Small Steps Toward a Better Community

by Anthony Corso
City of Peoria

Starting a regional conversation around small-scale development

In March of 2018, Bernice Radle—a small-scale real estate developer from Buffalo, New York and member of the Incremental Development Alliance—came to Peoria to share her story. It was a story about loving a place and turning that love into a business with a mission to revitalize a neighborhood—one building at a time. 

The Incremental Development Alliance is a not-for-profit comprised of small-scale real estate developers working in cities across the United States. The Alliance works to build the capacity for local residents—including small business owners, neighborhood advocates, design and real estate professionals, builders and others—to invest in and strengthen their own neighborhoods. At the same time, they work with city partners and civic leaders to help create a thriving ecosystem for small developers that can enable the kind of development their community needs. 

Bernice was brought to Peoria by the Small-Scale Development Host Committee, a group of regional stakeholders convened by the City of Peoria’s Innovation Team to grow the local community of small-scale developers in partnership with the Incremental Development Alliance. The goal was to share Bernice’s story (and others like it) with a regional audience in order to build on an important national movement here in Peoria. This movement aims to create a new generation of small-scale developers empowered with the tools, strategies, inspiration and support to incrementally transform the neighborhoods and districts they care about. 

The lessons Bernice shared show what is possible when people move from lamenting the challenges facing their neighborhoods to becoming a force for positive change by reinvesting in them. She described a formula combining a strong connection to place, relationship building and hard work over time to create vibrant neighborhoods. Until the late 20th century, this is how most neighborhoods and cities were built: incrementally, over time by residents, small business owners and other small-scale developers. 

Too much real estate development in neighborhoods today, however, is extractive—exporting wealth outside the region. In principle, small-scale development is about creating the kinds of projects that contribute to place, rather than extracting from them. Bernice reminded the audience that no one from outside the community was coming in to save their neighborhood—they need to do that work themselves. And they would need the help of a network of small-scale developers and champions.

The Big Impact of Small-Scale
Small-scale development involves the development or redevelopment of small real estate projects—those between one and three stories and less than 20 units. By its very nature, small-scale development offers a more adaptable way to develop real estate that leads to more resilient neighborhoods and districts. 

By creating diverse residential, commercial and mixed-use building types with diverse ownership, these places can better weather the ebb and flow of the economy. In addition, they can make it easier to launch or grow small businesses by providing the types of spaces they need. This is critical when you consider that in most communities, small businesses employ the vast majority of residents.

Small-scale development is a time-tested approach to building relationships and wealth within communities. It has proven to be a powerful tool to revitalize neighborhoods across the country. And it is an approach that can help disinvested neighborhoods and historic commercial corridors in and around Peoria thrive again. 

Small-scale developmentCultivating Small-Scale Developers
Following Bernice’s lecture, more than 80 area residents signed up for a daylong workshop to learn the fundamentals of small-scale development, covering topics from building typologies and site development, to financing and project pro formas. The Host Committee’s attempt to kickstart the conversation and start building an organic network of small developers, investors and small-scale development champions was beginning to take shape. 

Connect with others and learn more about small-scale development by joining the next Small-Scale Development 309 MeetUp on March 13, 2019 at 5:30pm at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center. For more information, visit facebook.com/groups/smallscale309.

In April 2018, an energized group of 82 community members took part in small-scale development training led by the Incremental Development Alliance. Besides learning the nuts and bolts of small-scale development, participants were introduced to an online platform connecting them to a national network of small-scale developers and “neighborhood-level doers” that support one another and share notes on what works and what doesn’t. The following month, several Host Committee members and training participants launched the Small-Scale Development 309 MeetUp group (and an online Facebook group of the same name) to support the growth of this network of local and regional small-scale developers, investors and champions. 

Through often “standing-room-only” MeetUp events hosted at recently completed small development sites in Peoria, people were introduced to local partners and resources as well as other training opportunities. In October, three budding small-scale developers attended a two-day regional small-scale development bootcamp in South Bend, Indiana to test their project ideas and get feedback from established small-scale developers. They will share what they learned—along with insights from other bootcamp participants—at an upcoming Small-Scale Development MeetUp.

These efforts were just the start of a long-term journey to create a supportive ecosystem for small-scale developers—enabling those in our community who want to make better places to do so. iBi

Anthony Corso serves as the chief innovation officer for the City of Peoria, where he directs the Innovation Team. Learn more about the Incremental Development Alliance at incrementaldevelopment.org.

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