Wednesday, June 29, 2005

It Ain't Easy Doing Smart Growth

A couple of interesting stories in yesterday's Salt Lake dailies point out the difficulty in getting "smart," or as we call it here in Utah, "quality" growth ideas accepted.

Heather May's story in the Trib relates how new higher density apartment projects in downtown Salt Lake, located near TRAX stations, still opt for ample parking. Can't seem to get people to shake that need for those cars.

Heather writes, "the developer of a massive housing project under construction at 500 East near a TRAX stop on 400 South wants city approval to pave over a planned plaza in the middle of the Emigration Court development to make way for about 100 more parking stalls. ... (T)he top complaint of managers of other city apartment buildings is the lack of parking."

"Last week, the city lauded the groundbreaking of The Metro Condominiums at 350 S. 200 East as being a transit-oriented development. But developer Alan Wood said Monday he 'made a conscious decision' to add about 60 more stalls than required...for the 117 condo units. ... Wood is not convinced downtown homeowners will give up their cars even if they live at the doorstep of TRAX."

In a related story, Brady Snyder of the Desert News writes about the opposition of " planners, certain City Council members and some residents" to higher density, high rise residential buildings near TRAX stations on 400 South.

These opponents "say the planned TOD ordinance, which allows for greater building heights along light-rail corridors like certain parts of 400 South, will create more ugly monstrosities that are bad for the neighborhood.

"Tom Mutter, chair of the Central City Neighborhood Council, said neighbors remain upset at the (Emigration Court) complex's unsightly largeness and are miffed that eight single-family homes were demolished to make way for the building."

This all goes against the very concepts that Envision Utah and other Smart Growth proponenets have been advocating for. The idea is that by building more transit, and allowing higher densities near transit stops, the demand for car travel will be reduced and communities will become more walkable and people-friendly. And the majority have said (through surveys and opinion polls) that they like these ideas.

Yeah, they like them as long as they happen somewhere else. Not in my backyard!

In all fairness, I too must say that I like many of the concepts put forward by Smart (Quality) Growth plans. There is a lot of merit in these ideas. But they will not be easily accepted, despite the fact that advocates think these are just the most common-sense, "good" principles. At risk of overusing my favorite analogy, it's like trying to turn an oil supertanker -- it takes a lot of time and space to make it happen. But eventually it does happen. It is starting to happen here.

Compare, for example, the Wasatch Front Regional Council's (made up primarily of local elected officials) current long range transportation plan with the version from 4-5 years ago. The plan calls for scads more transit now than previous plans. That is a big change.

Even in the newspaper stories above, people in elected positions are hanging tough for the quality growth principles.

"...District 4 City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton is on board with transit-oriented development," the DesNews story says. "While it may take some getting used to, higher densities should be welcome along transit lines, Saxton said. Emigration Court is difficult to take right now because it is the only large building in the area; but in time, people will like the project, she said."

And in the Trib story, Saxton said "...she is still discouraged at the request for more parking at Emigration Court. And she opposes eliminating the planned green space... . 'I've said (to city planners), you've got to hold the line. Don't find a lot of options for them."

We also need to recognize that for the near future at least, many of these quality growth ideas should be options for different ways to develop, not mandates that all new development should follow. If we go down the mandate path, we are likely to cut the throat of the smart growth approach. Steven Greenhut, senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County (California) Register, recently wrote on this when he commented on the Congress for New Urbanism conference held in Pasadena a few weeks ago.

Greenhut wrote, "To the degree New Urbanism (which he says is much the same thing as Smart Growth) is a design movement operating in the free market, I'm for it. ... To the degree New Urbanism is defined by subsidies, growth controls and a new regimen of government planning, I'm against it.

"By all means, let's remove the barriers to New Urbanism so developers can build these types of projects, but let's not create new barriers that make it harder to build the suburban houses needed to shelter the millions of new residents heading to (or being born in) America in the next 50 years."

Take a look at his piece, he has some thought-provoking ideas, some of which probably won't sit well with planners. But he's right, if we try to cut off all existing development types and force only Smart Growth concepts, we're likely to wind up with a rebellion, ala Measure 37 in Oregon.

Sit back, relax, take it easy, and be happy that progress is being made, albeit one step at a time.


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