A Smart Growth Discussion

Decatur resident David Goldberg recently sat down for an interview with Mother Jones in his capacity as communications director for Smart Growth America.   Its an extensive discussion, but as TW pointed out over on the Loaf (h/t!  h/t! phew!), its a good overview of the movement’s philosophies (just in case you choose to skim Scott’s posts.  I kid Scott, I kid).

There’s a couple quotes I wanted to highlight.  The first kind of ties into a question that “taxus” asked about developers a few days back.

MJ: Have private developers been getting on board with smart growth projects increasingly? Are they actually seeing this as something that can help their bottom line?

DG: Absolutely. The difficulty is that it is more complex to do these projects. It still takes multiple variances in the zoning codes. You often have to put together two or three different developers to do the different components: One is better versed in multifamily, the other one is single family, another one might do retail, although more and more developers are starting to get all those components in house. They’re starting to get better at it. Whey they succeed, they are more profitable. They hold their value better. And they offer a hedge against trouble in a particular market segment-you’re more diverse, so if people aren’t buying condos, they may rent your apartments. So that diversity helps. But the thing is, first of all, you need the expertise and you need a little bit of staying power, because the up-front costs can be more in terms of the planning and the approvals and in some cases installing the infrastructure.

The other talks about making residents feel like they have a vested interest in the project.

DG:…But now [transit hubs] are starting to be really hot spots for development. Communities are trying to plan for them. Neighbors look at it and they say, “That’s not what it was like when I came here, and I don’t really want it to change,” and it makes them very nervous. So in some cases, people are made more comfortable just by being involved in the planning process from the outset. Not being like they used to do, where they would present you with “Oh, look at this project, what do you think, give us comment.” Now they do these basically community design processes called charrettes-collaborative design processes where you bring in people from the community, the developer, the developer’s team, architect, planners; people come in and they get shown the parameters of what the project might be, an initial idea about it. People say, “Well, what I’m really concerned about is preserving this little green space over here,” or “I’d want a park that my kids can walk to,” or “I’m concerned that this particular intersection already has too much traffic; what are we going to do about that?” You put those concerns on the table and you address them in the design process.

Obviously this approach has been tried with 315.  And I’m sure each involved party would give reasons why this tried and true method hasn’t been a smooth process.

But I’m beginning to think that maybe the project currently just doesn’t have enough carrots for the neighborhood to get on board.  Filling in a parking lot and the promise of greater city density is a huge carrot to some, but for those that also fear the potential threat of that density, the developer might need to go a bit further.  The promise of courtyards and street-parking on Montgomery might not be enough.  And its not like they can build us sidewalks…the city has already given us them in spades!  Its almost like because Decatur is already so ahead of the curve, you have to expect to give a little more, especially since we’re talking C2 next to R60.

Give the residents a real improvement/gift…compromise on density a little and build a small park or playground or commit to one lower rent retail space for a local grocery or co-op (see how I always find ways to include it?) or SOMETHING.

If the developer were to go beyond simply mitigating fears that things will get worse and give a little something back to the community, perhaps we might finally see resolution.