East Lake: A Model of Urban Renewal

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Urban Greening red paint job

Last week, I pondered the question of how urban decay affects community values. I tracked the history of Camden, New Jersey and introduced Schwartz’s Value Circumplex as a valuable tool for mapping the changing values of a community. I, like many of you, left asking, “How do you reverse urban decay and the subsequent destruction of community values?” To answer that question, I’d like to introduce you to another community, East Lake in Atlanta, Georgia.

East Lake

East Lake is a historic neighborhood of Atlanta, only 4.5 miles from downtown. Originally the area was part of a 400-acre plantation owned by Colonel Robert Alston. In 1904, the Atlanta Athletic Club opened its doors at the lake. Following the construction of an automobile road that connected downtown Atlanta with the East Lake Country Club in 1912, demand for the area’s cottages and bungalows skyrocketed. The area thrived until the construction of East Lake Meadows, a notorious public housing project built in 1970. By 1995, the area had earned the nickname “Little Vietnam” due to its high levels of violence. The crime rate was 18x the national average and the unemployment rate was a staggering 87%.

Urban Renewal: Housing

“You would see blood on the ground where there had been a shootout. It was terrible and the families were absolutely petrified. [East Lake Meadows] was just a model that had failed its mission because it was concentrating poverty.” – Renee Glover, President & CEO Atlanta Housing Authority

In 1995, real estate developer Tom Cousins started the East Lake Foundation with the goal of redeveloping East Lake Meadows and transforming the community. The foundation recruited influential partners to help with the project and spent two years convening bi-weekly meetings with community residents to garner support. With Atlanta Housing Authority’s blessing, East Lake Meadows’ residents were relocated to temporary housing while the notorious housing project was razed to make way for a brand new mixed-income housing community known as the Villages of East Lake.

One key objective of the redevelopment project was to ensure that former residents were not priced out of the community. As such, the Villages of East Lake included a 50/50 split between market-rate and subsidized housing. Eligibility for subsidized housing in the new complex was based upon the length of residence in East Lake Meadows.

Urban Renewal: Education

Drew Charter School

“We didn’t intend to be in the school business, but we found soon, we could not get families with children to move into the new villages.” – Tom Cousins, Chairman Emeritus East Lake Foundation

After the local public school closed due to poor enrollment, the East Lake Foundation lobbied hard to open Atlanta’s first charter school. They partnered with Edison Schools, a for-profit charter management company, and launched Drew Charter School in 2000. The Foundation soon realized that many of the students entering the new charter school were unprepared for primary school. They enlisted the support of early childhood education providers to fill the gap. In 1995, only 5% of 5th graders met math standards whereas in 2011, the number reached 99%. Drew is now the top school in Atlanta among 301 elementary schools and 134 middle schools that serve a majority population of low-income, African Americans.

In 2014, the East Lake Foundation realized their goal of “cradle-to-college” education with the expansion of Drew Charter School’s Senior Academy that serves grades nine through twelve. Previously, Drew students would leave after the completion of eighth grade and enter one of 17 different high schools. Now, the school can continue the exceptional education it has crafted over the past 14 years and help students prepare for college.

Urban Renewal: Community Wellness

The last pillar of East Lake Foundation’s three pillars for urban renewal is an emphasis on community wellness. The foundation built partnerships with organizations that provide job training for adults, after school programs for children, athletics programs at the local YMCA and golf course, access to nutritious food with the introduction of the first grocery store in 40 years. East Lake Foundation coordinates all of these partnerships to such a degree that the YMCA is actually connected to Drew Charter School. YMCA staff coordinate Drew’s physical education at the YMCA facility next door. This comprehensive integration is a key factor to success.

A Model for Urban Renewal

By all accounts, East Lake’s massive transformation is an incredible success. Crime is down 73%. Employment is up 400%. The community school is one of the best in all of Atlanta. The East Lake Foundation’s comprehensive strategy of simultaneously addressing safety, employment, education and wellness is one of the keys of success. The foundation also did an excellent job of taking the lead in coordinating the revitalization program all the while, relying on knowledgeable partners to focus on important pieces of the puzzle. Influential board members proved invaluable in fundraising and navigating the bureaucracy necessary to secure wins that set up the program for success.

In 2009, Tom Cousins, Warren Buffet and Julian Roberts co-founded Purpose Built Communities with the objective of replicating the East Lake model across the country. They have initiated programs in seven additional cities and have plans to redevelop 25 communities in the next few years.

My only question regarding the East Lake model is around the fact that only 27% of East Lake Meadow’s original residents returned to the community after 10 years. Do you have to kick out residents of a crime-ridden community to increase community values? How much of East Lake’s success is due to the simple fact that 73% of former residents were dispersed to other communities? Gentrification essentially has this effect as long-time residents of poorer communities are naturally priced out and replaced by higher income residents. I do not believe that “good” values are an exclusively middle or high-income trait. In the case of East Lake, 50% of housing at the Villages at East Lake remains rent subsidized and 62% of the students at Drew Charter School receive free or reduce lunch, which indicates that the community is still mixed income.

Urban renewal is a long and arduous process but the case of East Lake shines a light on a path forward.

Photo Credit: Benno Hansen, East Lake Foundation

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