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?)

9 thoughts

  1. Lamar,

    If you want to describe the period covered, which roughly approximates my lifespan, as a good example of “dumb growth”, I can wholeheartedley agree.

    In fact, I was born at Cabrini Hospital in 1967. Although my father was born and raised in Tioga, until I was three years old we lived at one of the small houses that used to stand near the Willow Glen overpass. There was a truck stop there, and a handful of smallish houses, and they remained until 10 to 15 years ago when all of that has been cleared (I guess it was the interstate that drove that).

    However, in my memory that was the edge of the city then, and, again, my impression is it’s the edge of the city now. I have noted sprawl in lots of other places, though. With a stagnant population, I would have preferred the city focus on improving from the inside out. When “Main Street” was abandoned in favor of suburban malls in the 70s, it seemed like Alexandria couldn’t wait to allow urban blight to consume the old downtown. Now, other than lawyer’s, title companies, government and those that exist to support them, there is nothing downtown.

    The fact that we have(?) a uniquely historical business, relatively speaking, the Bentley Hotel, that could not ask for a better location in a downtown setting, and Alexandria through at least a half-dozen Mayors (and Ned, G-d bless him had a lot of strengths, but, and he is not alone, this issue is not one of them) has been unable to anchor and rebuild is beyond me.

    When I actively practiced law in Alexandria, my wife used to work in the Commercial Building, then later at the Town Talk, so I was very near the city center often. I saw a lot of road work, but little else. The hospital seems to be able to get done what it needs, but others have difficulty.

    The parking problem, downtown, is at least 15 years old. What about a multi-story parking garage owned and operated (or at least leased out) by the city to serve as a conduit for growth? Grants or other city financing help for gentrification of downtown homes? It looks like Dan Brenner’s house is an island in the wilderness.

    There are simple things that can be done, and done relatively inexpensively. However, it needs to be spent with an eye towards recapping the cost, at least mid-term. Social improvement for it’s own sake or wealth redistribution schemes are not going to do it. “Smart” growth, needs to be smart.

    1. Ace–

      Thank you for your comments. You and I are in complete agreement.

      There are tangible economic benefits to properly planned smart growth, and as you imply, any time the public spends its money on infrastructure, it needs to expect a return on its investment. It’s difficult for some people to fully grasp this concept, because the “returns” we receive in infrastructure investment must be measured and tracked in a number of ways– property values, sales tax revenues, crime rates, job creation, etc.

      It should never be about “redistributing wealth;” it should be about creating wealth. (And the wealth created by infrastructure investments should far exceed the costs of those investments).

      Also, as you point out, Alexandria never really sprawled around the Lower Third/Willow Glen area, though we did annex a significant area of land south of those neighborhoods.

      With respect to the Hotel Bentley, in my opinion, the problem actually seems to have less to do with politics and more to do with creating a model for long-term sustainability. I believe the value of the Bentley as a mixed-use facility will prove to far exceed any potential value of the Bentley as a single-use hotel. And remember, until somewhat recently, the kind of mixed-use solutions I am suggesting were very rare and untested. Today, we have empirical data and examples from all over the country of how a mixed-use reuse can succeed.

      There is no doubt that parking is an issue, and it should be a top priority in any redevelopment model. Some people say we have enough parking downtown, but that it’s just in the wrong places. Even if that is the case, it’s still a problem. (But thankfully, it’s a problem that can be easily solved with a well-positioned parking garage, as you point out).

      Regarding the gentrification of downtown housing: There aren’t many government programs that would allow public dollars to be spent on someone else’s private property (and for a good reason, I think), but there are opportunities available for low-interest loans– and, of course, if your home is old enough and meets other eligibility requirements, you can qualify for state and federal historic tax credits. (Also… and this is something not many folks realize… if you own property in the Downtown Development District, which is basically all of House District 26, you qualify for five to ten years of property tax abatements, which means that your property taxes can be frozen at pre-improvement levels for five to ten years. In practical terms, this means that if you decide to buy a house downtown and renovate it, you won’t have to pay additional taxes on the value you added to the home through renovations).

      Just some food for thought.

  2. I want to start this by saying that I speak from a place of complete inexperience. I don’t know many of the technical ins and outs of city development, so I’m coming from a position of strict idealism – championing what I’d LIKE to see happen, no matter how complicated it might be to achieve. I have ALWAYS, always hated sprawl. Cities with large sprawl give me a choking feeling in my gut for reasons I’ve never quite been able to explain, and so it’s nice to have someone who actually knows whereof they speak (thanks, Lamar!) championing the end of sprawl.

    To add a point to the discussion, another downside of sprawl for a city like Alexandria that ought to strive to maintain its position as a major city in Louisiana is the loss of a young population. More than any generation before (i.e., the boomers or the WWII era), Gens X and Y have been altering the notion of “family” in America. We no longer necessarily rely on our spouses, children, or parents alone for a sense of family. We have expanded that definition to include our friends and communities in a bigger way than ever before. Sprawl and its mate, suburban-living, are patterns based on a very traditional, nuclear definition of family. Those forms of city planning suggest that we should be content in our little suburban houses with our little suburban families. But many young people are finding themselves discontented with the suburban standard. More and more we are seeking cities and neighborhoods that allow us to socialize easily with friends and neighbors, that allow us to leave our houses/apartments and interact frequently with our community.

    I’m a person who has relocated A LOT in my life, often on my own, with no family or significant other in tow. And everywhere I lived a single person, out on my own, I sought out neighborhoods that felt like little cities in-and-of themsleves. And so did the people I encountered. I didn’t have family with me, and so my neighborhood became my family. This theory worked marvelously in compact places, and terribly in areas with large amounts of sprawl (especially Dallas. I really really didn’t like Dallas.)

    The point I’m going round-about-town to make is that if Alexandria’s young people are anything like those I’ve encountered, many of them will be marrying at older and older ages, having kids later, forming nuclear families later than previous generations. And when they look for a sense of community to stand as a family, it will be more difficult for them to find here than in an area where they can live in tightly-packed housing and high-rise apartments with local shops and restaurants within a stone’s throw and a few minutes’ walk.

    When we sprawl too much, we risk alientating those whose lifestyle doesn’t fit with the idea of suburban life. And that means we may los a good number of our younger generation.

    Can’t wait to read Part Two, Lamar. Also, for anybody who’s curious, here’s a link to an L.A. Weekly article about Los Angeles’ experience with smart growth, and the challenges they’ve faced. Ace, you remind me of it when you mention that “smart” growth should be, in fact, smart. http://www.laweekly.com/2007-05-31/news/what-s-smart-about-smart-growth/ See if you can spot the obvious cameo by one of your own local bloggers (i.e., me)!

    1. Sharon,

      I think Lamar’s point is not so much anti-sprawl, as it is the City’s role in the sprawl. I think that he agrees (and I do) with “necessary” sprawl, associated with an expanding population, and sprawl that is done with private money. I would hope that there’s little heartache with that kind of “sprawl”, even though you and I (and maybe Lamar) may dislike the effects of that kind of “sprawl”.

      And I hope I’m not putting words in Lamar’s mouth, but I think the problem that he has identified is that the forty years of sprawl have been, 1.) Unnecessary or “luxurious” sprawl, so to speak, and 2.) Supported by the government.

      There are finite resources (U.S. federal budgetary policy over the last, coincidentally 40 years, notwithstanding), even if there were a society without currency or without a functioning economy. If a clan, tribe, village, stone-age extended family unit, whatever – had a quantity of stone. They had enough to build either a temple, or a common building to store grain, fruit, nuts, etc. for leaner times. Basic economics requires them to make a decision as to which is more important.

      Governments using taxpayer money have to make these same tradeoffs. And, like Lamar is saying, the city is forced with choosing between a lower fire rating and building new fire stations. Nobody is against new fire stations, per se, and there would really be no problem with it at all, if it were a response to a growing tax base. The problem is, essentially the same number of people that were contained in 9 square miles in 1970 are spread out over 27 square miles now. So EVERYTHING provided by the city, electricity, water, roads, police and fire (the big 5), and all of the city responsibilities, including traffic engineering, inspections/permitting, just a whole myriad of things, are now spread out over an area triple in size. I don’t know if the commercial/industrial base has grown at all over the forty years, and subjectively, it seems so, but almost certainly not to a level that supports the increased demand by this “dumb” growth.

      I’m a free market guy. However, the government has enabled this “sprawl” by blithely going along with plans that, while they weren’t anti-growth, they weren’t particularly pro-growth, either. I believe it was done with good intentions (heck, everybody was doing the same thing in the 70s and 80s), but then again, that’s how the road to hell is paved.

      (Really, the only solution is a sledgehammer. Starting with the most remote neighborhoods, they’ll have to be given ultimatums: Help us get the revenue up, to cover the increased cost of servicing these remote areas, or you’re out. You’ll be in unincorporated Rapides Parish, or in newly formed towns in 3-5 years. But, nobody heard me say that.)

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. Living a block from Bolton Avenue, we get a lot of flack from our friends for living here, but I feel that these older neighborhoods will experience a surge of interest. Most of the garden district is walkable. It would be better if Elliott and Jackson weren’t two main corridors into downtown, and Monroe wasn’t the only street you could access Rapides Hospital from, because the traffic is horrendous.

    I drove to a friend’s house yesterday. She lived way out past Libuse, but had a Pineville address. Pineville to me has a HUGE sprawl. Maybe even larger than Alexandria. How do they cope with that? Are Alexandrians moving out to Pineville? There are so many new neighborhoods way out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t see how Pineville does it.

    “Loft Living, Alexandria, La” is a term that is googled a lot and readers land on my blog due to the one or two posts where I have talked about persons in Alexandria converting old buildings into a loft living space. I have heard several of my friends say they would live in downtown Alexandria if there were lofts available. I guess it is a matter of getting investors. Someone needs to talk to Teddy Price and tell him what he needs to do with the old Weiss and Goldring bldg.

    I think a lot of the problem in buying older homes or commercial buildings to turn into lofts is that you have to be a millionaire and have cash up front. Even though both my husband and I are both gainfully employed, have a VERY good credit rating and a small debt to income ratio, we still had a hard time financing this house. Instead, they preapproved us for an astronomical sum for a NEW house/new construction loan. On this house, the bank was balking due to its. I also had a hard time insuring this house. I finally went through the State’s program, Louisiana Citizens, because no one else would insure me. After we cleared the hurdle of buying the house, two years, and many repairs later, we were ready to take out a small construction loan and finish the outside and some remodeling on the inside. The bank would not loan us the money because the appraiser said even after we were finished our remodeling, due to the age and because of where our house is located, it would not appraise for much more than what it appraises for now, unrepaired. So, the bank said, why should I loan you the money if it does not improve the appraisal value of your house? There are not really many comparables in this area. Not everyone has a 3,300 square foot house on Monroe Street. For the remodel work, we are talking about a full scale kitchen and bathroom remodel, exterior paint and new HVAC (items that SHOULD make the value of your house go up) SOOOOO, there are your problems in a nutshell. The first couple problems usually make people run the other way and that is why young people are not investing in this area….they do not have the cash up front. If you find someone who does, they are not interested in investing any of it in this area of town if it does not make them a quick buck (like slumlording).

    I was approved for tax credits, but I have to spend at least $20,000 a year (cash) before I get the credit. Problems, problems, problems. I think if it were easier, people would do it. A lot of older homes are for sale right now in this neighborhood. Some local bank needs to put together some special financing program specific for this area.

    Andrea

    1. Andrea,

      I’m a North Rapides guy, for nearly 40 years. A lot of those Pineville addresses are according to the Post Office, only. All of Tioga and Ball, really all of Ward 9, 10 and parts of 11 were Pineville addresses until recently. Now, the big growth down Highway 28E (and that’s really, wicked sprawl, just in the past 8-10 years) will all have Pineville addresses, but much of that unincorporated Ward 9(if there’s any of that left) , and Ward 11.

  4. Thanks to all of you for your insightful comments.

    Ace, you and I are in complete and total agreement. For many folks, living in a nice house with a big lot in a sprawl development is ideal. It’s a lifestyle choice, and while it may not be a choice that I would make, as long as there is a market for these homes and money to be made, people will continue to build these developments.

    The real issue, at least for those of us in Alexandria, is the extent to which the government subsidizes those new developments at the expense of investing in its existing infrastructure. As I stated in the original post, sprawl, for most cities, was, in large part, a reaction to population growth, but that was not the case in Alexandria.

    Sharon, it seems like you got a lot of quality reading done while riding the bus in Los Angeles. Your point is also well-taken. You and I are members of the Millennial Generation, and on the whole, our generation is more transient and more prone to settle and invest in communities that are built to scale.

    And Andrea, your experience underscores a fundamental problem with the banking industry: It’s often easier to secure a loan for a large-lot single family home in suburbia than it is in the inner-city.

    Why?

    Because banks, just like the government, have been in the business of sprawl for well over a generation. Banks have also invested billions of dollars in sprawl developments; it’s a business they know and a formula with which they are familiar.

    The tide is turning, though, and as smart growth investments continue to pay dividends, banks are now paying much more attention. (Of course, it’s not easy to get a loan for anything in our current economy).

  5. I also grew up on the north side of the river and moved back there recently after short stints in Alexandria and Woodworth. Much of the “sprawl” in Pineville is not really in Pineville per se. The majority of the development is occurring in the unincorporated areas of the Parish that have no zoning laws whatsoever. Many of these subdivsions are later annexed into the City of Pineville because Pineville wants the tax revenue. Unfortunately though, most of these developments have inferior infrastucture and don’t generate enough taxes to offset the costs of providing the services they need such as fire and police protection, garbage pickup. animal control, and a host of others. Alexandria has similar problems. Cities can enact all of the “Smart Growth” policies they want, but this problem will not be solved until the growth policies of the Parish and Cities are more logicly synchronized and we toss out euclidian zoning and replace it with community based planning.

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