News: Sprawl Kills

More than taste is at stake when suburbs grow

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David A. Rowe


An environmentally-friendly housing project in Cleveland, EcoCity Cleveland, uses solar power for dramatic savings on utility costs.



Sprawl is a product of more than a desire for new homes and good schools — it's propelled by fear, racism, conservative land developers, outdated tax structures, restrictive zoning and fragmented local governments.

Sprawl fosters a kind of economic apartheid. Sprawl kills.

Those were some of the more radical takes on the causes and effects of car-dependent, poorly organized, cookie-cutter developments — commonly called "sprawl" — during a Nov. 7 conference on sustainable growth at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown.

The last comment — "Sprawl kills" — came half-jokingly from Joel Hirschhorn, a staff member with the National Governors Association who studies policies affecting natural resources. The slogan has recently appeared on bumper stickers, he says.

Sprawling development is about more than tastes, according to Hirschhorn. He said people who live in pedestrian-hostile suburbs walk less and suffer health effects from not exercising.

"So we have a lot going for smart growth if we know how to sell it," he said.

The conference, organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, included workshops on affordable housing, transportation, schools and how to finance better development.

Hirschhorn was one of more than 300 planners, bankers, developers, community leaders, planners and politicians who spent the day taking notes on how to redevelop cities, better plan growth and make regions more stable and therefore more sustainable.

Mayor William Johnson of Rochester, N.Y., railed against the segregating effect that overbuilding and exclusionary zoning has on communities. Minnesota State Sen. Myron Orfield offered an example of how white flight begins with racist misconceptions, then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of urban decline.

A representative from EcoVillage Cleveland explained how his organization cut annual utility expenses to about $60 — for the entire year — for new two- and three-bedroom townhomes near downtown Cleveland.

A Maryland state planner outlined the variety of smart growth strategies the state has adopted since 1997, including the "Live Near Your Work" Program. It offers workers $3,000 toward home purchases within five miles of participants' jobs. Maryland also spends half of its transportation budget on mass transit and awards grants to communities that adopt smart growth strategies.

Ohio stood out in the conference — as a state that isn't thinking progressively about growth and development. With Hamilton County voters recently rejecting a sales tax for light rail and Cincinnati's narrow defeat of a bond issue for school buildings, local officials seemed a bit embarrassed about the region's direction.

Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie said the Tristate obviously has some issues when it comes to regional cooperation, taxes and its economy.

"By and large these issues are how we deal with growth," Lemmie said.

Smart growth builds real communities
A big part of the problem is defining sprawl, according to Don Turner, president emeritus of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

"If you can't put it on a bumper sticker, you can't sell it to anybody," he said.

In 1999 the National Governors Association adopted 10 principles to define smart growth. Summarized, they say smart growth projects:

· mix office space, housing, retail and other uses in the same buildings;

· have a range of housing opportunities and choices that are "walkable" and friendly to mass transit;

· promote distinctive, attractive communities, including the rehabilitation of historic buildings;

· promote the preservation of open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas;

· make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective; and

· encourage public participation in development decisions.

Edward Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve System's board of governors, puts it this way: "Does growth benefit a community or just make a community larger?"

Race makes people move
Race usually doesn't come up during debates on sprawl. But Johnson and Orfield say it's crucial to understanding how regions develop and/or decay.

Statistics show school performance has a lot to do with a child's neighborhood, Orfield said. Parents' choice of a school district has more than a little to do with the district's racial makeup.

"It is powerfully related to race," Orfield said.

Orfield cited the once all-white Chicago suburb of Matteson, saying whites began moving out when middle class and professional blacks began moving in.

The first to leave said the schools were getting worse and crime was increasing, even though at first school scores improved and the crime rate didn't change.

Today, however, steady white flight has helped those early predictions come true: the city is losing its mall and the school district is increasingly poor, Orfield said.

"This happens over and over again," he said. "Nobody talks about it."

Johnson said he has watched Monroe County, N.Y., expand while Rochester, its center city, declined. In the past 50 years the region's urbanized land has increased by more than 350 percent while the population has increased by only 70 percent, according to a study by Smart Growth America.

"We don't need to build another new house in Monroe County to meet demand," Johnson said.

Johnson said part of the problem is many Americans feel race is not an issue anymore.

"There are many who believe we have solved the racial issues in this country and it's time to move along," he said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case."

Johnson said census statistics prove his point. Decades after forced segregation ended, African Americans, whites and others work together. But blacks still generally live with blacks and whites still generally live with whites. Not all of this can be attributed to freedom of choice, according to Johnson. Poorer minorities have fewer housing choices than other groups.

When races don't mix, they have a more difficult time understanding each other, he said.

"It's clear to me if we are going to change race relations in this country, we're going to have to change our neighborhoods," Johnson said.

Johnson said change requires the help of suburban residents and politicians. Cities and suburbs need to define common goals and work together on them.

"We cannot solve the problem ourselves," he said.

There also seemed to be a general consensus among participants that the goal shouldn't be stopping growth in the suburbs, but making urban redevelopment meet market demands.

"Smart growth is about providing more choices," Hirschhorn said.

Cutting costs
A few years ago there was talk the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, just west of downtown Cleveland, might lose its light rail station. That inspired residents, the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and EcoCity Cleveland to join to refurbish the station and build EcoVillage Cleveland, an energy-efficient 20-townhome building with an average of 1,600 square feet each. All are for sale starting at $172,000.

Insulation helped reduce utility costs to an estimated $300 a year. The addition of solar panels is expected to cut 80 percent of that cost, according to David Rowe, the project manager. Now two private developers are asking how the organizations did it, he said. This was the major goal of the project — to take a risk, succeed and get private developers to copy it.

"Someone had to do this," Rowe said. "We had to start with something."

In Price Hill a similar effort is in progress with the Seminary Square project, although it involves renovations, instead of new homes.

"The goal is to get as many houses as possible renovated with an energy efficient theme," said Jim Schenk, co-founder of Imago, a Price Hill environmental organization.

So far Imago has finished six renovations and sold two homes for $72,000 and $80,000.

The overall Seminary Square EcoVillage plan, written with the help of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning, involves 50 blocks of Price Hill. ©

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