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Citizen Servatius: They're So Dense

And now a good word about sprawl

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Call me an urban refugee. I know what it's like to live an urban planner's dream, and believe me, I fully understand why many urban planners return to their suburban homes at night. After a month of listening to clueless council candidates rail on about the evils of sprawl -- which no one ever really bothered to define -- I have to admit that I still don't understand what's wrong with it, or why municipal governments across the nation are so hell-bent on "fixing" it. I doubt the candidates in question did either. Nearly all of them lived in the suburbs as well.

During the nine months I spent living in uptown Charlotte, I walked to restaurants, shops and museums. But my roommate and I were miserable. Why? For starters, going anywhere or doing anything seems to take about twice as long, whether you walk or hop in your car to leapfrog through the crowded intersections that surround your building.

If you have any sort of allergies or sensitivity to pollution, uptown living is not for you. There is an almost tangible smog uptown from the beltway that you can't close your windows against. It doesn't move. It just sits, and it gets into your hair, your clothes, your sheets, your furniture. Like most urban cores, there is a marked absence of green that begins to affect you psychologically about three months into your lease. Human beings weren't engineered to be surrounded by asphalt and mortar. An uptown park will help, but for me, it's just not enough.

Then there's the privacy issue. You can't just roll out of bed to walk your dog with your hair sticking out in all directions without feeling self-conscious. No, you'll have to get done up before you go, because you'll be mingling with people in suits on their way to work, some of whom you may actually know.

And you can forget having a cookout or any kind of party for friends. There simply isn't enough parking, or room.

These are but a few of the trials of urban, or high-density living that no one talks about. They're but a footnote in this city's and ultimately this nation's bizarre love-hate relationship with what the experts, whoever they are, have dubbed "sprawl."

The nature of this relationship is most visible on the campaign trail, where city council candidates vow to fight sprawl without actually defining it. Of course, once they're elected, they can't seem to annex lower-density suburbs and strip mall development fast enough.

The seductive thing about sprawl, or low-density suburban development, is that it generates more tax dollars than it costs to service, which makes it attractive to the city leaders vowing to fight it but hungry to annex it. During their last term, those same city leaders approved acres of low-density subdivisions in Charlotte's outlying areas which probably would have qualified as sprawl. So, at the rate we are going, the sprawl issue stands to be no more than a harmless little political hypocrisy folks trump up during election season. Let's hope it stays that way, because when turned loose, urban planners can do a lot of damage that rarely figures into the sprawl debate.

Here's why. The anti-sprawlers promise an idyllic and impossible package: better neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets, cheaper housing, lower taxes and less air pollution. To achieve this, all a city has to do is to squeeze more people and businesses into smaller spaces under tighter regulatory control. What the market wants is, of course, an afterthought. But no matter how hard planners across the nation try, when the supply of available, developable land is artificially restricted or development is redirected to achieve density, housing prices go through the roof, taxes increase and slower-moving traffic is squeezed into a smaller grid of roads, exacerbating the air pollution.

As incentives to developers bring about the exalted, dense infill development political leaders in Charlotte and across the nation so desperately want, the proverbial crap hits the fan -- literally. Ask the residents of San Diego about the 1980 new urban plan that discouraged development outside an urban ring (for us that would be I-485) and promoted infill (the development of vacant lots and redevelopment of residential areas with more units, or higher density). The city's sewers, water system, roads and schools weren't built for double or triple densities. A decade later, with the sewer system regularly breaking down, the city needed $1 billion to bring infill infrastructure up to 1980s levels.

Then there's Portland, OR., a place county and national planners alike hail as a smart growth ideal. Portland-area voters signed off on the creation of Metro, a regional planning authority with dictatorial land-use planning powers over 24 cities and three counties. To promote high-density development in areas already glutted with apartments, Portland and other area cities gave developers millions of dollars in tax breaks and other subsidies that ultimately came out of residents' pockets. Meanwhile, housing prices skyrocketed because of the artificial land shortage created by suburban growth limitations, giving Portland the least affordable housing in the nation after San Francisco.

Meanwhile, to move these people about, Portland has sanctioned a mass transit system that makes use of light rail, along with a bold plan to increase mass transit ridership -- from 2.5 percent to 6 percent. According to Metro's own predictions, automobile usage will decline from 92 percent of urban trips to 88 percent, but considering that population is predicted to increase by 75 percent over the next 50 years, the same Portland planners and city leaders who rail against the building of new roads estimate that this will quadruple traffic congestion and increase air pollution.

The ideas behind Laguna West, a widely touted Sacramento suburb designed by New Urban guru Peter Calthorpe, may also sound familiar to some Charlotteans. He designs "pedestrian pockets" or "transit-oriented developments" along transit centers similar to the ones city leaders are pushing for our transit corridors. Laguna West was supposed to have a "transit center" surrounded by high-density apartments and condominiums. A ring of single-family homes on small lots would surround the high-density core with stores, offices, and other commercial venues so people could walk to shopping, work or the transit center.

Unfortunately, no one wanted to live in the high-density area, and as a result the project's developer went bankrupt. A new builder bailed the project out by putting low-density housing in its core. Unfortunately, the low-density meant that most transit riders had to drive to the transit center, but since Calthorpe provided no parking at the transit center, drivers parked in front of other people's homes. The homeowners lobbied to have the transit center moved outside of the development, and now do much of their shopping at a conventional strip mall outside the development. The only commercial venue that survived inside Laguna West, ironically enough, was a quick oil-change joint that services residents' cars.

It should hearten you to know that our political leaders are leaning toward similar developments up and down our transit corridors.

If the results of the public policy experiments that go along with reigning in sprawl are questionable, the notion that sprawl is pure evil is as well. The natural attraction of outlying areas is that the land is cheaper, allowing consumers to purchase a home for less money. Over the last decade, low interest rates have fed the development of more affordable housing in outlying areas, thus increasing home ownership and home ownership opportunities.

A new study released by the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI) finds that minority Americans, especially blacks, are more likely to own houses with a higher average square-footage in areas where development has not been so tightly restricted or regulated. According to the study, ". . .the percentage of blacks living in the suburbs has jumped from 34 percent to 39 percent between 1990 and 2000, and median black suburban household income totaled over $37,000 in 2000, almost 44 percent higher than income earned by counterpart black households in cities.

And finally, you've got the will of folks like me to overcome. I like my car. I like my yard. And I like my neighbors, even if I don't want to share a front stoop with them. I grew up in suburbia, and here I'll stay. *

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