As many of you know, I am somewhat passionate about the panoply of issues known under the umbrella of “smart growth.” In fact, I have written about and posted on smart growth issues so often that it’s its own category on this blog.
I typically don’t post about things I’m working on in my real job and, almost always, shy away from the affairs of the Alexandria city government (unless I am compelled to respond to an egregious, stupid, and irresponsible lie). Despite how others may define my efforts on this blog, I do not speak for anyone other than myself. My other contributors, Sharon Tohline, Drew Ward, and (very occasionally) Daniel Smith, all speak for themselves, as do the nearly 8,000 comments we’ve received during the past three years. None of us get paid for blogging, and we’ve never sold a single advertisement.
That’s not what this is about.
I disclose all of that because I want to share a few things I have grown to appreciate about development in our City. Again, this is just my opinion, and you’re always more than welcome to share yours.
I grew up in a real estate family: Before his death at age 41, my father had developed subdivisions, owned a brokerage firm, managed apartments, condos, and single-family homes, and, as a result, bought and sold a lot of property– the vast majority of which was in Central Louisiana.
Real estate was also his father’s business and his father’s uncle’s business. When my father died, my mother, who had co-owned a real estate brokerage firm with him, took the helm, and today, she remains in the real estate business. By the way, I also went through and passed real estate “school,” though I am not an agent. The profession is in my blood, whether by nature or nurture, and without a doubt, many in my family have had front row seats in watching the development of Alexandria.
I say all of that to get to this: When I criticize “sprawl developments,” I am not criticizing the residents or the developers of those subdivisions. I fully recognize that, at the time these decisions were made, sprawl was the reigning economic paradigm. Banks were lending money for them. Cities were investing in them. Land was cheap. And the promise of a new home on a large lot in a new neighborhood represented the American Dream.
Like many American cities, Alexandria’s growth throughout the past four decades has followed typical sprawl patterns: subdivisions built on the edges of town, disconnected from the urban core and key resources. Alexandria’s growth may not be unique, but it is still remarkable: In forty years, Alexandria’s geographic size tripled, from nine square miles to twenty-seven square miles, while its population remained relatively stagnant.
Some of you have probably heard this before.
In practical terms, this means our tax base stayed about the same, while our service area tripled. Our taxes became spread thin, and basic services, like Police and Fire, were sometimes over-extended. This is one of the reasons that, right now, Alexandria has to build four new fire stations. Because of the way our City grew, many of our existing fire stations are no longer in the right locations. If we decide not to make this investment, our fire rating will decrease, which means that insurance rates for everyone will increase.
Incidentally, Alexandria’s expansion was partially funded by our tax dollars. Despite what may have been argued at the time, Alexandrians spent tens, if not hundreds, of millions of tax dollars building out this sprawl infrastructure: roads, sidewalks, golf courses, parks, schools, libraries, utility lines, drainage, sewage, and much more. Many of these developments have improved and added value to our community, but if we are honest in assessing Alexandria’s growth and landscape, we must acknowledge the extent to which our taxes have been used to promote development on the edges of town at the expense of areas with existing infrastructure.
We must also acknowledge that our resources are limited. When we elect to spend millions of dollars building infrastructure on the edges of town, we are also limiting the amount of money we can spend in existing neighborhoods, oftentimes money that is desperately needed: money for fire stations, police substations, roadway improvements, parks, and drainage– all of the things that make a City worth living in.
Again, Alexandria is not unique: Sprawl was the reigning paradigm in American planning and development for over a generation.
But Alexandria is remarkable: We grew in size but not in population. For most cities, sprawl was a reaction to seismic population growth; sprawl development was haphazardly planned because the pace of population growth required immediate attention. There simply wasn’t enough time for neighborhood charettes (planning meetings) or comprehensive future land use plans; there wasn’t even a recognition of the long-term value of strategic planning. Cities grew because they had to grow, or so they thought.
This has never been the case in Alexandria. Alexandria did not triple in geographic size in forty years to accommodate a massive influx of new residents. We didn’t sprawl because we had to; we sprawled because we could— cheap land, government assistance, and a market of hungry demand for new suburbia. And when you add to that all of the social and cultural upheavals of the time, you may conclude that our decision to create new and somewhat isolated neighborhoods was, in part, a reaction to those movements.
What does it mean when a City grows in size but not in population?
To me, it indicates a City that is moving away from itself, and in today’s America, successful cities are those that recognize and celebrate the value of an inclusive community.
What does it means when a City spends tens of millions of dollars to expand its limits while much of its existing infrastructure continues to be underutilized and underfunded?
To me, it indicates a City that does not have its priorities straight, a City without a vision and without clear plan for the future.
Demand has changed in our country. The American Dream is no longer exclusively defined as a quiet life on a large lot in a big house near a big city. Baby Boomers are entering retirement and wanting to get closer to their families and basic resources. Young people are no longer as wedded to the car as they are to a specific community, which means, in practical terms, that if we are to attract a younger workforce, we must invest and cultivate a cohesive and unique community.
This aren’t pie-in-the-sky abstractions. According to a recent study, the average age of our Central Louisiana’s workforce will reach retirement in less than three years. This is an alarming statistic that reinforces the need for workforce development, training, recruitment, and a full-fledged, multi-organizational effort in diversifying Central Louisiana’s employment portfolio. Unless we locate new knowledge-based jobs here in Alexandria, we will continue to lose manufacturing jobs by attrition, retirement, or out-sourcing at a steady pace, which will ultimately increase overall unemployment rates and cause additional burdens on the public.
Critics who oppose inner-city reinvestment or downtown revitalization efforts are quick to say that the public’s investment should always follow the private sector; they argue that the “free market” should dictate the public’s investment in infrastructure. Unfortunately, however well-intentioned these critics may be, they fail to acknowledge the significant public subsidization of those so-called “free market” developments.
Today, we know empirically that communities who neglect their historic districts and corridors are at a competitive disadvantage.
The private-sector, particularly in this new knowledge-based economy, is more attracted to and more likely to invest in communities that invest in themselves, communities who recognize the tremendous value of a “sense of place.” Put simply, anyone who suggests that Downtown/inner-city reinvestment is somehow “socialistic” hasn’t seen the empirical data or the figures on local public investments in other areas .
Two hundred years ago, Alexander Fulton and Thomas Harris Maddox first settled and planned Alexandria for a reason: its strategic location on the Red River and in the geographic center of the State of Louisiana. Alexandria’s Downtown was not constructed on a random intersection of two state highways. It was built before the age of the automobile, on the banks of the Red River, on some of the most valuable and viable land in the entire region.
Alexandria’s historic residential neighborhoods were originally developed along a public trolley line, not along an Interstate. Neighborhoods were built to scale. They were meant to be walkable, and you didn’t have to own a car just to get around.
(Part Two: What’s Your Point, Lamar?)