Little Rock's brawl over sprawl

September 07, 1999|By Neal R. Peirce

FEW communities in today's America are exempt from hot debate over urban sprawl and its destructive impacts. The most recent: Little Rock, Arkansas, home state of the late King of Sprawl, Sam Walton, and the hometown of President Clinton.

This revolt didn't start, as most do, among middle-class environmentalists. Its genesis was a multiracial coalition, grounded in low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Folks who believe anti-sprawl is a natural sister to such other issues as affordable housing, living-wage jobs and campaign finance reform.

This summer, the Little Rock rebels staged their first open-air anti-sprawl rally, hoisting signs at a busy highway junction saying "Sprawl Costs Us All" and "Keep Little Rock Green."

New Party

They have a national affiliation-- the New Party, a committee-labor-activist movement launched in Wisconsin in 1992. The New Party, championing the same issues, now claims 20,000 dues-paying members and 140 candidates elected to city councils, county commissions and state legislatures across the country.

Five percent of the New Party's members are in Little Rock.

And in Little Rock, they're making a real difference. They've upset establishment candidates to take four of the 10 positions on the Little Rock City Board. They've elected two members to the Pulaski County board, two to the Arkansas Legislature.

And they've glommed on to the sprawl issue just as it's cresting. The Sierra Club last year put Little Rock on its list of America's most sprawl-threatened smaller cities.

Why? While Little Rock's metro population held steady in recent years, urbanized land doubled from 109 to 199 square miles, and density plummeted 45 percent between 1990 and 1996.

Local politicos continued a freeway loop around North Little Rock over objections of a citizens' commission that said the project should be delayed in favor of reinvesting in the urban core.

Issues of class, wealth and race makes the Little Rock sprawl debate noteworthy. Developers have been pushing relentlessly to extend Little Rock's city limits westward, building new upper-income developments and pressuring the city to annex the land and provide their projects with new schools, fire and police stations, water and sewer service.

The net effect has been income redistribution -- benefits flowing to the new upper-income neighborhoods, using revenues that would otherwise be available for the existing city, including the predominantly low-income and working-class neighborhoods of central and eastern Little Rock.

Deltic Timber, the lead development group in west Little Rock, in 1989 promised "affordable homes" in various price ranges. But the lowest price tag in its west Little Rock projects is $150,000, 50 percent above the city's average home sale price.

The Little Rock schools, still laboring under a court desegregation order, are becoming blacker. The effect of the westward flight is clearly resegregation.

There's a hollowing out -- empty lots and boarded up houses -- all about the once thriving middle-class neighborhood surrounding Central High.

And irony of ironies in Sam Walton-land, there's an abandoned Wal-Mart at Asher and University.

A leader in fighting the westward expansion and inner decay is City Director Paul Kelly, a New Party member. The issue's acute because Deltic Timber is petitioning to annex another 1,230 acres of densely wooded land west of the city, so that new homes there will qualify for city services.

Halting annexation

Enough, says Mr. Kelly, of developers calling the shots, getting "annexation on demand." He's proposed delaying any annexation until there's full study of impacts on the natural environment, on enrollment in the schools, on urban housing development. Plus a full financial report on the public cost of new infrastructure and where the taxes will come from to pay for it.

Such disputes used to be a rarity in towns like Little Rock, where social activism was largely unknown and critical decisions were routinely made by "good old boy" networks connected to free-wheeling campaign contributions.

With new kids like the New Party on the block, that may start to change.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.

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