Obama Sets Sights on Urban Renewal

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

President Obama is putting a new emphasis on revitalizing U.S. cities with a coordinated effort that involves stimulus funding and getting multiple agencies to work together to improve schools, housing and neighborhoods.

The approach is winning applause from local officials and urban thinkers, who credit the administration for quietly beginning the most ambitious new policy for the nation's cities since the Great Society programs of the 1960s. But the plan involves fundamental changes in the way federal agencies dole out assistance to urban areas, making its success uncertain.

"This is way more than an ocean liner trying to change direction," said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, an advocacy organization that has consulted with the administration. "This is glacial."

Peniel E. Joseph, a historian at Tufts University, said it appears that Obama is trying to reverse a trend in which urban issues slipped down the national agenda. The president's stimulus plan included at least $20 billion for urban programs, outside of education.

"The stimulus certainly put billions into urban areas, but we are still going to have to see over the course of his administration what this adds up to," Joseph said.

Obama has lamented the historic failures of federal efforts to rejuvenate urban areas, noting in July at a White House urban policy roundtable that "federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development."

In the same way that federal highway spending encouraged sprawl, the Obama administration says more concentrated development can lead to more job opportunities for residents and environmentally and economically viable neighborhoods.

A Cities 'Czar'

To coordinate his initiatives, Obama in March named Adolfo Carrion Jr., a former Bronx borough president, to direct his new White House Office of Urban Affairs.

"This is not your father's White House," Carrion said in an interview. "This is a new way of looking at the new city-metro reality."

Over the past two months, Carrion and other administration officials -- from agencies as diverse as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency-- have visited cities to observe innovative development plans.

In Kansas City, stimulus funding has galvanized a project called the Green Impact Zone, led by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a former mayor of the city. About $200 million in mostly federal money will be invested in the project, which aims to transform an economically depressed 150-square-block area east of Troost Avenue. About half of its residents live in deep poverty, with numerous vacant houses, high crime levels and unemployment rates approaching 50 percent.

The project involves a coordinated rush of federal money. Stimulus funding will be used to weatherize the 2,500 homes in the community. Block grants from the Energy Department will be used to hire residents and train them to do energy audits. Meanwhile, the local power company will build a "smart grid" in the area, using $25 million in stimulus money and $25 million of its own. More than $30 million, mostly from the Transportation Department, will be used to build a 13-mile rapid-transit line through the community to downtown that will feature solar-powered stations and buses that run on biodiesel fuel. There also will be job training in environmental cleanup and community policing funded by various agencies.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company