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Positivism drives smart growth; Conference: Disparate interests converge in Austin, Texas, to discuss the nation's "space race."


LAST WEEK'S COLUMN discussed why smart growth, a worthy concept of focusing new development away from sprawl and toward existing communities, has a long way to go in Maryland.

But I also said smart growth would become the norm, whether Maryland led or followed. My optimism sprang from a recent four-day national conference of smart growth interests in Austin, Texas.

Its strength lay precisely in the fact that it wasn't mainly enviros convening to rehash how sprawl is harmful economically, socially and environmentally.

It is. But proving something is bad doesn't a movement make. Fundamental change needs positive forces driving it, compelling alternatives luring it, and an appeal to diverse interests.

All of that was on display in Austin, starting with the hosts: the Urban Land Institute, research and education arm of the nation's leading real estate developers; the city of Austin, picked by Fortune magazine as the No. 1 U.S. town to do business in; and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

It was a powerful convergence of interests. Take the matter of automobiles and driving.

Smart growth, with its compact patterns of development, lends itself to walkable, bike-able lifestyles, more mass transit, less auto-dependence.

To Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator who spoke in Austin, that means a way to reverse a national driving habit that threatens to erode decades of clean air progress.

To nationally respected developer Christopher Leinberger, it not only smells like cleaner air, but also money:

"We spend three times more than Europeans on transportation," he said. "For every car a family can get out of their household, they save enough [annually], if you were to put it into a mortgage, to buy another $100,000 worth of home. As a real estate developer, I want my share of that hundred thousand."

To planners and architects at Austin, the need now to devote 40 percent to 50 percent of public spaces to cars (roads, garages and parking lots) makes designing livable communities harder.

Smart growth in Austin drew together even more disparate parties: the Sierra Club, which has made ending sprawl's consumption of open space a national campaign, and the National Association of Home Builders, which covets open space for different reasons.

Charlie Ruma, the NAHB's president-elect, growled at "all this rhetoric about soulless suburbs and the ravages of sprawl." But he also conceded that smart growth's promise to make redevelopment in older areas easier has undeniable attractions:

"If the market is there, we're going to be there -- NAHB has a whole task force looking at nothing else," he said.

EPA's commitment to the conference reflected Vice President Al Gore's enthusiastic incorporation of "livable communities" into campaign issues he has been trying out in recent speeches.

Gore is mindful that 19 states voted in November on more than 200 initiatives to protect open spaces from sprawl development, passing 70 percent of them, to the tune of about $7 billion.

He's betting people are fed up enough with traffic congestion and the development of nearby open spaces to make an issue he can ride to the White House.

But it may not be a free ride. Christine Todd Whitman, governor of New Jersey and mentioned as a Republican vice-presidential candidate, was the conference's keynote speaker.

Whitman recently pushed through a billion-dollar bond issue to preserve a million acres of open space in the nation's most densely populated state.

She talked of smart growth as the 1990s' equivalent of the old "space race" with the Communists. Today, she said, we are in an equally critical space race, except fiscally inefficient sprawl development is the enemy, and the space is our farmland.

Austin officials noted their recognition by Fortune was about more than its high-tech sector (it's home to Dell Computer).

"Our urban natural beauty this is what all the experts tell us is attracting business," said Beverly Griffith, a City Council member.

Austin, with help from the environmental group Trust for Public Land, has constructed a plan to augment its 10 miles of riverfront parkland. In November, voters approved $41 million in bonds to begin acquiring 4,000 acres for four parks and 40 miles of greenways.

Much of that will be in the very parts of Austin designated for intense development under its new smart growth policies -- which is not as paradoxical as it sounds.

A panel at the conference examined the theme: "Density is not a four-letter word." Denser development is key to smart growth, "but it doesn't mean places like in Ralph Kramden and "The Honeymooners" -- that's just crowded," said Randall Arendt.

"The key to selling density is livability, and you need to incorporate green spaces to do that," said Arendt, who has researched many of America's most desirable and beautiful communities, many built decades ago on very little land.

Of course, if smart growth is so smart, why isn't everyone doing it? The reasons -- and the solutions -- are large and small, attendees said.

Small things: Austin buses have bicycle racks to improve mobility without cars. And Whitman said repealing building codes that required perfectly level floors and plumb doorways allowed easier rehabbing of existing buildings in New Jersey.

Bigger things: Of the 19 types of financing for real estate development, Leinberger said, "Seventeen are biased toward favoring sprawl." Fire marshals, who dictate 70-foot-wide streets to serve American firetrucks (the world's largest), often defeat the best-laid plans to design pedestrian-oriented communities.

It was clear in Austin that no one state has the cure for sprawl, or an easy prescription for smart growth (except maybe Oregon, whose Portland metro population has grown 77 percent, using 6 percent more land).

But it was just as clear that the whole country is interested, that smart growth is reaching a critical mass that won't be denied.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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