City Heights residents and nonprofits have participated in about $60 million worth of street studies since 1998. But a lot of that investment hasn’t resulted in actual capital investment — building frustration rather than new streetscapes.

Infrastructure funds for neighborhoods like City Heights are scant. Low-income communities fare well in competition for planning grants, but not for construction grants. Local funding streams are set to a trickle. And the city’s once-dependable reservoir of capital funds — redevelopment — is all dried up.

Speak City Heights

But one of those many City Heights studies is at least laying the groundwork for a potential new funding stream: the Community Reinvestment Act.

Under the act, banks are pushed to inject dollars into low-income communities where investments are often perceived as too risky. Traditionally, CRA investments take the form of small business and home loans.

But a study conducted last year by the City Heights Community Development Corporation, WalkSanDiego and the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UC San Diego concluded investment in street infrastructure would fall under the CRA’s purview.

“The loss of redevelopment took the wind out of the sails in terms of the momentum that existed throughout San Diego in neighborhood revitalization,” said Cynthia Fargo, the project lead and economic development manager for the City Heights Community Development Corporation. “With that loss, it was just an immediately clear mandate for everyone working in City Heights that we needed to seek out the alternative.”

Fargo said the CRA hasn’t been used to stoke investment in street infrastructure this way.

Here’s how it would work:

1. The city sets up a bond for street and sidewalk enhancements along business corridors in a low- and moderate-income neighborhood.

2. Banks buy into that bond as part of their CRA activity.

3. The city uses the bond money to improve walkability, adding trees and lighting and calming traffic.

4. Property values goes up because the community is more walkable.

5. Property tax increment increases help to repay the bond (and banks).

Fargo said the strategy would only be successful if it were mixed with small business investment — communities only become walkable if there are good businesses to walk to — and philanthropy.

Study lead Jim Bliesner said the strategy is, by no means, a replacement for redevelopment. But it’s a step in the right direction.

“We need to be creative with tapping into existing resources,” Bliesner said.

Study organizers will unveil their full plan 3 to 5 p.m. June 20 at 4001 El Cajon Blvd. Fargo said the report, funded by The California Endowment, includes details on which areas in City Heights might benefit from the CDC’s upcoming efforts to harness the CRA for street improvements.

Disclosure: Speak City Heights is funded by The California Endowment but operates as an independent news collaborative.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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