Sprawl control crucial for Gore

To truly restrain sprawl, the key may be to make the cities more attractive.

April 14, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

MIAMI -- When Vice President Al Gore was darting back and forth across Northwest 20th Street here one sunny afternoon last month -- shaking hands outside the Little Karina clothing store, stopping in for Cuban coffee at the El Girasol cafeteria -- the well-tailored man at his elbow, step-for-step, was Miami-Dade's energetic young mayor, Alex Penelas.

When Mr. Gore visits Chicago, it's the same story with Mayor Richard M. Daley. And in Philadelphia with Mayor Ed Rendell. And in Detroit with Mayor Dennis Archer.

As a Tennessee senator absorbed in technology and defense issues during the 1980s, Mr. Gore had little contact with big city issues -- and few relationships with big city mayors. That was painfully apparent when he ran for president in 1988 and saw his urban support confined almost entirely to New York City's then-mayor Ed Koch -- who proved more anchor than sail.

Urban agenda

Quietly, however, Mr. Gore has rewritten that equation through his role in President Clinton's urban agenda. In the past few weeks, the vice president has been justifiably needled for claiming credit for a host of relatively peripheral administration initiatives and somewhat overzealously describing his role in the development of the Internet. But, ironically, he's received almost no attention for his part in one of the administration's major innovations: The push for more private investment in inner cities.

As chairman of Mr. Clinton's Community Empowerment Board since 1993, Mr. Gore has played a central role in the administration's drive to bring investment back into blighted neighborhoods through empowerment zones and related initiatives, such as an innovative program he's pioneered to link big corporations with inner-city entrepreneurs. Starting from that platform, Mr. Gore has made himself an ombudsman for key mayors on a broad range of issues.

"Gore has had a terrific learning curve in the past six years," says Mr. Rendell, who's hardly a Clinton apologist. "He is our point of entry into the administration on everything."

Good politics

This urban orientation has been good politics for Mr. Gore. With Republicans dominating the governorships, mayors are often the most powerful elected Democrats in a given state. Most leading mayors -- including all four named above -- are supporting Mr. Gore's bid for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination. That will help Mr. Gore guard his liberal flank against challenger Bill Bradley, who has been running at him from the left.

Now, Mr. Gore is trying to build a beachhead in the suburbs. Since last fall he's led the way in defining an administration agenda to combat suburban sprawl -- the endless march of the strip mall and the subdivision.

This new agenda could offer an outside game to bracket Mr. Gore's inside-game urban focus. Politically, it allows him to court suburban elected officials -- such as King County (Washington) executive Ron Sims. It also gives him a calling card with suburban voters who are flush economically, but frustrated by traffic and congestion.

These agendas fit together as policy. Suburbanites can feel overrun by new growth; many urban neighborhoods are starved for it. Both might benefit if cities attracted a larger share of new investment.

If implemented the right way, that insight could produce tangible benefits. One little-noticed example: a deal the administration midwifed earlier this year between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Home Builders in which the mayors agreed to clear away red tape and the home builders committed to building 1 million market-rate new homes in core city neighborhoods over the next decade.

Yet in campaigning to change decades-old patterns of development, Mr. Gore may be walking on a surprisingly narrow ledge. No one likes sprawl. But sprawl occurs because so many people like suburban living.

"If they push the high-density city living . . . it is going to be devastating to Gore," says Charlie Ruma, president of the home builders' association.

Modest proposals

So far, the administration's anti-sprawl agenda -- tax subsidies to help local governments buy open space, more money for mass transit, car-pool lanes and regional planning -- has been too modest to inspire a counterattack. But for the same reason, it may not effectively combat sprawl. Making a dent on sprawl -- without provoking a backlash -- won't be easy from the federal level, especially since voters have zealously guarded local control on the issue.

Which is why the answer to Mr. Gore's suburban concerns might be found largely with his new friends in urban America. To truly restrain sprawl, the key may be to make the cities more attractive. "If you don't have opportunity in the inner cities, the only thing growth control does is raise housing prices in the suburbs," notes Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's Institute of Public Policy.

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