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Commentary: How we can use Opportunity Zones to re-imagine North Charleston

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Marvin Pendarvis (copy) (copy)

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis. (Provided)

One of the most contentious words in local politics is “gentrification.” To some, it is a disease with nauseating symptoms; to others, it is the fair, free-market occurrence of property rising in value; to still others, it evokes mixed emotions.

On one hand, the people who replace longtime residents tend to have more progressive social views such as with regard to LGBT acceptance and feminism, thus making the area safer for those minorities. And it improves the aesthetics and utilities of an area so that parks and sewage get private investment where public investment is lacking. At the same time, though, it destroys the livelihoods and lives of the original inhabitants.

It is incumbent on our society to be just and kind to all classes of people. We should not have to choose between the gay and the poor, and getting a good water system should not depend upon one’s socioeconomic circumstances.

Gentrification opponents usually don’t offer a positive alternative, but merely want to stop the middle-class encroachment on less-moneyed communities. That would mean that the social values and physical conditions of the neighborhoods wouldn’t change, leaving minorities in those communities to suffer or leave. And the metaphorical or literal lead stays in the pipes. That will not do.

So, is there a way to reap the nutrients of making a neighborhood middle-class without the poisons? That is to say, can we “gentrify” a place without evicting the people living there? There is an official term for the type of gentrification where the current residents get gentrified: “incumbent upgrading.” Can we do it?

That is the idea behind Opportunity Zones. Unless you’re a hardened postmodernist, you probably agree that lower-income neighborhoods deserve the same quality of everything that higher-income neighborhoods have. That includes parks with trees and fountains, sidewalks wide enough for tables, good schools, restaurants with patios, houses that look pretty and other items that give gentrified neighborhoods a higher quality of life.

Rivers Avenue should look as decent as Park Circle or downtown Charleston. It shouldn’t look derelict, lined with parking lots and dirty gas stations. It should be lined with coffee shops and retail stores owned by locally born citizens of every race, gender, socioeconomic upbringing and sexual orientation.

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The most effective means of getting that done without displacing residents is by concentrating commercial zoning, thereby drawing most of the residents of an area to a central hub that increases traffic at all businesses and makes all of them more successful.

A less-dense suburban area would have businesses farther apart so someone going to lunch wouldn’t pass by a shoe store, a hardware store or a dessert shop as they would in a central hub. The most convenient shopping option for a suburban neighborhood would be a mega-store like Walmart, with everything in one spot. When small businesses are successful, the neighborhood gets more income and is less poor. Furthermore, commercial property taxes are higher than residential taxes, and therefore the more commerce, the more revenue is generated for the public services reliant on property taxes, including schools.

Everything improves if we zone commercial together. It was Ronald Reagan who spoke of the American dream as a shining city on a hill, an allusion to the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. One of the main ways of doing that is through the creation of Opportunity Zones.

Now, let me be clear: The federal Opportunity Zones law as it is written is imperfect and prioritizes the profit of investors over the communities they’re drawn to. But with some needed improvements on the federal level — like those recently proposed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that provide cities with the technical help to make Opportunity Zones work — and on the state level, like the S.C. Opportunity Zone Enhancement Act that I filed this legislation session, Opportunity Zones can realize their fullest potential and live up to their name.

Every citizen of our polity — every man, woman and child whom we have the duty as siblings in the human family to protect and nurture — deserves all of the benefits that they can reap. We need to attract private investment, and we need to do it in a way that urban science demonstrates will uplift the lives of the community in every way.

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis represents House District 113, which includes parts of Charleston and Dorchester counties.

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