When neighborhood redevelopment is the goal, it’s critical for philanthropists and developers with the ability to acquire significant amounts of property to partner with the people who are supposed to be helped by the ultimate redevelopment.
Susie Buffett’s philanthropic work over the years has brought tremendous benefits to Omaha. Her track record shows that she has good intentions and plans for the $4 million worth of property she’s quietly accumulated in North Omaha, including 35 buildings and vacant lots within four blocks of 24th and Lake Streets, once the beating heart of the city’s black neighborhood. But so far, residents have no information about Buffett’s acquisitions.
Tanya Cooper, president of the OIC Neighborhood Association north of Lake Street, said RH Land Management, which has purchased the properties and is affiliated with Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation, needs “to be talking to the community about what they want.”
“People have lives, and they have stuff that is already going on down here,” Cooper said.
Cooper makes a central point that North Omaha residents have long emphasized: Investment is welcome, but development must go hand in hand with outreach to residents in order to achieve community buy-in. Such an approach ensures that development will be compatible with residents’ needs.
In Denver, for example, a community benefits agreement for redevelopment of an industrial site called for affordable rental and for-sale housing, agreement with a neighborhood coalition to be responsible for ongoing clean-up and a local hiring program to give nearby residents first crack at jobs created by the development. In Pittsburgh, such an agreement involving the area near an arena development provided for a full-service grocery store and pharmacy with a neighborhood hiring preference.
The residents of North Omaha know best what their neighborhood and its residents need. Redevelopment must be both useful and used, which is more likely with neighbors’ input.
The Forever North initiative set a fine example of such outreach recently when it put together its development ideas. To engage North Omaha residents, the project held two community workshops, and volunteers from the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation center went door to door to seek residents’ opinions.
Transparency and community buy-in also were emphasized when the City Council created the Omaha Municipal Land Bank in 2014. Although it doesn’t have the power of eminent domain or any taxing authority, the land bank has authority to buy vacant and tax-delinquent properties and then resell them — major powers, controlling considerable amounts of property, that need to be tempered by transparency and accountability. That’s why the ordinance requires the land bank’s board to follow open meetings and public records laws and consult regularly with residents.
None of this will be news to Buffett. She has extensive philanthropic experience in Omaha, demonstrating impressive community vision and dedication. Her task is to convert good intentions into a good plan, grounded in community buy-in that respects local residents and their needs.