Work in Progress: What Is Smart Growth, Really? And What Could It Mean for Alexandria?

During the past four months, we’ve been talking a lot about smart growth and what it could mean for Alexandria. We elected a mayor who made smart growth the central theme of his campaign.

But still, for many, smart growth may seem like a witty rhetorical device, a catchy phrase with vague and uncertain implications.

However, smart growth is a real, definable concept, with its own logic and set of rules.

Earlier this week, Babs Zimmerman of KALB wrote that “smart growth hammers on parochialism,” which, if I understand her correctly, means that smart growth upends narrow-minding thinking; it encourages creative solutions to planning problems.

It’s funny that Mrs. Zimmerman uses the word “parochialism,” because it’s actually a word that critics of smart growth like to use against it. They claim that “smart growth” is too narrow in its focus, that it represents a “Disneyfication” of American cities, and that it limits the ability of the free market to determine and direct growth. They point to planned communities, like Seaside, Florida, as examples of the type of generic and nostalgic developments championed by smart growth proponents.

If you’ve never been to Seaside, I recommend it. (You’d probably recognize Seaside; it’s the setting for the movie The Truman Show). Seaside is one of the first projects undertaken by famed urban planner Andres Duany, and indeed, it is known as the “first manifestation” of New Urbanism. It’s a charming, resort town, but I’d caution those who look to Seaside as “the model,” because, frankly, smart growth has many different applications.

Smart growth has been used in re-codifying and redeveloping hundreds of American cities, including Providence, Portland, Austin, Los Angeles, and throngs of medium-sized cities. (DPZ, the company created by Andres Duany, is behind the redevelopment of downtown Baton Rouge, which witnessed an 11% increase in property value during the past year; overall property values in Baton Rouge only increased by 3%).

So what is smart growth exactly and how can it be used in Alexandria?

Smart growth is a recognition that the zoning codes and development patterns undertaken by advocates of sprawl will create long-term sustainability problems, threatening a city’s quality of life and thinning out its resources.

Consider something often mentioned by Mr. Roy during the campaign: In the early 1960s, Alexandria was a city of 9 square miles and a population of 48,000 people; today, Alexandria is a city of approximately 26 square miles, yet our population still hovers around 48,000 people.

Alexandria tended to grow in finger-patterns; we’re a good example of suburban sprawl. (Forty years ago, Suburban Garden Restaurant was, literally, suburban; today, one can drive fifteen miles from the city’s center before entering the “suburbs”).

For many years, Americans had a tendency to think of sprawl as good, a healthy reflection of a city’s growth. Consider the City of Houston, Texas. Since the 1950s, Houston has been sprawling in every direction, and perhaps as a result, it attracted millions of people and scores of Fortune 500 companies. It may have worked for awhile.

But now, Houstonians recognize that this sprawl came at a big cost: Their inner-city core was drained, their most historical neighborhoods were blighted (incidentally, some of the redevelopment plans for these neighborhoods were ill-conceived and counter-productive), and taxpayers were overly burdened by funding developments in the outer fringes of the city limits.

Additionally, as fuel costs increased, so did the burden on their middle class, the backbone of their economy. Costs of construction have also increased, but instead of redeveloping affordable housing in the city’s core, the middle class, for many years, followed the trend and continued to look for cheaper land in the suburbs.

There’s probably not an easy solution for Houston, but they’ve been taking steps in the right direction: light rail transportation that connects its downtown with the medical center, the encouragement of multi-use developments, and the revitalization of downtown (and therefore, housing in the city’s center) through key investments- a new basketball arena, a baseball stadium, an arts complex, and a massive convention center). As a result of these efforts, property values in the city’s core have increased substantially, and the city’s core is thriving again. (This hasn’t come at the expense of the suburbs; they’re replicating this condensing and becoming independent communities).

And this is what Alexandria must learn from, lest we repeat the mistakes made by other cities during periods of sustained growth. Smart growth in Alexandria means putting a check against unfettered expansion. It means thinking of creative solutions for affordable housing in existing neighborhoods (and not simply creating a bunch of new housing developments on cheaper land in the city’s outer reaches. Again, affordability must also require access to resources).

Fortunately, Alexandria is at a point where smart growth can be realized. We can use concepts like the Katrina Cottage to create an attractive and functional solution to inner-city affordable housing, which is already being done in cities all across the nation. We can re-codify. We can encourage the development of our downtown through targeted marketing and a package of unique incentives, like the Renewal Zone Incentives. We can also encourage mixed use developments throughout the city and planned use developments in the city’s suburbs. We can smartly manage our traffic flow by building new connections and arteries. And the best news is that this is all possible, provided that our city government facilitates this process through events like charettes, which enables the entire community to actively participate in the planning process, and through re-codification and increased code enforcement.

10 thoughts

  1. Houston is a horrible example to use – this is an urban city with no zoning whatsoever so how can you possibly expect them to have any concept of planning?

  2. I remember when I moved here, I thought that the Alexandria/Pineville area was actually still in a position to keep sprawl from killing beautiful landscape in the outer regions of the cities and utilizing property still INSIDE the cities’ limits.

    Frankly, most metropolitan areas this size don’t have both an interstate and an expressay into their primary suburban area. We’re blessed with both, as well as (with highway expansion) four-lane highways coming from SW and NE Louisiana. So it seems we’ve been given the tools to be a major transport hub (see Atlanta, Birmingham as prime examples) but we’ve also been given that tools that “enable” sprawl to happen more freely, I’m afraid.

    There’s a re-birth slowly happening in downtown Alexdandria, and it’s happening at the right time. The area isn’t too large, geographically, nor is it too forgone to revitalize. There are tools in place (a nice convention center, two large hotels, an amphitheater, a performing arts center, to name a few), but a lack of viable residential options – affordable to the 20-and early 30-something crowd that would enjoy a more urban-esque way of life – has to be a part of the revitalization vision.

    The condominium development on 4th Street is exciting, but there needs ot be more. The brimming nightlife (almost solely the work of one man, aside from Finnegans) is something to build off of, as well. The bar crowd recognizes those places as viable options, but there should be more done to recreate what Lafayette has on Jefferson in their downtown – on a smaller scale of course.

    I’d like to see some more “outside the box” thinking about downtown, though. The Aces (owned by the United League) wish to build a new baseball stadium and water park in the area. They’re thinking (ho-hum) Highway 28 west. Boring. Downtown ballparks in cities like Memphis, Baltimore, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis are shining examples of what a development of such magnitude built in a downtown area can do for both the stadium tenant and their surroundings.

    Here, we have large swaths of un-used and under-used property in and near downtown, and I’d personally like to see the city steer the ULB/Aces towards the Levee Park area of 3rd Street, proximte to downtown.

    We’re also starting to hear discussions about a new arena for Alexandria. Building an arena anywhere BUT adjacent to the Riverfront Center in downtown Alexandria would be a mistake… a waste of a golden opportunity to give this area a better chance at large-scale trade shows and conventions that most cities our size can’t snag. The city sold off a parcel of 3rd Street to Rapides (ill-advised, I think, but done, now…) for their expansion, so I figure we should go ahead and use the 3rd Street area between Rapides and the Convention Center to build this arena. It should be directly connected to the Riverfront Center, so that both buildings can be used – sometimes at the same time – for large-scale trade shows and/or conventions. Nearby downtown hotels and businesses would benefit from such an arena hosting sporting events (high school, college basketball games, tournaments, possibly minor league basketball and/or hockey), arena-sized concerts (that we’ve frankly had a near-impossible time luring here because we’ve lacked a well-run facility), etc.

    My post is “downtown-heavy,” but these aer all “quality of life” components that keep young professionals here, bring them here, and entice new business and industry as well.

    Seeing re-development of the Bolton/Jackson Street corridor would be nice, as well.

    Just a few thoughts…

    Ron Roberts

  3. “The city sold off a parcel of 3rd Street to Rapides (ill-advised, I think, but done, now…) for their expansion, so I figure we should go ahead and use the 3rd Street area between Rapides and the Convention Center to build this arena.”

    Please explain where this property is. When you leave RRMC and head towards Jackson you are actually on 4th Street. Third Street technically cuts directly through the Holiday Inn and the Parking Garage. These two properties are abounded by 4th, Jackson, and Main.

    There isn’t a vacant section of property on Third Street to connect to the Riverfront Center unless you’re advocating tearing down the Holiday Inn and the Parking Garage. Even if you tore down both, there isn’t enough room for a sports arena to fit between the Riverfront center and the front door to the Cathedral. Somehow, I doubt we’ll be blocking the door to a historic church anytime soon and that a sports arena will sit across the street from it.

  4. I offered Houston an example of suburban sprawl gone bad, not necessarily as an example of smart growth, though I believe they are enacting several measures to increase value in their inner core.

  5. I must admit that I am extremely impressed and delighted that so much discussion is going on about smart growth. Kudos!

    One of the great blessings of the Alexandria/ Pineville area is the amount of wooded area surrounding the city. I read in either Outdoor or Backpacker magazine a few years ago that the Azalea Trail in the National Forest is “One of the Top Ten Most Underrated Trails in America.” Which is nice if you love solitude, because you can walk miles sometimes without seeing another person.

    Alexandria is not too big to bike (or even walk) around when the weather is nice, but as of now either the commute is too far or there is a lack of consciousness. What have people been thinking about creating bicycle lanes in Alexadria or some other kind of public campaign to encourage biking. Alec is not without some traffic problems, and lets face it, biking is good for health and fun!

    Another aspect of smart growth is trying to close the consumption gap: Are there any local community composting gardening initiatives? What about the great secret of recycling?

    These may seem small and irrelevant, but lets face it: young professionals do care about a place’s coolness when they determine a place to move, and gardens, bicycles and recycling are cool these days.

    We need to not only think on the scale of sports arenas and subdivisions, but also about the street corners, alleys and curbs of our beloved city.

    michael smith

  6. One reason we are “blessed” with our national and state forests is because of our timber industry. The golden age of lumbering – 1920-1903 – robbed most of Rapides Parish of every practically every tree. As a result a movement came about to replant and preserve most of this acreage, which is how Kistachies National Forest came out. Caroline Dorman was one of those leading the efforts. To some extent we went too far in preservation – by this I mean we have handicapped certain portions of our parish from having any form of development – residential or commericial – and poor Grant Parish is almost completely covered with National and State forest and will continue to struggle for ways to raise their tax base.

    In regards to recycling – the City tried to recycle years ago. I don’t know that it was implemented correctly. They should probably reconsider and look at the model San Francisco has adopted. If anyone has watched “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery they got a chance to see this. They City collects all paper, plastic and metal on one night of garbage pick up, taking that trash to a sorting station where all is sorted and sold, making money for the City. The following night food and other waste items are collected and taken to a composting facility which is then turned into compost and sold to the wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Alexandria could potentially do the same thing, selling our compost to Forest Hill Nurseries. It would take a fairly large investment to get things started and education of our residents, but could actually assist the Santitation Department in making some money by selling off our garbage.

    Of course, they still have some items which have to go to landfills and those are sorted out and taken from the transfer station.

  7. Thanks for the information on smart growth, Lamar. Lafayette’s downtown is a great example of what can be done in Alexandria. They have a monthly “Art Walk” (we have one once or twice a year) that is generally well attended.

    In my opinion, Alexandria must reconsider instituting a recycling program here as another selling point to attract new residents. The old program failed in part, because of lack of interest/use by the citizens, so education must be a key component.

  8. By the time recyclables are removed from the waste stream, most of what is left can be processed through digesters to yeild natural gas with remaining material being used as fertilizer or landfilled. The point is that our wastestream being landfilled would be greatly reduced while generating revenues to mitigate current expenses. It is being done in many progressive cities throughout the US.

  9. The trick is making it about ownership, people who rent don’t take care of property, people who are given houses don’t take care of them, that is why habitat for humanity works, it is about hard work and ownership.

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