The Incremental Developer

I recently read an article by Robert Steuteville titled "Great Idea:Incremental Developers". The incremental developer is someone who creates meaningful change in their own communities through small scale building projects. When I thought about this for a moment, I realized I was an incremental developer when I lived in Lubbock, Texas. My husband and I purchased a rundown old bungalow, spent months renovating it through window restoration, refinishing the hardwood floors, installing dry wall on the ceilings, new central heating and air, painting, and exposing the original brick fireplace. We even spent a few days clearing out the garage which was packed floor to ceiling with storage. When we sold the house, I felt better knowing we saved it from demolition and put the house back into productive use. We sold the house to a local church that provides housing assistance to recently homeless citizens.

The living room when we purchased the house

The living room when we purchased the house

The living room after the renovation

The living room after the renovation

The article gave guidance and information from the Incremental Development Alliance for how people like you and me can become incremental developers in our own communities. Warnings were provided against a preservation project as your first adventure, but I would say if its small, such as my little bungalow, go for it. The IDA trains, cultivates, and connects. They do not appear to be the kind of group you hear ads for on the radio promising to help you flip houses and make money. They instead provide workshops, encouraging attendees to bring their ideas and plans so they can provide specific guidance and connection to other small developers to learn from each other.

The Nokomis Theater, rehabbed for use by the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center.

The Nokomis Theater, rehabbed for use by the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center.

According to Eric Kronberg of Kronberg Wall Architecture citizens should "revitalize existing neighborhoods and places that have been blighted and put them back into productive service." The author see's potential for change when multiple incremental developers flood a neighborhood, the more down trodden the better. This way, they share in the investment risk making an impact in areas avoided by the bottom line seeking big developers. Ideally, these small scale developers work with neighbors, get to know them, and involve them in the work to bring about more cohesion and trust. When investment comes to neighborhoods that have been ignored there is always the risk of gentrification, pushing out the local residents as property values increase and more investment occurs. If we have an army of incremental developers invested in preserving the neighborhood, not just flipping houses, we can avoid gentrification while bringing the area back to life.

In Northeast Minneapolis you can find residents wearing "Don't Uptown My Northeast." What they are saying is they have pride in their neighborhood the way it is and don't want to see developers coming in trying to capitalize on the next big investment. I wonder however if they would be open to seeing the incremental developer bring some positive upgrades on a small scale to pockets that need help. Not every nook needs to be overhauled, but some areas could use some small investments. If done with the neighborhood at the heart of the project, residents will not be pushed out and Nordeast would remain Nordeast.

Vacant building at 22nd Street and University Avenue

Vacant building at 22nd Street and University Avenue

I see huge potential for this approach in North Minneapolis. This area of the city has been avoided by investors for some time because of crime and the perception created as a result. There are many beautiful historic houses throughout the neighborhood that deserve attention and a force of incremental developers is the answer. We should be fixing our building stock to preserve its character. A full scale redevelopment by a big developer has the potential to destroy the neighborhood identity, but small incremental change done with a goal of improvement, not clearance, would go along way.

One of the many beautiful homes in North Minneapolis worth preserving

One of the many beautiful homes in North Minneapolis worth preserving

These kinds of small scale projects are becoming more important as city populations continue to rise. In 2010, 80.7% of the population lived in urban cities in the U.S and every statistic I have read since points to this number rising. As such, we need incremental developers more than ever. They are the people who will consider impacts to residents and the neighborhood before designing their projects. They are not driven wholly by the bottom line like the large scale developer who creates incompatible high rise towers next to low rise neighborhoods. The author makes a great case, incremental developers are a great idea.