Jackson Boulevard: Creating a destination for living and playing

Creating a destination for living and playing - not a speed zone

Since spring 2017, public meetings have shared the vision for the River District as a walkable, urban community that is designed and vetted by experts responsible for the success of building successful communities around the country.

Through the planning process we found ourselves needing to be much more proactive in shifting from suburban thinking -- with strip malls and parking lots -- to the principles required to create a walkable, urban environment that people of all ages are relocating to.  These urban principles have worked in cities for decades, including the historical Elkhart and the current Main Street. During the planning process we tested these principles by visiting other cities and speaking with their staff about what they learned -- while walking their streets and measuring their lanes.  We hired experts who have completed successful projects in other communities.  We also worked closely with local staff, understanding what they have learned from past projects and our local conditions.  

With all the research and planning completed, the current changes to Jackson Boulevard were well-vetted, as they are integral to developing the core infrastructure required to achieve success as a signature community that is a safe destination to live, play and visit. Our goal is to make Elkhart a special place to live -- much more than merely a generic place to pass through. 

Following are the planning considerations that were completed with experts during the planning of Jackson Boulevard to date.  Further plans and adjustments will be made as development and construction continues in the area through 2019. 

 

FACTS ABOUT JACKSON BLVD. DEVELOPMENT

  • Deliveries and emergency access have been designed and reviewed with all property owners and the fire department.  The design was reviewed with all property owners for their truck access.  Truck deliveries were already being accessed from the rear of buildings and this will continue. 

    The fire department has reviewed the plan and the following design modifications were confirmed to meet their requests:
  1. Rear 20-foot alleys will exists for all buildings, not only for their daily deliveries, also for emergency vehicle access. Fires and emergency approaches in urban environments are accessed from the rear of buildings. 
  2. The median on Jackson at Nibco Parkway will be shortened 30 feet so that fire trucks can clear a left-hand turn if needed.  
  • Lane widths are standard. The original lane-width design on Jackson was widened from the standard 10-foot lanes to 10.5-foot lanes to accommodate any concerns for travel and emergency access.  Standard 8-foot parallel parking lanes are designated by concrete pads. Lane widths less than 11 feet exist throughout the city where speeds must be reduce for residential living. Narrow lanes are specifically designed to reduce speeds from state route speeds of 40 mph to 20 mph to accommodate the urban, walkable community that we are building.  

         >> Read why narrow lanes are safer as stated by AASHTO and NCHRP, Washington, D.C. 

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  • Snow removal plans have been developed.  No different than any other urban area such as Main Street, snow removal requires a plan for potentially the worst conditions. Edges with radius curbs for plows have been installed. Excess snow will be removed and disposed in the river as needed.  This first winter, overnight parking will not be permitted on Jackson, so that plows can pass, giving the street department time to consider the long-term options. 
     
  • Downtown streets are not truck routes.  While all downtown urban areas accommodate trucks for delivery to the many businesses that exist there, they are not truck routes. For instance, for years the truck route on SR 120/Jackson, from CR17, ends at Middleton Road and diverts truck traffic to Middlebury Road.  

    The intention of the downtown traffic plan is to divert through-traffic to primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie, Franklin, Elkhart Avenue, Beardsley, Middlebury, Bristol, County Road 6, and County Road 17. Our city is a network of roads with much easier and faster routes for through-traffic not intending a downtown destination. Main Street and Jackson Street are designed for urban living, walkability and commerce. Speeds must be slower and safer for pedestrians.  
     
  • Residential living is the focus.  Downtown, including the River District is targeting to build 1,000 urban housing units to accommodate our housing shortage to attract workforce and lifestyle amenities for new residents and industry. Approximately 500 of these units will start construction by end of 2019.  While it may be difficult to imagine now, the change is real.  The infrastructure changes that are underway are designed to support a thriving community and compete to attract people that we are otherwise losing. Designs for more diversified housing solutions in industrial areas are also underway.

 

About the River District Plan and Team

The River District Implementation Team is a private-public partnership involving private leaders and city leaders and staff who have united as a team and are working together to design the solutions presented to the public. These solutions involved and continue to engage significant investment of time, scrutiny, and commitment for us to work together in unprecedented ways.
 

>>Read the River District Master Plan

>>Read about why narrow lanes are safer

 

Why narrow lanes are safer

Developing a Safe, Walkable, Urban, Residential Community

 Greenville, South Carolina is a peer city that we are modeling from for Elkhart.  The population has grown to be 90,000, from just 50,000 in 1990. Their streets and parks are renowned attractions as a smaller USA city.  

Greenville, South Carolina is a peer city that we are modeling from for Elkhart.  The population has grown to be 90,000, from just 50,000 in 1990. Their streets and parks are renowned attractions as a smaller USA city.  

The River District is designed to be an urban residential extension of downtown Elkhart.  That means that people must feel welcome and safe to live there.  It will not be traveled as a truck route and it will not be a highway or state route.  It will be traveled at 20 mph - not 40 mph.   

A common question we get is "why are narrower lanes necessary in urban, walkable communities?"  The simple answer is... safety.  While narrow lanes also provide an intimate, quaint and special vibe to the community -- safety is clearly the most measurable reason for narrow lanes.  Please see the following charts and article: 


Per the chart below, note that creating a welcoming and safe walkable environment begins with well-planned traffic control. Traffic studies support that Jackson Boulevard traffic mostly splits to north and south bound routes at Johnson/Prairie -- leaving only 9,000 cars per day traveling on Jackson between Main Street and Johnson/Prairie Street. Near-term intersection improvements at Jackson/Johnson (two westbound lanes on Jackson will turn north on Johnson starting October 2019) will help better transition traffic to their north/south destinations: primarily leading traffic to Middlebury and Cassopolis. 

 

More Facts

The following article is an excerpt written by our urban planner, Jeff Speck, and it clearly highlights the facts supporting narrower lanes as stated by U.S. safety and transportation agencies. 

Bottom line:  Just because we may be conditioned to travel faster on wider lanes -- doesn't make it right, safe, and suitable to where people live.

 

Excerpt by Jeff Speck

A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here.

Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.

Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes.

Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.

States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are "dead" wrong.

In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won't relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.

Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.

They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who's texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.

The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you're good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.

Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way.

On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe.

That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.

All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.

The following paragraphs lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers.

First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers' bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.

 

Consulting the Green Book

For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its "Green Book," the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it's "safe."

Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?

Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book's position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:

For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.

Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it's worth.

 

The Studies: Rare but Conclusive

A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn't mean squat to the TRB. If you don't have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.

Happily, it turns out that engineers have conducted studies of their own. Two of these deserve our rapt attention. The first study, called "Effective Utilization of Street Width on Urban Arterials," was completed by the TRB itself. It found the following:

… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.

So far so good. A second study, called "Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials," was conducted by the conservative Midwest Research Center. Comparing 10- to 11-foot lanes to 12-foot lanes, it found:

A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.

It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?

Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:

On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.

Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.

A pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h.

To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.

All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.

 

Protecting Capacity

Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what's the data?

Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:

The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.

It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.

 

Pointing Fingers

Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to "implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices," a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.

To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a "complete streets" policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entire Strategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.

In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow." Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.

 

A Test Case

I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT's willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.

Before and after drawings for Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida, show how narrowing 12-foot lanes to 10 feet creates ample room for protected bike lanes. (Image: Speck & Associates LLC)

What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.

But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let's find out. The agency's bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?

Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.

It's time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.

>> learn more about Elkhart's Jackson Boulevard EXTENSIVE planning process

Putting people before cars

Putting People Before Cars

By Scott Ford, 2013
River District Implementation Team Member
Associate Vice President for Economic Development, University of Notre Dame 

The present conversation surrounding the restoration of two-way traffic across downtown South Bend is about returning to the fundamental principles for how successful cities operate. It is about putting people before cars, and thereby creating places where people want to live and businesses want to locate. It is not a secret formula; it is the net result of thousands of years of human experience.

Winston Churchill’s adage that, “you can always count on Americans to do the right then…after they have tried all else” is especially apropos in the realm of urban design and city planning. After 4000 + years of organizing human settlements to promote the exchange of goods and services between people, a process that naturally created all of the cities, towns and neighborhoods that we cherish today, we began to tinker with the model.

In the decades following World War II, pedestrian malls, public housing tower blocks, urban renewal, monoblock ‘civic centers’, and urban highways, each in their own turn, were deployed as “silver bullet” strategies to reimagine the City for reasons that have been explained elsewhere. Well intended as they may have been, these actions eroded the underpinning framework that gives life to a city, and in so doing, they accelerated urban decline. The story is not unfamiliar to downtown South Bend.

Enough time has passed to distill the undesirable outcomes of the post-war urban strategies, and with these lessons in mind, cities, towns and neighborhoods across the country are returning to the fundamental tenets of urban design. When these principles are followed, struggling cities find themselves in rejuvenated circumstances, as evidenced by recent urban renaissances in nearby places as Crown Point, Ft Wayne, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, etc.

In South Bend, we have an opportunity to redress some of our local experiments of post-war urbanism. The introduction of one-way traffic in the 1960’s accelerated the decline of the core. Resolving the obstacles that the one-way highways created will not solve all of downtown’s challenges, but it will reposition our downtown to economically benefit from the renewed interest in vibrant, mixed-use urbanism.

To be sure, any investment of public funds to improve the infrastructure will be measured through an economic prism. The plans for streetscape improvements are in the early stages, and there will be iterative rounds of public involvement to refine the concept to ensure a design that balances costs and the benefits. Nationally, where one-way streets have been reverted back into two-way traffic, the results have been overwhelming positive. For example:

  • A survey of 25 towns and cities found that all had experienced an improved business climate, evidenced by increase sales, investment, and office occupancy rates. In particular, the $10M public investment in street conversions in West Palm Beach, Florida yielded approximately $300M in private investment.

  • On the other side of the ledger, 40% of the businesses along Cincinnati’s Vine Street closed when the two-way traffic was limited to one-way.

  • Anticipated traffic speeds will be slightly slower with two-way traffic. A recent study in Northern Virginia concluded that a 10% increase in traffic delay was associated with a 3.4% increase in per capita gross domestic product of a region.

  • A statistical analysis of Charleston South Carolina’s Upper King Street, following its reversion to two-way traffic confirmed a correlation between the two-way traffic and increased property values.

  • Lastly, it is worth noting that dense mixed-use development, the type of ‘walkable’ urbanism that our two way streets would foster, yields, on average, 800 times the property tax revenues on a per acre basis when compared to the values of auto-oriented “strip mall” development.

Transforming our streets downtown may require an upfront investment, but the positive economic and social benefits will improve the quality of life for people throughout our community.

By restoring two-way streets and making the city center more attractive, we can improve the business and residential atmosphere and help restore the vibrant core that once defined downtown South Bend -- for current and future residents.

>> Read full article in the South Bend Tribune

Elkhart’s River District project gaining momentum with major changes

By Marshall V. King

Elkhart’s River District is still a vision off in the future, but it’s easier to see as buildings come down and streets take shape.

As the Elkhart Aquatic Center continues to take shape before opening in May 2019 and the streets and sidewalk around it are being made with all the utilities buried beneath them, those who have been crafting the vision are getting even more excited about the future. “This feels real,” said Shelley Moore, the project lead and president of ISC Community Development.

The River District’s 105 acres, with another 45 along Jackson Boulevard east of Johnson, are being transformed into a modern, walkable urban center.

Fourteen people from Elkhart, mostly private investors who are putting money toward the $300 million River District, recently traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to learn more about how it has been revitalized in the last two decades since the textile mills left. Greenville, like Elkhart, is one of the manufacturing towns with rivers and less than 150,000 residents that is working at being a new kind of city rather than a rusty, industrial shell. Others on that list include Asheville, Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne.

WATCH: Dave Weaver and Bob Deputy discuss the major changes coming to downtown Elkhart

While there, Dave Weaver, chairman of the River District Implementation Team, said he saw how public/private partnerships, a mile-long Main Street and walkability, as well as pride in aesthetics, has helped change the city into an automotive hub for makes such as BMW.

Whether it’s Greenville or downtown Vegas, success happened not because of luck or a lucky bolt of redevelopment lightning. “The reality is someone made a decision and at some point they were going to execute on a vision,” he said. “As a community, we made that decision.”

Elkhart has been working at vibrancy for decades with the RiverWalk, Lerner Theatre and Wellfield Botanic Gardens, said Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County. “Now there’s a group of folks who caught the excitement for the River District and Aquatic Center,” he said.

The change is happening quickly as the River District takes shape. “Everybody is ready for big change,” Weaver said. Greenville and other places show what’s possible when, over time, a city integrates what it has to offer, said Weaver.

In Elkhart, the project is moving quickly.

Redeveloping a big chunk of downtown has a lot of moving parts and most of them are coming together neatly like cogs. The Elkhart City Council approved the River District plan as part of its master plan for downtown, helping assure that it becomes the map for what happens in the coming years.

Nearly 30 properties on the north side of East Jackson Boulevard will be coming down in the coming days. Most of those were residential properties, but the demolition of former businesses such as Edgerton’s Travel Service and The Moringa Tree could soon follow.

The first phase of making East Jackson Boulevard part of what will be a 105-acre walkable neighborhood is done and reopened. That’s a huge deal for those businesses that were affected by the closure, said Weaver.

The second phase is underway and should be completed by Labor Day, said Moore. Trees, light posts and street signs are expected this fall and Elkhart Avenue is expected to reopen by Thanksgiving.

“You’ll continue to see a lot of working being done,” said Weaver.

The former Alick’s building along East Jackson is also being scheduled for demolition after a number of years of vacancy. Redeveloping that plot along the river should be relatively easy, said Weaver.

The Elkhart Public Works employees have been meeting deadlines and the implementation team continues to work at upcoming stages. Flaherty & Collins’ luxury apartments are a few months behind schedule, but a spring opening is still being planned, said Moore.

By the end of September, a Request For Proposal process for Zone 1 will give developers a chance to submit specific plans for the area that includes the Aquatic Center a few blocks on the south side of East Jackson. The final stages of funding are also being put in place for the new Martin’s Super Market along East Jackson and construction could start this fall, according to Moore.

A vibrant downtown makes a community stronger. “A town is as good as its downtown,” Moore said.

Marshall V. King is a Goshen-based free-lance writer. He wrote this piece on behalf of Vibrant Communities.

>>Read Full Article

Early movers are getting a jump on opportunity zones – and the future of community investing

Impact Alpha, Dennis Price - Article July 18, 2018

A tweak to the tax code has set off a race between rival approaches to investing in some of America’s poorest urban and rural neighborhoods.

ImpactAlpha has identified at least 10 impact fund managers that are racing to take advantage of the Investing in Opportunity Act, which allows investors to defer, and even reduce, taxes on capital gains rolled into 8,700 designated opportunity zones.

The early movers are seeking to shape the future of opportunity zone investing, and with it, the character of neighborhood and community development in the U.S. for at least the next decade.

The provision, included into last year’s tax-cut bill, already is jumpstarting cooperation and mobilizing capital for deployment in American cities and rural communities on a scale not seen in some time.

“The first funds to market will shape what comes next for opportunity zones,” Village Capital’s Ross Baird toldImpactAlpha. “The people who wrote and championed the bill intended it to create impact and wealth in distressed communities. We need the impact investment community to rally to create use cases and models the country can learn from.”

In contrast, a go-it-alone approach that chases low-risk, high-return investments could attract extractive businesses, create few jobs, drive rent increases and displace existing residents.

Community goals

Champions of impact investing are working together to ensure that investment strategies align with community goals. The idea is to coordinate among community stakeholders, set social and environmental objectives and fund local businesses that create good jobs, raise wages and build wealth for local communities as well as investors.

Early movers have the potential to shape both market entrants to come as well as the final rules that will govern the program, set to come down soon from regulators. On Monday, the Kresge and Rockefeller foundations accepted finalletters of inquiry from fund managers seeking a share of $25 million in grants and unfunded guarantees for opportunity funds “designed to benefit low-income people and communities.”

Tomorrow, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, along with the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, will convene investors and community groups at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to begin to develop a shared framework to guide opportunity zone investments.

“Opportunity zones are a fantastic opportunity to think about place-based investing with private capital in low-income communities,” says Lisa Green Hall, a senior fellow at the Beeck Center.

AOL founder Steve Case, who championed the tax provision, is building a team at his Revolution venture capital firm to develop real estate in opportunity zones for use by tech startups in areas far from the coastal tech hubs. And Bridge Housing, the nonprofit affordable housing developer, is creating a $500 million opportunity zone fund to finance affordable housing in West Coast markets.

First movers

Among the other impact-oriented opportunity funds:

Louisville-based Access Ventures, together with the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national community development financial institution, and Village Capital, are planning an investment vehicle of at least $100 million. The fund would invest in an asset-class mix small businesses, commercial rental space, and affordable housing in opportunity zones in three to five cities across the U.S.

The fund, which is yet to be named, would build on the neighborhood-based approach that Access Ventures pioneered in Louisville’s Shelby Park neighborhood and take it to other opportunity zones in cities like Norfolk, Va.; Kansas City; and Fresno, Calif.

Together, Access Ventures, LISC and Village Capital have made roughly 1000 investments what are now opportunity zone communities. In Shelby Park, Access Ventures has bought and restored a dozen commercial properties and redeveloped 14 vacant residential units into affordable housing in one of Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods. Its $2.4 million investment over four years, in co-working spaces, bakeries, local tech companies and more, has created 200 jobs.

LISC is developing additional nine-figure real estate funds to invest in multifamily housing, health clinics, charter schools and workforce housing in opportunity zones across the country.

LISC’s Beth Marcus said LISC’s pipeline of deals in low-income communities gives it an advantage. Over 40 years, LISC has invested $19 billion in affordable housing, retail and community facilities.

“Everyone’s talking about raising capital for opportunity funds,” Marcus told ImpactAlpha. “But where will they deploy it?”  

Enterprise Community Partners, the Columbia, Maryland, financier and advocate for affordable housing, is planning a family of opportunity zone funds, according to Rachel Reilly, the firm’s director of impact investing. Enterprise has invested $36 billion over 30 years, creating nearly 529,000 homes.

Reilly tells ImpactAlpha that Enterprise also will use its investment platform to support other opportunity fund managers. Through its own fund and intermediation services Reilly says Enterprises believes it can generate $1 billion in opportunity zone investments deals over the next decade. 

The Low Income Investment Fund in San Francisco is also planning an opportunity fund. “Like all our work it will have deep intentionality and outcomes tracking,” Tyler Jackson, the firm’s impact investment officer, tells ImpactAlpha.

LIIF, a community development finance institution, has invested $2.1 billion in low-income communities, mainly through debt, over 30 years. Jackson says LIIF “works closely with communities and borrowers where our dollars flow” to make such investment inclusive.

In Philadelphia, TPP Capital Management is launching the $100 million TPP Real Estate Development Fund as an opportunity fund to revitalize the blighted Tioga neighborhood adjacent to Temple University’s Health Sciences Campus.

The minority-led real estate investment firm will primarily focus on infill development, the restoration of vacant or under-used buildings, and bring in a mix of affordable, workforce and market-rate transit-oriented housing.

“We’re looking at all stakeholders,” says founder Anthony Miles. TPP will partner with farmers markets, vertical farms, university-assisted K-8 schools, a teaching kitchen for culinary medicine and co-working spaces and funders for minority-owned businesses, he says. “Gentrification goes wrong because developers are not thinking about all stakeholders, including the existing residents.”

Miles said TPP will offer at least 30% of the housing units at discounted rates to firefighters, police officers, teachers, healthcare and other services workers in exchange for their engagement in community programs like neighborhood watch and after-school tutoring.

In Colorado, Stephanie Gripne of the Impact Finance Center and Carl Palmer of LegacyWorks Group are teaming up for the Impact Days Opportunity Funds. Impact Days Opportunity Funds in various states would raise capital through direct public offerings, and offer different returns to different types of investors. 

Gripne’s CO Impact Days is a statewide marketplace that brings together would-be impact investors and Colorado social ventures. Gripne says CO Impact Days has facilitated tens of millions of dollars in direct investments into more than 200 ventures in the arts, education, environment, health and human services.

Shekar Narasimhan at Beekman Advisors is exploring an opportunity fund of more than $100 million that would focus on incubating and investing in small businesses in small towns in Virginia and North Carolina initially, and then expanding to adjacent states. “I want to do this intentionally,” says Narasimhan, previously with Prudential Mortgage Capital Co. Narasimhan tells ImpactAlpha he’s talking to local, state and community leaders to scale investments in entrepreneurs launching bakeries, restaurants and construction companies that can build wealth and create jobs.

In Oregon, solar entrepreneur David Brown and investor Allen Alley are launching the Obsidian Opportunity Funds to extend solar power within the 86 opportunity zones in Oregon.

“I think (Opportunity Zones) will be very popular in renewable energy,” Brown told the Portland Business Journal. Long-term solar projects are well-aligned with opportunity zone incentives for holding investments over time, he said. Tax savings on new solar investments, said Brown, could be “like getting 33% more profit.”

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