Yes! Weekly's Jordan Green tries to build a case that Greensboro's sprawl is being driven by powerful real estate interests that unduly influence city council members with campaign contributions. There's a lot of good reporting about who contributes to whom, and who voted for what, and I'm glad that someone in the local press was willing to do that kind of legwork.
But Jordan got some things wrong. He wrote,
Does sprawl suck the economic energy out of struggling inner urban areas, drain city services such as police and fire, and saddle Greensboro with ever-widening concentric circles of gray fields and blight? Snippets of comment from city council meetings and various formal reports provide half answers, but city planners and elected officials show little engagement with the problem. [emphasis mine]That is just plain inaccurate. City planning staff is intensely engaged with addressing sprawl by encouraging infill and inner-city development, and Green would have found this out if he had talked to city planning director Dick Hails or comprehensive planner Heidi Galanti. He also could have talked to Andy Scott, Dan Curry, or Sue Schwartz in Housing and Community development, who have been successfully pushing urban redevelopment for over a decade. Green's only interaction with planning staff seems to have been an e-mail from planner Ben Woody.
Here's a rundown of what I know about city staff activities in this area.
Planning staff tried to encourage compact development right after the city's comprehensive plan was adopted by recommending against rezonings that went against the plan's future land-use map. But the developers cried foul, and the city council told staff to cut it out.
Planning and HCD staff conceived and carried out the Ole Asheboro, East Market corridor, Willow Oaks, and the Southside redevelopments. Southside won a national smart growth award. Staff has recently worked through the South Elm redevelopment plan, and received federal grants to clean up brownfields there, and are now turning their attention to the High Point Road corridor.
They worked with neighborhoods and developers recently to devise a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay ordinance, which is designed to protect older neighborhoods from decay and inappropriate development. They developed neighborhood plans in Lindley Park and Aycock. They are currently working with developers and ordinary citizens to write a set of downtown design guidelines to make sure that continued downtown development is on the right track.
And city staff have been working with consultants, developers, and citizens for over a year and a half to rewrite the city's land development ordinance, which will have elements that allow developers new options in building mixed-use projects, as well as new protections for older, inner-city neighborhoods. (Disclaimer: I'm a member of the advisory committee that is working through the new draft ordinance.)
Obviously, I think it's wrong to lay the problem of sprawl at the feet of a disengaged city staff.
I also think it's wrong to lay it at the feet of elected officials or of real estate developers. I think Marlene Sanford of TREBIC got it right when she said,
The challenge has not been that we won't propose higher densities. The challenge is that when we propose higher densities there's a neighborhood revolt and the densities get negotiated down. It's schizophrenic. You can't be against both density and sprawl. You have to pick one.Developers are eminently practical people: they want to build what people want to buy. It wasn't developers or planners who opposed two recent infill projects: it was neighborhoods.
We have sprawl because we want sprawl.
Recommended reading: Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann.
Update: Hoggard reports a conversation on rezonings with the Greensboro real estate industry's most successful advocate, Mark Issacson.