Saturday, April 12, 2014

Who's afraid of Smart Growth? Nashville needs to grow smart.

Nashville from the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge.
Nashville has scored high on lots of list in recent years. Nashville scores high as a great place to live, a great place to work,  a great place to eat, a city of the arts, and a place to visit. I love this city and would not want to live any where else and I love to see it get the recognition I think it deserves.

Recently Nashville scored dismally low in a ranking of cities with few problems associated with urban sprawl.  In Smart Growth for America's  ranking of cities, out of 221 cities ranked, Nashville ranked 217.  In this ranking, "Nashville" is the the Nashville-Davidson/Murfreesboro/Franklin, TN Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).  Those MSAs ranking worse than Nashville are Prescott, AZ, Clarksville, TN-KY, Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Marietta, GA, and Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, NC.

Other Tennessee cities, except Clarksville at 219, did better than Nashville, but none ranked high.  Memphis TN-MS-AK ranked 196, Knoxville ranked 199, Chattanooga TN-GA ranked 207, and Kingsport/Bristol TN/Bristol VA ranked 212.

Following the release of the report, The Tennessean editorialized Time for Nashville to grow smart. I agree.

What is meant by "smart growth"?  Smart Growth America defines it like this:
Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.
At the heart of the American dream is the simple hope that each of us can choose to live in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, affordable and easy to get around. Smart growth does just that. Smart growth creates healthy communities with strong local businesses. Smart growth creates neighborhoods with schools and shops nearby and low-cost ways to get around for all our citizens. Smart growth creates jobs that pay well and reinforces the foundations of our economy. Americans want to make their neighborhoods great, and smart growth strategies help make that dream a reality.
Traffic calming on 12th Ave South. Agenda 21?
Unfortunately, in some circles "smart growth" is suspect. It is seen as government directing development, curtailing property rights, and restricting choice. These assumptions are just not true. Smart Growth is no more an infringement on property rights than is suburban sprawl growth.  In some ways Smart Growth is less restrictive of property rights.

Unfortunately, a couple years ago, led by the John Birch Society and spread by people like Alex
Jones of Infowars, and Jesse Ventura and to a lesser extend by Glen Beck, some people bought into a grand conspiracy theory that almost everything from bicycle rental programs, to sidewalk expansion programs, to traffic roundabouts, to energy conservation, to almost any innovation in planning and zoning was part of a UN directed plot to transfer wealth from rich to poor countries, to force us all to give up our cars and live in tiny apartments. This was know as "Agenda 21."  The ultimate goal of this grand plot, according to the JBS, was to kill 97 percent of the world's population and that was to be accomplished by poisoning them with aspartame and fluoride. I know it sounds preposterous, but that was the theory. (To read more about the anti- Agenda 21 movement see my previous post on the topic.)

This weird conspiracy sprang up, grew rapidly, then seemed to disappear as about as rapidly.
Nashville has been going through a process called NashvilleNext which is a program of planing for Nashville's next 25 years of growth. I have attended most of the public meeting and expected to see anti-Agenda 21 activist at the meeting denouncing "sustainable development," "walkability," "consensus," "smart growth," "new urbanism," "visioning," and all kinds of other things the JBS had told them were code words for implementing of this grand plot. No anti-Agenda 21 activist participated in the NashvilleNext planning process or if they did they did not dissent.

Many reasonable liberal, moderate, conservative and apolitical people however are suspect of "smart growth," not ever having been infected by the JBS conspiracy theory.  Among liberals, Smart Growth is seen as "gentrification" which will increase the price of housing and push out poor people.  Some are suspicion that Smart Growth is something the government would force to happen and it would reduce property rights.  Also I think there is a general tendency to suspect all change, even change for the better. People are more comfortable with something they already understand than something new.

Contrary to what many contend, Smart Growth zoning is actually less destructive of property right than is single-use zoning. Single-use zoning limits the right of a land owners to choose how he wants to develop his land and requires government permission every time an owner wants to change his land use from one category of use to another. There are now under development two apartment complexes on 8th Ave South that are permitted under current zoning but under previous zoning they would have been prohibited because the zoning for major traffic corridors was commercial and apartment residential was prohibited. Those owners have more property rights under the new code than the old. Another way one has greater property rights under Smart Growth zoning rather than traditional land-sue zoning is because there is less restriction on density and area ratio requirements and parking requirements. Another way property rights are strengthened under Smart Growth is that their is less inclination to take land by imminent domain for the purpose of widening roadways.

Cars are backed up at rush hour along Harding Place and 
Nolensville Pike, the busiest intersection in Nashville.
Different people have different preferences in where they life. I myself do not want to drive an hour to work each day. The way I see it, two hours sitting in the car a day is two hours of time that is not my own. I might as well be working. I live seven minutes from my job and I have for twenty-five years at two different locations. I usually come home for lunch. I love it.  I am also less than two blocks away from a Subway shop, a coffee shop, a Dollar General, three convenience markets and a Burger King. And while, due to my circumstances, I can't get out much anymore to enjoy it, I am a block away from a great music venue. I can walk to the restaurants on 12th Ave South or Hillsboro village and am about three miles from downtown.

If something starts at 6PM, I can wait until 6 to decide if I want to go and still not be very late. I like living like this. However, for those who want to live in the suburbs or the country and sit in traffic jams, you would still have that option. Smart Growth would not require you to change but would encourage more density and infill and new development patterns in the foot print already taken up by the metropolitan area. Smart growth recognizes that building more lanes of interstate simply results in more traffic and more sprawl.

Urban sprawl did not just happen. It is not just a function of consumer preference.  Our current pattern of interstate highways and  sparsely populated single family homes in cul-de-sac suburbs was as much a product of government planning as is Smart Growth. One thing that made urban sprawl possible and did as much as anything else to contribute to it was the interstate highway system. Our current pattern of urban sprawl is not somehow "natural."  Up until about the 1950;s  most people lived in cities or small towns. Certainly there was a market for suburban homes but government policy of road construction, sewer expansion, and infrastructure expansion  made it possible.

It was also government policy that led to people being required to drive long distances to go the the grocery store or to work and to the depopulation of urban cores. For most of the past century, American land use regulation required distinct separate land uses. Industrial was clearly separate from retail and retail was clearly separate from residential which was separate from rural or agricultural land. That was considered the enlighten view at the time and was motivated for sanitation reasons among other reasons. There is certainly nothing natural about this type development. In the early part of the previous century and the centuries before that, many people lived in back of or atop their place of business. The strict separation of land uses was a government policy, not a natural development pattern. For many years residential development was actually prohibited in the city core.

It was also a government policy that made cities auto friendly at the expense of being "walkable." Government build wide streets and often made no provisions for pedestrians or other forms of transportation. They sped up the traffic and made walking unpleasant. Zoning codes also imposed a certain number of parking spaces for a business based on the use. Certain types of retail had to have x number of parking spaces per x hundred square feet of retail space, restaurants had to have one parking space per x number of patron seating capacity, and so on and so forth. This changed the character of cities and pushed new development further out from the urban core and resulted in leap frogging over smaller plots in order to meet parking requirements. This destroyed walkability. The development of large shopping malls and non-connected businesses, each with ample parking was a result of codes, not something that just happened.

Another government policy that destroyed  and emptied much of the urban core was Urban Renewal. Along with Urban Renewal was the abuse of eminent domain.  Broad swaths of neighborhoods were destroyed. We still see vacant acreage south of Vanderbilt University that was taken by the city sometime in the 60's and transferred to Vanderbilt. Sulphur Dell was cleared, destroying a residential and business community and it set vacant as surface parking for years as much of it remains, although farmers market, the bicentennial mall and the planned return of baseball to the area are finally revitalizing the area. Urban renewal not only destroyed business and residential neighborhoods but destroyed the street grid pattern in those areas that is important to walkability, connectivity,  and is important to vehicle movement without overloading major thoroughfares.

The Interstate thorough North Nashville split a community and
destroyed much of it. North Nashville never recovered.
Pictured is I-40 pedestrian bridge near Hadley Park.
Also, the building of interstates not only contributed to urban sprawl by opening up more distant tracks of land to development but it destroyed much of the city. If you drive on I-40 West on the north side of town, you are flying over or zipping through an African American part of town that was torn in two. Jefferson Street was once a booming Black business section and never recovered from the impact of the interstate that tore the community apart.

It is hard if not impossible to undo some of the mistakes of the past but I believe Nashville is moving in the right direction. Our putting the arena, the main library, the convention center, the stadium and most government offices downtown created a vitality and concentration of downtown visitors.  Without government encouragement and use of tools such as tax increment financing, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center likely would have located outside of the downtown area. Some advocated putting some of these facilities in the suburbs with easy interstate access. In my view, we put them where they ought to be.

We also made downtown a destination and desirable for residents and visitors by developing riverfront park and maintaining the Shelby Street bridge as a pedestrian bridge and removing the city surface parking and building a park in front to the court house and many other things.  Also, unlike some cities that build new airports up to 40 or 50 miles out of town, we kept our airport where it was, close to downtown, making it more convenient for visitors and locals who fly in and out and reducing traffic congestion by having much shorter trips from the airport to downtown. Recently, I think the city made the right decision when the city denied the proposed May Town development. That massive planned development would have created in essence a second downtown. 

In 2010 the city adopted a form-based code  downtown.  This is essentially a relaxation or abandonment of strict land use forms and set back requirements and floor-area ratios and minimum parking requirements and instead focuses more on the  form and scale  of development. Now virtually all uses except heavy industrial and some auto related businesses are permitted downtown.

Sometimes  the city has tried to go too far, as in trying to turn Main Street and Gallatin Road into a urban street  with mandated buildings-to-the-sidewalk requirements (link). Planing can guild development patterns and influence what is build but mandating new urbanism can fail if the plan gets too far ahead of the market. Prohibiting parking in front of a building may be as bad as requiring setbacks and parking ratios. Good planning does not ignore market realities. Good planning cannot make development happen, but poor planning can inhibit development.

One reason to support Smart Growth is that urban sprawl is expensive. A study by Smart Growth America compare three developments in Nashville: Bradford Hills, Lenox Village, and The Gulch. The study found that:
On a per acre basis, The Gulch and Lenox Village developments are both estimated to
have a significantly larger positive impact on the General Fund than Bradford Hills. On average, The Gulch development is expected to have a net positive impact of $116,000 per acre and Lenox Village is expected to have a net positive impact of $780 per acre, compared to $100 per acre for Bradford Hills. The Gulch’s greater positive impact reflects the fact that while new development in the downtown is more expensive to serve on a per-acre basis than Bradford Hills or even Lenox Village, these expenditures are outweighed by the higher per-acre revenues associated with the much higher density development.
Not only does urban sprawl create a less healthy community and reduce quality of life, it is considerably a less efficient means of development. We simply can't afford to continue an unending tread of urban sprawl development.  One must be pragmatic and use common sense in all things however. Even too much of a good thing can be bad. In some places there have been, in my view, a too strict a prohibition on suburban growth and areas have been declared "green belts" and no new development permitted. In addition to that being a morally and constitutionally suspect "taking" of property without compensation, that can lead to a shortage of affordable housing. A shortage of places to expand can drive up prices. While I do oppose absolute prohibitions on development, I do think it appropriate for communities to make the developers of new outlying subdivisions pay more of the cost of infrastructure improvements and it is appropriate to make developers pay for new interstate exchanges and for local and state government to refuse to widen roads to accommodate the new growth.

In my view, infill development should be encouraged, sprawl discouraged, but new suburban growth should not be prohibited. A rarely used tool to discourage new subdivisions growth and urban sprawl is for government to purchase "development rights" from landowners willing to sell. I think that is a reasonable approach to curtailing sprawl and does not involve "taking" but just like declaring areas green belts, it can lead to a shortage of potential areas to expand.  It should be used but used sparingly.

To encourage less urban sprawl, one thing we must have is mass transit. While I have been a critic of the proposed $175 million Five Points to St. Thomas Hospital AMP Bus Rapid Transit system, I nevertheless think it is time for Nashville to embrace mass transit. I simply think the AMP is the wrong project on the wrong route. Mass Transit is not cheap, but neither is urban sprawl. I have had the good fortune and motivation to travel extensively. Cities that I enjoyed visiting most, cities that I would want to visit again,  are real communities build on a human scale and they are walkable and they have good mass transit. 

It is time to embrace Smart Growth or New Urbanism or what ever term you want to use, that develops for people rather than automobiles.

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1 comment:

  1. "That massive planned development would have created in essence a second downtown."

    From an urban planner's perspective perhaps this development would have yielded for another node of a Multi-nuclei model, but not a second downtown. Two separate functions.