Growth, Not Sprawl
by Peter Clavelle
The greatest challenge for mayors and community leaders across this country is to pursue truly sustainable development -- development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The biggest threat to the achievement of sustainable communities is sprawl. Sprawl drains the economic life blood out of existing downtowns, while eliminating open space and agricultural land. Sprawl heightens our dependency on the automobile, causes congestion, and contributes mightily to air pollution. Communities characterized by poorly planned, auto-oriented sprawl lose their sense of place.
Across the country, cities and towns are working to create healthy communities and discourage sprawl. In my own city of Burlington, Vermont, we are strengthening our downtown with the construction of a major anchor department store, the revitalization of our urban waterfront, and the attraction of jobs and new housing. We also have been part of a defensive strategy that succeeded in keeping Wal Mart and the big box regional shopping centers out of our state for decades.
I applaud the Clinton Administrations recent articulation of a livability agenda focusing on the preservation of open space, as well as the resurgence of HUD and the EPAs brownfield initiatives, which offer an alternative to the development of green fields. But more needs to be done at the federal level to establish sensible investment and tax policies that encourage healthy downtowns and discourage sprawl.
The flow of federal highway dollars must be predicated on a clear understanding and the development of land-use policies that mitigate the potential for highway-induced sprawl. TEA-21 funding offers an historic opportunity to make our communities more livable. Bonuses should be offered for projects which include traffic calming, access management, streetscape improvement, and pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Urban transportation projects like parking facilities and multi-modal transportation centers must be made eligible for TEA-21 funds.
As a matter of practice, federal office buildings must be located and retained in downtowns. The General Services Administration must provide a cost preference for downtown locations. Federal policy should be to retain and locate post offices in downtowns, and to assure that the local community has a strong voice in any decision to close, relocate, or consolidate their local post office.
The UDAG program of the 1980s attracted significant private investment to downtowns by closing financing gaps for downtown projects and by underwriting the cost of the required public infrastructure. Funding for a UDAG-type program, allowing for the creative and flexible financing of downtown projects, must be restored.
The EPAs Brownfields Pilot Project has been a success. With the bulk of current EPA monies targeted for assessments, the federal government must expand financing for remediation. The federal government should continue to build on the brownfields partnership established across a broad range of federal agencies.
Modest changes in federal tax policy would also stimulate investment in downtowns. Specific changes might include the following: revising the definition of private activity under tax-exempt bond regulations to include investment in downtowns; allowing site remediation costs to be depreciable expenses; decreasing the depreciation period for downtown buildings to 20 years; and increasing the Housing Tax Credit Allocation.
We hear that homeownership is at an all-time high. This is typically not true in center cities. In Burlingtons inner city neighborhoods we have homeownership ratios as low as 20%. We must retain and attract families to our inner city neighborhoods. Federal tax credits should be offered to homeowners renovating properties in cities, and affordable financing packages must be offered to inner city neighborhoods.
At the state level, government agencies must adopt policies and incentives to manage growth and support existing downtowns. Tax credits for downtown reinvestment projects, planning grants, tax rebates for the rehabilitation of historic structures, agricultural preservation and land conservation programs, and the promotion of regional coordination of land-use and transportation planning are all tools that can influence development patterns. State agencies must evaluate whether spending for specific roads, sewers, or other infrastructure improvements will facilitate sprawl. Like their federal counterparts, state agencies need to locate offices and facilities in downtowns and growth centers.
Call for the End of Sprawl
Across the country, civic leaders, business people, the media, and average citizens are recognizing that sprawl threatens the vitality and sustainability of communities, both urban and rural. Weve begun to acknowledge that this is a threat requiring the active engagement of municipal, state, and federal governments. And weve seen compelling evidence that government alone cant solve the problem, that partnerships among all the stakeholders in our communities are necessary to change our present course.
As mayors, we are in a unique position, with perhaps the clearest view of the threat. Now is the time for us to stand up together to issue a call for the end of sprawl that reverberates through our neighborhoods, our state capitals, and our federal government. Now is the time for a bold, comprehensive national initiative to create and preserve vital downtowns and healthy communities.