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In one Southern city, a twist on gentrification

The rich and poor live side by side as city planners and elected officials redevelop Raleigh's toughest 'hoods.

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When Jeff DeBellis moved into a new neo-Victorian home on the border of Raleigh's Martin-Haywood neighborhood four years ago, he knew he was signing up with a growing corps of urban pioneers edging in on some of America's toughest 'hoods.

This New York native is on the front lines of an experiment in which the city of Raleigh is buying blighted properties - sometimes by eminent domain - and turning some of its toughest blocks into places where the rich and the poor rake leaves side by side. These tidy, mixed-income neighborhoods are what some call "gentrification lite." And visionaries like Mr. DeBellis are lining up at the door, one developer says.

As the downtown housing market heats up, this city of bankers and bureaucrats is at a crossroads, pondering this question: How can social policy curb economic forces so that gentrification does not run roughshod over long-ignored corners and cul-de-sacs?

To be sure, Raleigh is in the maelstrom of a broader middle-class race to the center of town: As nearly 50,000 people U-Hauled to the city in the past five years, once-lost residential slums near downtown now brim with development possibilities.

"What Raleigh is adding to [the gentrification debate] is the opportunity the city has because it's been so aggressive in acquiring properties," says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "It's an important twist, and it's a model for other cities."

Several, including Chicago and Chattanooga, Tenn., have pulled off similar projects by partnering with nonprofit community development boards to balance developers' intents with low-income residents' needs.

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