Written by Amanda Maher
After the challenge of narrowing 7,000 applications for its Knight Cities Challenge to 126 finalists, the Knight Foundation faced another daunting task: selecting just 32 winners to share $5 million in grant funding—money that will soon be put toward accelerating talent, opportunity and engagement within the urban core. As we previously reported, many of the projects selected as finalists focused on providing opportunities for entrepreneurs in inner cities. When the winners were announced last month, another theme emerged: the focus on bringing life back to public and vacant spaces. Of the five potential topic areas, nearly one third fell into this category.
Detroit, a city whose story is now well known, had six winning proposals, two of which are focused on revitalizing blighted areas. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network received nearly $85,000 for its Brick + Beam Detroit initiative, which aims to bring together a community of Detroit-based “rehabbers” who collectively combat blight and reactivate vacant buildings. Meanwhile, The Buzz, an initiative by Detroit Future City, netted $84,000 for its plan to bring together two unlikely groups of workers – barbers and landscape contractors – to transform overgrown vacant lots through facilitated design workshops that teach mowing and pattern-making techniques.
Perhaps utilizing a more traditional approach to downtown revitalization, Gary, Indiana has a plan to repurpose a vacant storefront by transforming it into a culinary incubator and café. The Rebuild Foundation received $650,000 for ArtHouse: a Social Kitchen, an initiative developed in conjunction with the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
“The [ArtHouse] team stood out,” said Bahai Ramos, Director of Knight Community Foundations. “It comes from a place authentic to what Gary is, rather than some lofty ideal about what could happen. It’s using food, things as simple as congregating around food and using a kitchen to express talents and creativity and build a marketplace.” Through its community kitchen and culinary business accelerator, ArtHouse is expected to create new jobs and economic opportunity for Gary residents.
Lexington, Kentucky also has plans to tie food into its revitalization strategy. Here, the North Limestone CDC received $550,000 to repurpose a vacant Greyhound bus station into a local fresh-food market that serves the low-income neighborhood and a business incubator for the city’s “maker” community. Once slated for demolition, the bus terminal was recognized as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. This plan to create a “Northside Common Market” will bring life back to what once served as an important community gathering place.
With more than 32,000 vacant lots within city limits, it was perhaps not surprising that there was a proposal from Philadelphia that focused on reclaiming vacant space. Developer Scout Ltd. received almost $147,000 to jumpstart its transformation of the former Edward W. Bok School into “South Philly’s Stoop.” Having purchased the eight-story, 338,000 square foot building from the Philly School Department in September 2014, Scout Ltd. has reimagined the Bok as a mixed-use development that stays true to the technical school’s roots: the “South Philly Stoop” would offer an “unprecedented concentration of space for Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovators, artists and entrepreneurs.”
Redeveloping public and vacant spaces for new businesses is a proven strategy for adding economic and social value to inner city neighborhoods. Once underutilized vacant spaces can be transformed to serve as an incubator for businesses and nonprofits to test new ideas and solutions that could bring prosperity back to neighborhoods hit hard by blight. The Knight Cities Challenge will help to channel important resources toward reinvestment in neglected inner city areas.