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Results mixed for neighborhood revival program


The City of Rochester's Focused Investment program has made visible, tangible changes in its target neighborhoods, but the gains are fragile, and significant challenges remain, says a recently released evaluation of the city's high-profile revitalization effort.

And in addition to questions about the program's accomplishments are questions about whether or not there is the money or desire to continue the initiative.

The program targets four borderline city neighborhoods for an intense outlay of time and money: Marketview Heights in the northeast quadrant of the city; Beechwood in the southeast; Dewey-Driving Park in the northwest; and Jefferson Avenue in the southwest. Focusing in on select neighborhoods to drive measurable change is better than scattering money around to achieve little, the thinking goes.

A total of $17.1 million has been directly invested over the seven years that the program has existed, according to the evaluation. That money has leveraged another $88 million in additional investment, the report says.

The report, which came out last week, highlights the program's successes, but points out that the effort was hampered somewhat by the Great Recession, and because the target neighborhoods were in worse shape than the "borderline" label suggests.

The primary tools of the program are demolition, code enforcement, exterior residential rehabilitation, businesses loans, and other methods to improve the neighborhoods' housing markets, to increase property values, and to empower residents, among other goals.

The report includes a chart that measures each neighborhood against the program's stated goals. All of the Focused Investment areas show increased property values, but in a notable contrast, the median residential sale price dropped in each area — in some cases, significantly — over the same approximate time period.

The median residential sale price dropped 50 percent between 2007 and 2015 for single- and two-family homes in the Jefferson Avenue Focused Investment area, for example. But the median assessed value increased by 16 percent from 2006 to 2016.

Owner-occupancy dropped in three of the four Focused Investment areas; it increased .3 percent in Marketview Heights.

Another notable finding: violent crime dropped in all four Focused Investment areas from 2008 to 2015. The biggest drop was in Dewey-Driving Park, which saw a 55 percent reduction. That was followed by a 52 percent drop in the Jefferson Avenue area.

The report outlines the next steps that the city should take, emphasizing that the city must protect the investments made so far by continuing to invest in or near the current Focused Investment areas.

But it's not clear if there's money set aside to continue the program, even though some members of City Council also say that the city can't walk away from the target neighborhoods now.

"These neighborhoods didn't become challenged overnight, they're not going to get repaired overnight," says City Council member Matt Haag.

There is some money in the upcoming budget for work in a couple of the target neighborhoods, but the city administration isn't calling it Focused Investment, says City Council member Elaine Spaull.

A city spokesperson didn't respond to questions about the future of the program. But Mayor Lovely Warren, in a letter attached to the Focused Investment report, writes that the continuation of the program "can play an important role in our efforts to bring more jobs, safer and more vibrant neighborhoods and better educational opportunities to our citizens."

In the coming months, her administration will engage the community to figure out Focused Investment's next steps, Warren writes.

A frequently repeated criticism of Focused Investment is that the improvements are, in many cases, surface-deep and don't address the root reasons why the neighborhoods are distressed to begin with. Without addressing issues such as concentrated poverty and absentee landlords, for example, the city will have difficulty sustaining gains achieved through Focused Investment, they say.