiated by funders because they are desperate for the monies in any form or capacity. This is not to say that foundations leading these initiatives don’t have the best intentions, but they, too, may be driven by priorities and decisions set forth by their executives and board members.

ArtPlace—Dedicated Funding for Creative Placemaking
In September 2011, the largest and most ambitious funding proposal dedicated to the strategy of creative placemaking was launched with ArtPlace, “[a] nation-wide initiative to drive revitalization in cities and towns with a new investment model that puts the arts at the center of economic development.”[4] For its first round of grants, ArtPlace invested $11.5 million in 34 locally initiated projects across the United States.[5]

While this unprecedented investment in local arts appears to be a great opportunity for foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions to help shape community development, it also presents serious concerns associated with community planning and gentrification.

Among ArtPlace’s first round of grantees was San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts with an award of $777,000—the third largest grant of the 34 projects selected—for its partnership with the developer Forest City Enterprises and its 5M Project.[6] The 5M Project is a great example of the intersections between art, technology and gentrification that the Bay Area is currently experiencing, and raises questions about the effectiveness of an institutionally funded creative placemaking project that’s not driven by the local community and the challenges it can present for the participating arts organization.

The 5M Project: A Public-Private Partnership
Intersection for the Arts is the oldest alternative nonprofit arts space in San Francisco. Incorporated in 1965, it has a long history of supporting projects rooted in a social justice framework. In contrast, Forest City Enterprises (formerly Forest City Ratner) is a $9 billion, publicly traded real estate management and development corporation based out of Cleveland, Ohio that has a history of using questionable practices to displace communities, including eminent domain.[7] One of the more high-profile instances of this practice is the Atlantic Yards project in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.[8] The 2011 award-winning documentary, “Battle For Brooklyn”[9] chronicles the development of that project and the subsequent breakdown of the neighborhood that was seized.

The 5M Project[10] is housed in the San Francisco Chronicle building in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, which historically has comprised a strong network of social justice, youth, labor, veterans’ equity, and arts organizations and small businesses that have often worked together for years to serve the neighborhood’s low-income families and individuals.[11] Additionally, the community is filled with existing public art projects, murals and installations; performances and community festivals, such as the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade, the Pistahan Festival and Parade and SoMaFest; as well as numerous independent and institutional art spaces—all of which the community has created, helped to develop, or supported for over 20 years. Therefore, from the outset of the 5M Project, it’s been difficult to envision how Intersection for the Arts, which is new to SoMa[12] —working with a publicly traded, for-profit development corporation—could possibly create any sort of healthy community-based prototype.

Such skepticism is not in any way a reflection of Intersection’s integrity as an organization. On the contrary, since its beginnings, Intersection has been creating and presenting some of the very best community-based arts programming in the country, committed to raising awareness and social consciousness around critical issues of justice and equity. Their exemplary programming is due in large part to their staff and in particular, the curatorial visions and tireless commitments of longtime program directors Kevin Chen (Visual Arts, Literary & Jazz) and Sean San Jose (Performing Arts). The concerns here are for: (a) the potential complications that can arise from an organization like Intersection that’s always been committed to supporting a platform of social justice through the arts entering into partnership with a publicly traded corporation whose commitment is to maximizing profits for its shareholders; and (b) the pressures around the fulfillment of the objectives of a time-sensitive, place-based grant where the grantee is new to the community and lacks  those essential organically developed relationships within its new neighborhood.

5M’s Impact on the Existing Community
In addition to the partnership with Intersection for the Arts, Forest City’s 5M development includes 750 new dwelling units, over a million square feet of office spaces, and 150,000 square feet of retail, educational, and cultural use spaces.[13] While the 4-acre project is not going to directly displace residents, several members of SoMa’s community-based coalition, including Bernadette Sy (Filipino American Development Association), Angelica Cabande (South of Market Community Action Network—SOMCAN), and Jessica Van Tuyl (Oasis for Girls), voiced concerns that without clear policy protections in place, SoMa’s low and middle-income residents are likely to be displaced by the increased cost of living and rents in the neighborhood, as well as the lack of access to jobs and amenities that will be created by the development.

According to Cabande: “We’re being told how this project is going to benefit our community but we’re still not seeing that. And we haven’t even talked about the impacts—not only the displacement and gentrification impacts, but also the traffic impacts and open space. There are many things that need to be looked at to make sure that there is really good community planning when you’re developing a project like this. And so far we haven’t felt that the community has been included in that process!”

The SoMa district has already been significantly impacted by the changes that have occurred for over a decade,[14] due in large part to city planning and policy decisions and legislation that have favored developers, corporations, and the upper incomes moving into the neighborhood.

Cabande also noted that the most promising facet of the 5M/Intersection/ArtPlace collaboration for the neighborhood’s established community organizations was the partnership with PolicyLink, a national research and action institute based in Oakland that works to advance economic and social equity. PolicyLink was brought on to the project in 2012 by 5M to provide policy recommendations and help shape the project’s approach to inclusive change. PolicyLink’s model for community development is to “connect the work of people on the ground to the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper by offering access to quality jobs, affordable housing, good schools, transportation, and the benefits of healthy food and physical activity.”[15]

An equitable community benefits agreement[16] for a project like the 5M might include: a guarantee of x numbers of jobs for local low- and middle-income residents; at least 30 percent of housing units for the low-income; a wall-to-wall living wage; 100 percent of the new construction jobs for San Francisco residents, with 65 percent for local hires; a community-based job training center for the project; and restrictions against the use of temp agencies.[17]

SOMCAN and PolicyLink’s hope for the collaboration was that it had potential for setting a local standard and creating a national model for equitable development on this scale. However, according to Josh Kirschenbaum, vice president of strategic direction for PolicyLink: “The contract to include the prototyping effort, which would have included working with local groups like SOMCAN, was not fully executed.  Instead, Intersection and Forest City decided to implement this phase on their own.”[18]

Additionally, Forest City was not able to advance the comprehensive portfolio of equity recommendations developed by PolicyLink in the predevelopment phase, which ultimately diluted their potential impact. It is challenging to work with a publicly traded corporation in which the company’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. However, processes such as Environmental Impact Reviews, required by the city for proposed projects, can provide an excellent opportunity for greater scrutiny and analysis in support of recommendations that necessitate social responsibility, affordability, and cultural competency as profit-maximizing strategies for all stakeholders.

The 5M Project is now raising many of these same questions for Forest City’s newest project: Pier 70. This controversial development is using the creative placemaking strategies of 5M,[19] drawing similar community concerns over its potential impact on the Dogpatch neighborhood, as well as bordering Bayview/Hunters Point.[20]

Reversing the Gentrification Trend
As artists, our nature is often to see the world as full of possibility and transformation and to help shape culture in ways that are unexpected and unprecedented. However, the ability of artists to become driving forces of culture becomes extremely difficult when economic instability, lack of affordable space, and homogenous environments threaten our livelihoods and we become creative agents driven by the forces of money and survival.

The challenge in this current climate of concentrated capital is to cultivate alternative models that are equitable and support a culture of sufficiency through strategies such as land trusts, co-ops, commons, full taxation of corporations, increased protections and regulations for housing and zoning, as well as more stringent community benefit agreements. To achieve these ends, we must work to put far more pressure on our city officials and hold them accountable to provide the best services, opportunities, and amenities for residents, while ensuring that existing communities are protected and supported through high-functioning planning, permitting, and legislation with strong and clear avenues for oversight and accountability.

We must also keep in mind that the most successful creative projects and works of art in the urban landscape are often those that capture intimate and organic connections devoid of contrived models for planned environments, and the subversions to these institutionalized frameworks.

Postscript: I began researching and writing this piece in early March 2014 and finished it in late May, just as Intersection for the Arts cut its arts, education, and community engagement programs and laid off its program staff, keeping only its fiscal sponsorship program. What began as a reflection on the shortcomings of creative placemaking as a tool for economic development and its implications on gentrification and community displacement has become a cautionary tale for arts and community organizations on the potential outcomes of working with partners whose interests are rooted in financial profit.

Megan Wilson is an artist, writer, nonprofit consultant and community organizer based in San Francisco. This article is based on a longer version entitled “The Gentrification of Our Livelihoods” that appeared in on June 3, 2014.

1    The term creative placemaking was first coined by economist Ann Markusen in 2007 in her influential National Endowment for the Arts white paper with the eponymous title to define an urbanism that requires the presence of art and artists.
3    This has included my nonprofit development, management, and planning work with the following organizations and the communities they serve: Urban Peace Movement, Portola and Excelsior Family Connections, Oasis For Girls, Oakland Leaf, Creative Growth Art Center, SOMCAN (South of Market Community Action Network), Young Women United for Oakland, Streetside Stories, Youthspace, APIAHF (Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum), The Luggage Store, Clarion Alley Mural Project, TILT, Southern Exposure, Meridian Gallery and The National Conference for Community and Justice.
5    Ibid.
6    Ibid.
10    The 5M project is the overarching development for the 5M Creative Placemaking collaboration between Intersection for the Arts and Forest City Enterprises (the developer).
12    Intersection moved from their 446 Valencia Street (Mission District) location to the Chronicle Building at 925 Mission Street (in the South of Market neighborhood) in the summer of 2011.
18    Interview with Josh Kirschenbaum, April 2, 2014.