The Renaissance of Midtown

Walking down city streets 10 years ago, one would have thought that opportunity had already departed. Once-proud Victorian commercial spaces were typically vacated, boarded and abandoned. 

New Albany, Indiana,  however, was not resigned to failure!  One after another anchor project rescued properties and injected new life into landmark locations.  A few years ago, it seemed the tide was turning and new residents from across a two-state metro area were again considering New Albany as a promising place for investment — that is, until the recession hit the pause button again.  If New Albany is emblematic of the state’s small cities, its Midtown area symbolizes thousands of Indiana’s inner ring suburbs.  This neighborhood’s future can be a proving ground for new techniques and innovations in public/private venture, community development and resident organizing. 

Midtown is an historic neighborhood with a new, compelling name coined by residents to attract new neighbors from beyond the city limits of New Albany, Indiana.  Midtown enjoys economic and racial diversity not found in much of the remainder of Floyd County. Attraction to that diversity and to its historic building patterns facilitates marketing to a youthful audience.  For others, there are lingering doubts about returning to the city from the more prosperous suburbs. Smaller shotgun homes and bungalows were conveniently sized rental stock.  Against this backdrop, the Midtown area was ripe for speculation in the last decade.  It was a convenient place for highly leveraged landlords. 

The full impact of the 2009 economic collapse meant that instead of losing one occupant at a time, 10 to 15 homes were vacated in a single foreclosure episode.  In fact, one such 10-unit blighted portfolio was acquired in total during the Midtown NSP acquisition stage.  In March 2009, Midtown counted 893 total housing units consisting of 445 owner-occupied units, 80 vacant housing units, 37 bank-owned or foreclosed units, 38 units for sale and 75 vacant infill lots. 

Recession further eroded Midtown.  In 2010, Midtown scored 9 of 10 on the HUD Risk Assessment Matrix (high risk).  And, the numbers got worse:  In March 2010, 91 homes were vacant in Midtown; another 42 were in foreclosure. Realty Track maps of Midtown showed a pattern of foreclosure. 

Many homes—both rental and ownership sites—show obvious signs of deferred maintenance and neglect while others are well-kept and exhibit the neighborhood’s higher expectations.

In late 2011, 113 vacant homes suddenly included 29 sites under New Directions new site control and in the pipeline for redevelopment and resale.  When opportunity brought over $6.7 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to New Albany, this proposed approach and a high-quality market housing study were implemented immediately to aim resources and political will into a concentrated area to maximize market stabilization impact.  Midtown, the area chosen for NSP1 concentration is contiguous to New Albany’s downtown business district which is experiencing a boot-strap renaissance with entrepreneurs taking on empty commercial properties and igniting new businesses.  This neighborhood is the bridge between commercial resurgence and stronger neighborhoods to the immediate east, and because its geography attracted speculation earlier in the decade, foreclosure and abandonment were disproportionately high as the recession commenced. 

Guided by a Healthy Neighborhood approach to revitalization that repositions neighborhoods to succeed in attracting positive investment choices by homebuyers, neighbors, business, and others, The City of New Albany and New Directions Housing Corporation, with additional collaborative partners, are working with residents and stakeholders in neighborhood image development, repair and rehabilitation assistance to existing homeowners, neighborhood management coordination (action planning, social media and interaction), and increasing access to prudent financial products to counteract market conditions being negatively impacted by foreclosure and disinvestment.

Every resource and energy is being marshaled to re-occupy New Albany’s abandoned residential and commercial properties in a powerful bid for a relevant economic future.

New Albany had reached a critical point of decision: continue to tacitly agree to gradual disinvestment, or fight to hold onto and increase its share of residents ready to reinvest energy, capital, and hope. 

This viral enthusiasm and brave concentration of deployed resource caught national attention in two recent articles, Midtown Renaissance which appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Bridges, a publication of The Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, and NeighborWorks America’s Community Stabilization website. Download the PDF.

A parallel strategy is a new public sector commitment to concentrated code enforcement that signals a warning to laissez-faire absentee landlords.  Now, sights are set on even more progressive ways to arrest blight and address vacant and abandoned properties. 

We’re getting results!  Homes are selling - 19 are in the hands of newly installed owners.  The Neighborhood Resource Center at The Cardinal Ritter House is complete, providing in-community financial skill building and high quality child services are now in the neighborhood.  Soon, a handsome community green gathering space and garden will be completed.

New Albany and its Midtown area are on the way back. Visit some time, and enjoy a local wine or beer, walk the quiet streets and think about owning a home or business on what natives call “The sunny side of Louisville.”

5Cs - Drivers of Community Stabilization

A paradigm developed by the National Community Stabilization Trust to help define and identify effective local community stabilization efforts.

Comprehensive - Community stabilization efforts should result from a plan that addresses all destabilizing forces in the community.

Concentration - Community stabilization efforts should be targeted for maximum impact.

Collaboration - Community stabilization efforts should include a broad array of partners with a strong focus on resident engagement.

Capacity - Community stabilization efforts should be undertaken by organizations with demonstrated capacity in the planned activities.

Capital - Community stabilization efforts should be adequately capitalized and explore creative methods to take advantage of new sources of capital.