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Calling It Smart Growth Doesn't Make It So

June 17, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Remember the 1970s, when the nascent environmental movement spawned an interest in "natural food"? This initially referred to vittles that contained no artificial ingredients and were minimally processed. But soon the corporate food industry co-opted the term and started calling everything "natural," whether or not it was laden with preservatives, fillers, taste-enhancing chemicals and God knows what else.

Thus the term "natural food" lost much of its meaning. The same fate threatens "smart growth." Across the country, developers are starting to use "smart growth" to define whatever it is they happen to be building. It may be happening here, as well.

A Boston public relations firm recently e-lobbied me to do an article about one of its clients, Vespera. The Stamford-based developer is doing three smart growth projects in Connecticut, the publicist said, one in New Milford and two in East Lyme.

One of the Vespera's East Lyme projects is a 150-unit, mixed-income residential development under construction in downtown Niantic, the historic waterfront village. This is indeed a smart growth project. It will have transit options if Niantic gets the train stops it ought to have and is within walking distance to lots of stuff.

The other project - still in the permitting stage - is a 600-unit "active adult" community named for the body of water it will border, Darrow Pond, in the north end of town. Though it will have some smart-growth style points - a mix of housing styles clustered in a village-like design and amenities including a general store and post office - this is not a smart growth project, at least as I understand the term.

Since Gov. Rell is trying to nudge the state toward smart growth, it might be helpful to understand what it means.

According to the Smart Growth Network, a public-private partnership that promotes smart growth (www.smartgrowth.org), the movement is about "restoring community and vitality to center cities and older suburbs," usually by the careful adding of density in town centers and transit corridors. The term can also apply to new development that is "more town-centered, transit- and pedestrian-oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial and retail uses." This usually manifests itself in recreated military bases or neo-traditional "new urbanist" towns such as Seaside, Fla.

The Darrow Pond project is off Route 161, a wooded, still fairly rural, two-lane road. The land, once a farm, is still mostly open space, with woods and fields. There is a separate subdivision of large houses -- Darrow Ridge - going in on one side of the pond as we speak.

Smart growth can't be built everywhere and this isn't a feasible location for it. Residents won't be able to walk to much of anything outside the development - the RV campground down the street? - so will have to drive everywhere. There are no transit options. There are as yet no utilities. There will be one main road in and out, so there isn't much connectivity and traffic may be an issue.

Also, smart growth envisions communities with people of different ages, not age-restricted enclaves, said David Goldberg, communications director of Smart Growth America, a Washington-based advocacy group.

This will be the eighth and largest over-55 community in East Lyme, and will bring the number of age-restricted units to 1,025, according to town officials. The Vespera development proposal in New Milford also is an over-55 community with 445 units. (Are we trying to turn this state into a nursing home?)

There is a real question about whether the over-55 segment of the market is overbuilt. If it is, a lot of these developments are going to be empty in 20 or 30 years, when today's active adults aren't quite as active.

East Lyme's able town planner, Meg Parulis, praised the low-impact, cluster design of the Darrow Pond development, saying it will use only 80 of the approximately 300 acres (including the 50-acre-pond), with the rest being preserved as open space. "It's a step in the right direction" away from large-lot, single-family subdivisions, she said. But she conceded that calling it smart growth "might be a stretch."

Justin Mandelbaum, a principal of Vespera, said his project hits enough smart growth principles - such as open space preservation, some retail, mix of housing styles - to qualify. With a coffee shop, fitness room and clubhouse, "people won't have to get into their cars if they don't want to."

But for a lot of things, they will. Gas in Europe has hit $8 a gallon. Today, design aside, a large housing development several miles from a town center with no pedestrian or transit connection simply cannot be considered smart growth.

Some locals have questioned the size and traffic implications of the Darrow Pond project. Those people might want to look at their zoning map. While there's been a movement in the past couple of years to preserve open space, the town is zoned for sprawl and getting it. It is now or never for a lot of the green space between the shore and Hartford, hence the desperate need for good planning and smart growth. Mandelbaum, a bright young man, said his style of development will save more open space than conventional development. He may well be right. Does that make it smart growth?

Perhaps the term is too vague, because it is being tossed around with increasing abandon. Developers in California are using "smart growth" to describe mega-sprawl projects that meet few if any smart growth criteria, according to a May 30 article in LA Weekly (laweekly.com) by David Zahniser.

He notes that smart growth "emerged in Colorado and in Maryland as a way of protecting open space and curbing Southern California-type sprawl."

"In just a short decade, smart growth has become the chameleon of urban planning, changing its appearance depending on the need of the lobbyist, real estate developer or investor. Politicians use the phrase to quiet angry neighborhood leaders, even arguing that new development will fight congestion, not increase it. Developers insist they are pursuing smart growth simply by adding stores and restaurants to residential projects."

In a way, the exploitation of the term is an indication of the movement's success, Goldberg said. On the other hand, if the term is being misused to attract interest and investment to projects that increase sprawl and otherwise defeat the purposes of smart growth, as Zahniser suggests is happening in California, that is not a good thing.

So, maybe the smart growth people - and the New Urbanism folks as well - need to do what the foodies did. They changed the term to "organic" and created certification standards. That's worked reasonably well.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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