Institute Assists Communities on Smart Growth
Communities that wake up to the realization that they need to find new ways to accommodate development to solve such problems as a lack of affordable housing, congested highways and crowded schools may be able to profit from tools that are being developed by the Smart Growth Leadership Institute (SGLI).
Although the institute’s Implementation Assistance Program in its first year was only able to provide assistance to nine of the 150 communities that requested it, the experiences and lessons learned from those places will help shape a smart growth Implementation Kit for other localities that are seeking guidance on implementing infill, high-density and other innovative development strategies.
Communities are typically finding that their aspirations for smart growth are being thwarted by existing zoning codes, subdivision regulations, street design standards, building codes and other land development regulations, Harriet Tregoning, SGLI’s executive director, said in a presentation earlier this month at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
Those communities, she said, can profit by having outsiders come in to assess what is standing in the way of a new approach to development, an endeavor that can require political leadership and coordination with many different departments.
Among the communities with which SGLI has worked on implementing smart growth:
- In Mount Joy Borough, Lancaster County, Pa., the positive fiscal impact of new development was the most convincing factor in overcoming subdivision restrictions against higher densities, Tregoning said. SGLI’s audit helped the small Main Street community with a population of 6,765 pass a Traditional Neighborhood Design zone to accommodate smart growth principles.
- In Baton Rouge, La., at the request of a politically sophisticated non-profit community organization, the institute reviewed the city’s comprehensive plan and unified development code to see how they could be made consistent with a “Plan Baton Rouge” downtown revitalization effort. “The economic arguments for how to grow captured the imagination of the government,” she said, and gained the support of the city’s new major.
- In Nashville/Davidson County, Tenn., “one-size-fits-all” subdivision regulations geared to suburban and semi-rural parts of the area have made it difficult to build infill housing in the city’s vibrant urban core. Tregoning said that SLI was successful in helping to pass new development standards tailored to fit the character of different communities. The institute also recommended reforms and a more collaborative process for a system in which Metro Planning has authority over site approvals, Metro Public Works oversees street design; and Metro Water Services signs off on storm water runoff, after the site has already been approved.
- In Orange County, Fla., the institute looked at “retrofitting” the county’s suburban development pattern with infill development that incorporates a mix of land uses and housing types. The county had made exceptions to its zoning ordinance several times to accommodate this type of development, but it never went back to change its zoning or codes. Also problematic, the public works department was putting up resistance on street standards.
Tregoning said she is an advocate of taking relatively small steps and leveraging them. “You have to be able to talk to people about some signs of progress,” she said.
For example, Kentlands in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. — with its small lots, big houses, skinny streets and alley-loaded garages — changed the standard of development in Montgomery County, she said. Construction of the MCI Center in downtown Washington has spurred 4.5 million square feet of commercial development in the area and 2,300 housing units.
In downtown Tacoma, Wash., a new electric train traveling only 1.6 miles met its seventh year daily ridership projection on its eighth day of operation. “Now private real estate development is revitalizing the downtown,” Tregoning said. “It has changed people’s expectations about the future of that place and real estate investment patterns.”
Working with the University of Southern California and the University of Colorado and with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, SGLI over the next nine months will be sending its team of experts to provide assistance to four new communities: Chattahoochee Hill County and Fulton Hill County, Ga.; Coconino County, Ariz.; Davis, Calif.; and Greenville, S.C.
A project of Smart Growth America, the Smart Growth Leadership Institute was founded by former Maryland Gov. Parris. N. Glendening to help state and local elected, civic and business leaders design and implement effective smart growth strategies.