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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Vision Thing

One of my neighbors recently posed a great question. He wanted to know what is the vision for the neighborhood moving forward. The question seems straightforward but perhaps not as easy to answer as you may think. It's a good question to ask at this juncture in the life of the neighborhood. The vision question indicates that folks are sensing an emerging healthy tension as the neighborhood continues to progress and are beginning to wonder which way to go next.  So how is vision for a changing neighborhood like Dignowity created?

Perhaps we can start by re-visiting the neighborhood plan that was developed by neighborhood residents and approved by city council in 2009. You can find the complete Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Plan at: 

The stated purpose of the neighborhood plan is to provide a guide for future action, growth and development. The plan provides a ready made list of improvements and steps that residents want to see in the neighborhood. In turn city staff can use the plan to prioritize capital improvement projects and most importantly identify and prioritize funding mechanisms for those projects. 

There are 22 goals under four major headings that are part of neighborhood plan. The headings and their descriptions are listed below: 

Community Facilities and Public Health
Maintain and enhance the neighborhood parks, community centers, and cultural events that promote healthy lifestyles and highlight the historic character of the Dignowity Hill neighborhood

Crime and Public Safety
Improve the well being of the community by eliminating criminal activity through improved public safety measures to ensure that all community members especially children are able to work and play without fear in a safe environment

Housing and Economic Development
Coordinate and integrate development of a mix of neighborhood businesses that serve the immediate residents in the vicinity and establish housing options with diverse age and density that are walkable and secure  

Transportation, Infrastructure and Drainage
Work with partners and neighbors to enhance the aesthetics of the area by improving sidewalks and road infrastructure to create a safe and friendly environment for pedes­trians, motorists, and bicyclists

Taking Action
Work toward achieving the goals and objectives that are laid out in the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Plan

In the past five years the neighborhood in partnership with city and elected officials has made significant strides in addressing some of the goals of the neighborhood plan with some success in pushing crime out and improving public safety. The economic piece is starting to gain some traction with the coming of Alamo Brewery and other business ventures in and around the neighborhood. Housing, especially large infill housing has yet to get any significant footing in the neighborhood although that may be changing soon as demand for housing close to downtown is gaining momentum and developers are eyeing larger tracts within the neighborhood.  The one area where there is dire need of improvement is infrastructure and drainage improvements.

View from Lockwood Park

It's also helpful to understand that the Dignowity Hill neighborhood plan was developed and approved before there was an Easpoint, before the Promise Zone, before there was the Eastside Promise Neighborhood Grant, and before there was the Choice Grant, which by the way does not include or affect Dignowity Hill. The grant initiatives are all good in and of themselves because they address specific challenges associated with improving educational outcomes, addressing an extremely economically distressed area of the Eastside and bring much needed public investment.  The reality, however, is that Dignowity as a neighborhood has been working on the vision thing way before any of these initiatives existed. 

The interesting thing about the vision question is that all of us in the neighborhood most likely have an image of what the neighborhood can become or even what it should become. That is why visioning ought to be an exercise in collective thoughtful expression. I also believe that the neighborhood is reaching a tipping point that was set in motion in the mid 2000's by private investors who saw the potential of the neighborhood. They were willing to take a financial risk on the Eastside and in Dignowity. That wave of newcomers also brought along the notion of building community and finding ways to sustain the character and social fabric of the neighborhood.  The question now is where do we want to go from here?
Ella Austin Community Center-Auditorium Entrance

The elements found in the neighborhood plan are good starting points to jump start a conversation about the neighborhood vision question. As I mentioned previously some healthy tensions are developing as the neighborhood continues to progress and they are not clearly addressed by the neighborhood plan. Some examples: the neighborhood is attracting young professionals that are investing in the neighborhood but we are also attracting investors and developers who do not necessarily care about building community. We find our selves layered by federal grants that for a number of reasons, neither good or bad, are not part of the vision of the neighborhood because of the prescriptive and focused nature of the grants. The question of gentrification has popped up as newcomers accelerate investment in the neighborhood yet I also feel a strong sense of community of making sure we do not displace our long time residents.  Our historic district puts the neighborhood in the middle of historic preservation issues but often times those issues collide with economic development initiatives or public safety concerns around older or abandoned structures. Do we envision better schools? Do we want streets with sidewalks and curbs that actually drain off after a rain? Do we allow developers do in fill housing without regard to historic architectural guidelines? Do we allow concerns regarding density for the sake of having a new housing development in the neighborhood be discounted or worse yet disregarded?

The vision question is important. It's time that we as a neighborhood pause a bit and do some reflecting on what next.  
Cherry Modern On Cherry Street

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