Let's make a neoliberal deal (or not): Local elites and downtown redevelopment in Rochester, New York
Goldstein, Brett Thomas
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Since its onset as a dominant political and economic philosophy in the 1970s, the main components of neoliberalism--individualism, a market-first orientation, strong property rights, privatization, and small government--continue to shape the contours of urban development in North America and across the world. My research advances this field of study and focuses on how neoliberal policies and practices come to play in the redevelopment of central business districts, specifically through a detailed case study that compares and contrasts how local urban elites interacted and coalesced around two urban economic development projects in the older, former industrial mid-size city of Rochester, New York. The recent case of Rochester's downtown redevelopment efforts provides fertile ground from which to study and analyze micro-processes of elite networks and contribute to the field's understanding of neoliberal urbanism. The central question of my research asks how neoliberalism influences the dynamics of urban economic development decision making at the micro-level of local elite networks. Drawing on critical urban theory related to neoliberal urbanism, I examine the coalition of local urban elites in Rochester who constitute the locus of decision making around strategies for two high-profile redevelopment projects in the inner city which overlapped each other in time and space. The first, known as Renaissance Square, was an attempt to revive a strip of Rochester's East Main Street by combining a bus terminal and community college campus with a performing arts center. The second, known as Midtown Rising, is an ongoing effort to revamp an almost nine acre block of prime real estate literally across the street and kitty corner from what would have been the Renaissance Square footprint. After over a decade of trying by multiple county and city administrations, executives from the regional transit authority, community college administrators and trustees, and board members from various arts and cultural organizations, Renaissance Square never materialized because of its loose elite coalition formation, divisions between elites' interests and the overreach in the scope and purpose of the development. In more or less a neoliberal fashion that conforms to similar situations in other cities (i.e., it is being done on a small, piecemeal market-driven basis), Midtown Rising is slowly but surely coming to pass with city, county, state and federal officials having entered into a public-private redevelopment partnership, ceding buildings and swaths of land on the Midtown site to private development in hopes of igniting a more expansive urban renaissance. By undertaking a comparative case study of Renaissance Square and Midtown Rising, I am able to offer a unique perspective on how and why some economic development projects come and go in a neoliberal urban environment. More specific research questions I ask include: How did this local urban elite network form and under what kinds of political and economic circumstances and why? How do local urban elites develop tailored strategies to leverage private control over publicly-financed urban redevelopment? These more targeted questions relate to the "supposed" public decision making (planning, financing, grant-making, implementing, and purchasing and selling of parcels and redeveloped space) over the course of the development of Renaissance Square and Midtown Rising. I answer these questions using a mixed-methods approach that combines archival research, participant observation, and in-depth interviews. The data provided by these qualitative methods are instrumental to my analysis of the ways in which localized, contingent dynamics matter to redevelopment policies and practices informed and influenced by a neoliberal agenda. My study shows just how messy urban redevelopment deal-making has become and how difficult it is to forecast, plan and follow through on a proposed project. Findings reveal how the trajectory of neoliberal urbanism is dependent upon the constellation of local elites, their interests and localized decision making processes. In the final analysis, the actions and behaviors of individuals, especially local politicians, can shape the outcome of a particular redevelopment project in spite of the inexorable dictates of neoliberalism. Thus, contingency matters; there is nothing inevitable about neoliberal policy experiments.