A new champion of Smart Growth

April 19, 1999|By Neal R. Peirce

CHIEF EXECUTIVE officers of banks are expected to be cheerleaders for just about any profitable proposition thrown in their path.

But Hugh McColl, whose Bank of America is the nation's largest financier of commercial and residential real estate, didn't sound quite that way in a recent talk before the International Council of Shopping Centers in Charlotte, N.C.

Storm clouds are gathering over America's communities, warned Mr. McColl, the North Carolinian who vaulted to chairmanship of the Bank of America when it merged with NationsBank.

"Our roads and highways are filled to capacity. The quality of our air, rivers and streams has dropped considerably," Mr. McColl told the shopping center executives.

In Las Vegas, he said, the demand for water is projected to exceed supply in 10 years even while people continue to plant and water grass lawns in the desert. In Atlanta, Mr. McColl noted, Hewlett-Packard scrapped plans recently for a second office tower because management felt it couldn't ask workers to live in Atlanta's "sprawling, congested suburbs."

Sad development

In airplane trips across the country in the past year, Mr. McColl said, he found his awe at "the sheer beauty and wonder of our natural environment" had been matched by "profound sadness in seeing clearly the unintended consequences" of "spontaneous, prolific, undirected development."

The antidote being identified by Mr. McColl and political leaders nationwide is Smart Growth.

State by state, Smart Growth is starting to mean very positive things.

In rock-ribbed conservative Wyoming, Republican Gov. Jim Geringer has posted a comprehensive land conservation guidebook on his Web site.

In Maryland, two years ago, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening pushed through the first Smart Growth law, cutting off state sewer and highway funds to areas beyond county-designated growth areas.

In Utah, Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt signed a Growth Quality Act to help localities develop sound growth management, especially to manage intense growth pressures along the Salt Lake City-Wasatch Mountains front.

In Pennsylvania, cautious Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, not only appointed a 21st Century Environment Commission, but also has gone to the legislature with a $1.3-billion "growing greener" initiative. It includes such measures as grants for localities willing to work together on regional land-use planning, shared operations and brownfields cleanup.

Whitman's plan

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, victorious last autumn in persuading voters to approve bonds to protect half of her state's remaining open spaces, is now declaring, "We must do better." Her specific goal: to breathe life into New Jersey's state plan, with its goal of focusing growth toward older, economically ignored and devastated communities.

In Illinois, a new GOP governor, George Ryan, is looking for Smart Growth initiatives. In neighboring Michigan and Wisconsin, veteran Republican governors, John Engler and Tommy Thompson, are gradually warming to a state role in guiding development.

In Georgia, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes is pushing creation of a powerful new agency to build Atlanta metro area transit rail lines, providing an alternative for commuters (and cleaner air).

These are just samples of legislative, regional activity nationwide. Admittedly none is perfect, each has shortcomings. But Americans are moving on this issue because we are getting concerned. Smart Growth is definitely a bipartisan issue.

Hear what Mr. McColl has to say about it: Smart Growth is "pro-growth" because growth fuels the U.S. economy. It's about choices -- not just to live in suburbs, but to be assured a right to safe and livable cities, too.

Controlling sprawl, says Mr. McColl, works in America's "free market society" because it "favors incentives over controls." It "protects our environment," and seeks to "use our resources wisely" -- values Americans embrace.

Smart Growth, as Mr. McColl suggests, means "everybody gets a seat at the table" when regional growth options are discussed -- "developers, business people, public officials, environmental advocates, ordinary citizens."

And ultimately it's "about families and communities -- creating neighborhoods with housing, employment, schools, houses of worship, parks, services, shopping centers closer enough together that our kids can ride their bikes wherever they go, without asking us for a ride every 10 minutes."

The McColl definition leaves dozens of questions to be answered on the "hows" of new growth practices and town planning. Smart Growth is a vision under construction.

But it's becoming a formidable force in American life.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/18/99

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