Gore gambles by linking sprawl to urban problems

July 08, 1999|By Merrill Goozner

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton this week dramatized his vision for how to help impoverished areas left out of the current prosperity by taking a handful of high-powered corporate executives to East St. Louis, Ill., one of America's most degraded urban landscapes.

His message? The inner city is a fine place to set up shop, and with a little government assistance, big business can help turn the rubble-strewn lots of forgotten cities into the next emerging market.

The president rolled out his New Markets Initiative, which includes a 25-percent tax credit for new investment in the worst sections of the nation's cities.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore is scrambling to come up with something to offer the inner city's poorest inhabitants, who remain an important Democratic Party constituency.

What could be better suited to the times than urging business to invest in the undiscovered competitiveness of inner cities? Just give business a few tax breaks and get needless government regulation out of the way, and watch the big firms, housing developers and long-frustrated local entrepreneurs make the rubble bloom. It's already starting to happen in many cities.

But if cities are truly ready for a rebirth, what explains this decade's dramatic flight from most older Midwestern and Northeastern cities? Census figures show that between 1990 and 1998, Philadelphia lost 149,300 residents, or 9.4 percent of its population; Baltimore lost 90,400 residents, or 12.3 percent of its people; Detroit saw its population decline by 57,800, or 5.6 percent.

Losing ground

While big city mayors have enthusiastically embraced developers who build upscale housing units near downtown, they've been less quick to trumpet a recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, noting that cities lost 950,000 units of affordable housing between 1996 and 1998.

That's a bureaucratic way of saying rents are rising faster than the incomes of renters. As a result, the nation's 40 largest cities have waiting lists for public housing that have soared anywhere from 10 to 25 percent in the past year. Those 40 lists contain nearly 1 million families, according to HUD.

What's going on? Two things, according to David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and now a traveling salesman for metropolitan solutions to urban problems. First, he says, there is endless suburban sprawl to accommodate the suburbs' newly formed households and those fleeing cities. Second, there is the continuing concentration of hard-core poverty families inside central cities.

Mr. Rusk, whose new book is called "Inside Game, Outside Game: Winning strategies for saving urban America," is a relentless demographer of the urban landscape. That makes him, unlike Mr. Clinton, a pessimist about contemporary trends.

Yet the broad outlines, if not the substance of his message, have been embraced by Mr. Gore. Having already jumped on the growing anti-sprawl bandwagon, Mr. Gore needs something to appeal to the urban poor without alienating the swing voters of the suburbs.

The answer? In what sounds like a policy cooked up by a jaded campaign consultant, Mr. Gore wants to save cities by making life better for soccer moms in the suburbs. Mr. Clinton's New Markets Initiative is just a piece of that larger puzzle.

As it turns out, the idea that the key to rejuvenating the nation's ailing cities lies in curbing suburban sprawl makes a lot of sense. It is winning adherents among a growing number of urban activists and metropolitan planners around the country.

Headaches of sprawl

In their view, most metropolitan areas are rapidly becoming "The Blob that Ate the Corn Field." Developers and their political handmaidens gobble up the landscape for malls, housing and offices. The result for suburbanites is lost hours spent on jammed freeways while family life atrophies.

So with cities depopulated and hungry for investment, why not channel investment back into the core by buying up farmland to preserve open space? This is the essence of Mr. Gore's outside game. This can be coupled with state and regional laws encouraging "smart growth," which is adroit political packaging for controversial development curbs.

Meanwhile, the inside games consist of giving a few extra tax breaks and financial "incentives" for businesses that invest in cities. All cities have to do is reduce regulation, eliminate the capital gains tax or give a few tax breaks and watch businesses seize the natural advantage of the urban core, which includes pent-up consumer demand, an underutilized workforce and proximity to those rejuvenated downtowns.

To help Mr. Gore champion these complementary strands of thought on the campaign trail, the Clinton administration's budget proposal dribbled out a few goodies that will probably go nowhere in the GOP Congress. They offered almost a billion dollars to municipalities to sell nearly $10 billion of bonds to preserve farmland. The administration also put up a paltry $50 million for smart growth planning.

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