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.

Such an approach involves viewing urban challenges "in a much more comprehensive, holistic way than has existed for decades," said David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, a nonprofit that promotes regional cooperation in the Kansas City area.

Cooperation Is Key

Still, many obstacles remain. Federal agencies must learn how to cooperate more closely, a process that officials say is more difficult than it sounds. Agencies are set up to funnel policy and money through their own chains of command, not across the government.

In addition, the policy relies on alliances between historically contentious suburban and city officials. The administration plans to use federal grants to reward cities for cooperating with their suburban neighbors, which in many parts of the country are increasingly beset by traditionally urban problems such as crime, failing schools and declining neighborhoods.

Also, state governments must be on board. Much of the $787 billion federal stimulus package was structured in ways that left states in charge of the final distribution, largely forfeiting the federal government's role in reshaping how the money is eventually spent. A report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that major metropolitan areas were shortchanged in the first round of stimulus transportation spending administered by states.

Long term, there is the broader question of how long the federal largess will last, given the nation's fast-growing budget deficit.

'A Personal Issue'

People inside and outside the administration say Obama's vision was shaped by his work in his adopted home town of Chicago, where he was a community organizer on the South Side.

"He has ridden on the bus and on the El and he knows urbanism," said John O. Norquist, a former Milwaukee mayor who is now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which advocates alternatives to sprawl.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said Obama's commitment to urban issues was evident during their first interview. "He talked about community organizing, working in public housing where there were no jobs around. He talked about what he saw in Harlem when he was a student at Columbia University. It is a very personal issue for him that comes from his own experience," Donovan said.

In its budget for next year, the administration has proposed creating programs that would fight poverty through tightly linked services and improvements. The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative would expand on the Hope VI program, which financed the redevelopment of decrepit public housing by funding projects that improve surrounding areas, by adding housing, sidewalks, parks and other amenities.

Also, the Education Department is offering planning grants to nonprofit organizations to develop full-service programs to guide young people from birth through college. The hope is to replicate the success of the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit that provides services such as medical care, day care and charter schools, and is credited with increasing academic achievement for many of the 11,000 students in its programs.

So far, much of the administration's work to transform the federal policy toward metropolitan areas has proceeded below the radar, but people who work in the field are nonetheless hopeful.

Cleaver credits the administration for bringing unprecedented new money to urban policy. He also likes its approach. "The administration's best gifts to metropolitan areas are not things, but opportunities," he said. "We can use those opportunities to turn things around. But it is going to require political selflessness, which is difficult to conjure."

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