A Bank Sees a Different Kind of Green

March 06, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- It had to happen one day: that some big, respected force in financial America would wake up and blow the whistle on sprawl development, labeling leapfrog growth as the city-wrecking, country-despoiling, tax-gobbling and economy-destroying force it is.

Now the Bank of America, California's biggest, a financial and real-estate lending behemoth that's made vast profits for decades on sprawling development, has taken the plunge.

''Beyond Sprawl'' is a manifesto the bank has issued jointly with the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance, the California state government's Resources Agency, and the Low Income Housing Fund in the Bay Area.

There's no doubt, these partners declare, that sprawl helped fuel California's ''unparalleled economic and population boom,'' opening home ownership for millions.

But now, they warn, ''unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that threatens to inhibit growth and degrade our quality of life.''

Tectonic political plates shift when a financial institution of Bank of America's weight joins in enumerating the real price of California's continued scattershot development -- higher costs for businesses and workers caught in long and exhausting commutes, America's worst air quality, severe farmland loss and ''abandonment of people and investments in older communities.''

What's at stake, the manifesto says, is California's whole future, from its economy to its environment. For, while new-home buyers or growing businesses on the urban fringe may find sprawl inexpensive, ''the ultimate cost -- to those home owners, to the government, and society at large -- is potentially crippling.''

The bank hasn't yet suggested it will stop lending for sprawl-related development. The point, says Richard Morrison, senior vice president for environmental affairs and a key figure in organizing the report, is simply to get a dialogue rolling, to explore new forms of collaboration between developers and people committed to open-space preservation.

The report, in fact, is short on specific cures. It stops well short of proposing an urban-growth boundary, like Oregon's, or similar regulation that could oblige developers to choose ''infill'' sites in existing cities and suburbs, or if they build on the fringe, to do so in a more land-economizing way.

Even so, the California Building Industry Association hurried to condemn the report as a ''one-sided, somewhat hysterical tome singling out suburban housing as a pox upon California's physical and economic landscape.''

Behind the scenes, developers and the industry association let Bank of America chairman and CEO Richard Rosenberg know they were mightily displeased by his alliance with an environmental organization and the governmental natural-resource watchdog.

Says Larry Orman of the Greenbelt Alliance: ''This is a phenomenally bold and praiseworthy thing for the bank to do. No other bank in the country, certainly none of this size, has done anything of the kind.''

The great unknown is what comes next. Will Gov. Pete Wilson's administration, even with the sign-on of its California Resources Agency, get serious about growth management? Mr. Wilson promised as much when he became governor four years ago. But then, in the midst of recession, budget crises and natural disasters, he let the issue lapse.

Another question is whether and how the larger business community will join the debate. It's always easiest for businesses to remain quiet -- until, of course, their own long-term viability is at stake.

The best precedent may be the so-called ''Ceres'' principles for corporations, drawn up by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies in the wake of the devastating oil spill in Alaska. These range from reducing and eliminating dangerous emissions to pledging an annual corporate ''self-evaluation'' on environmental progress.

Only 78 of the nation's 500 top companies, among them General Motors, H.B. Fuller and the Sun Co., have signed on, according to the New York-based Conference Board. But with stockholder pressure, Ceres principles are unquestionably having an impact on corporate attitudes and behavior.

Could Ceres-style principles for land use, to combat sprawl, be imagined? Could corporations agree to shun leapfrogging exurban development that triggers huge public outlays incurred by mile upon mile of added streets and freeways, whole new water and sewer systems, fire stations and multimillion-dollar schools?

Almost as much as suburban housing, corporation flight -- from the cities and older suburbs, to land on the periphery (often close to homes of executives) -- has propelled sprawl.

No one would suggest retroactive corporate accountability for those decisions and their ravaging impact on cities, on America's poor, on our natural landscape. But why couldn't standards for future corporate locations be formed and publicized?

The very idea sounds revolutionary. But it's no less revolutionary than it would have been to predict, a few months ago, that the Bank of America was about to sign onto a manifesto of alarm about the sprawl which its own loan officers did so much to bankroll.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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