Healdsburg rejuvenation shows ‘can do’ attitude
Blight in downtown areas often afflicts surrounding neighborhoods, and some cities, including Healdsburg, Calif., have tackled both problems simultaneously. After years of decline, the city of 10,000 people has rejuvenated its downtown and nearby neighborhoods by implementing flood mitigation, streetscape improvements, the replacement of water, sewer and stormwater lines, and the construction of additional parking spaces.
In fact, the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Program was so successful, the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials gave Healdsburg a 1997 Award of Merit. Additionally, two national magazines, Newsweek and Nation’s Business, reported on the successful downtown revitalization in the picturesque town located in the heart of Sonoma County wine country.
Healdsburg had long recognized the need for a downtown revitalization, but its efforts in that regard were unsuccessful in the early years. A redevelopment agency created in 1981 initially focused mainly on attracting new business.
However, by the mid-1980s, city officials realized that, in order to foster downtown revitalization, they would need to give a boost to surrounding neighborhoods. Young renters, homeowners with modest incomes and retirees on fixed incomes made up a substantial part of those neighborhoods, while houses and buildings constructed more than a century ago represented much of the commercial and residential building stock.
With about 30 percent of its downtown buildings vacant and many of its older homes in disrepair, the city implemented its Neighborhood Improvement Program, a broad-based effort to attain grants, upgrade infrastructure and get people involved on many levels. Interior and exterior health and safety problems were addressed just as forcefully as was blight.
Infrastructure projects, especially streets and sidewalks, were scheduled concurrently with residential rehabilitation projects, so as to build momentum. Meanwhile, the city tapped into its own resources and those of non-governmental agencies to take swift action.
What followed was a litany of success stories that resulted in improvements being made to 950 of Healdsburg’s approximately 4,000 homes.
* A $650,000 housing rehabilitation loan program was launched using funds from the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. City staff screened site and applicant qualifications while the county processed loans. More than 130 residences, including many Victorian homes, were rehabilitated.
* A $320,000 multi-year rehabilitation grant and loan program was established in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Home Administration (FmHA), providing more than 20 home loans. The City Redevelopment Agency staff packaged loans, the city purchasing
division solicited bids on behalf of property owners, and FmHA processed the loans. * The City Redevelopment Agency created a $390,000, multi-year summer employment program for high school students. Students were put to work performing minor exterior home repairs, removing debris and trimming trees for elderly and handicapped residents. More than 460 homes benefited.
* The agency allocated $60,000 to pay high school graduates and junior college students to paint the exteriors of 42 homes occupied by low-income seniors and/or handicapped persons.
* Grants provided by the agency paid for paint vouchers and free debris boxes to qualifying households to encourage residential fix-up projects. More than 200 homeowners took advantage of the program, administered by staff and volunteers at the Healdsburg Senior Center.
* Free smoke detectors or battery replacements were provided to more than 100 households, and upgrades of insulation, storm windows and doors were performed on many homes to help cut utility bills. San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric and municipally owned City Electric Utility funded weatherization.
Many of the agency’s administrators hold other city jobs and therefore must juggle responsibilities. Consequently, the administrative flexibility granted them by City Manager and Agency Executive Director Chet Wystepek helped ensure the redevelopment initiative’s success, says Kurt Hahn, project director.