Thursday, August 27, 2009

Growth Management: An Exercise In Futility?

We constantly hear reams of blather about minimizing sprawl by densifying urban centers, but when you get down to it people living in those urban centers don't want changes that affect their 'neighborhood character' and their 'quality of life'.

So, are the concepts of sprawl and infill mutually exclusive?
Are the real games being played 'drive until you qualify' and 'somebody else's problem musical chairs'?

Lot's of folks get excited about these discussions, but the answer almost always means 'somebody else' gets to shoulder the responsibility, an externalization that has become ludicrous.
No one benefits from this constant 'push-me-pull-you' exercise, except maybe those cynics who enjoy seeing incessant senseless turmoil that is almost always non-productive.

Just look at the planning efforts that have been undertaken for years.
How many have realized what was intended?
How many have become dusty, forgotten and expensive shelf art?
Mostly they seem to be palliatives and placebos that do reflect some desirable outcomes, but lack the commitment -and teeth- to meet the objectives intended.

And, after repeated failings to produce results that seem reasonable, fair and predictable, who can be faulted for losing confidence in the process used to determine these growth planning exercises?

Bellingham's current debate with Whatcom County about what proportion of projected growth it should plan to accommodate is just the latest example.
Whatcom County thinks the City ought to do a better job of infilling existing neighborhoods, and -of course- they are correct.
But, do these folks have a clue as to what that simple concept entails?
I don't think so!

If you think existing neighborhoods are likely to willing embrace significant new density, there is a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.
Of course, there are exceptions; high-rise buildings in downtown areas; redevelopment areas like the waterfront; newly annexed areas -accepted on the condition of urban levels of development are the main three that come to mind.
Yet, each of these also has hurdles to negotiate.

• Downtown becomes an attractive living place for folks who like walking to work, shopping and entertainment, and who don't opt for home and lawn maintenance.
Then, there's the little matter of high-rises impacting someone else's view and/or solar access. Otherwise, they are creating a new neighborhood character that is inherently denser and vertical.

• Redevelopment sites like the Waterfront require major investments from public and private funds, and they take time to materialize. Until necessary cleanup, construction and connections are settled, these sites wont likely be fun places to work, live, shop or recreate, all of which make infill uncertain. But, a new neighborhood character will eventually emerge that will utilize access to our shoreline and conveniently connect with the existing downtown.

• Newly annexed areas that are zoned for urban development also must be built in phases and require transportation corridors to connect them with existing urban centers. But, that can certainly be done even though some may think it strange that it happens on the outskirts of the City. Just think of all those ancient and medieval towns where abrupt walls were all the rage to keep out the barbarians and protect the residents! Since there is no existing neighborhood, its character gets a chance to be created, and its density can be determined with more certainty to be urban.

• Of course, there are a few areas that already exist within the City where significant infill is not only possible, but logical.

Several years ago, the Birch Street development was approved with the potential for its maximum allowable 176 new dwelling units, providing a second, full-time access road was provided. That process was painful, particularly to existing neighbors who had grown accustomed to relative quiet and uncongested living next to a forested area that they, or the City, did not own.

REMIND you of another place? Chuckanut Ridge? If the City doesn't allow infill where zoning allows it, then the County is right in its assessment that more land supply is wasteful and unjustified. But, the County can't force the City to take infill, just like the County can't force itself to prevent rural sprawl.

Recently, a number of articles on Crosscut have addressed this issue, using Seattle and its surrounds as examples.
Readers may enjoy links to some of these treatises, especially today's piece by Douglas MacDonald entitled Our region is losing the race against sprawl on the related transportation issue.

Other Crosscut links are Dense, denser, densest and
Why Seattle won't grow as fast as planners say

The close connection between Transportation and Growth Planning is well established, at least in principle.
The problem is in actually understanding and achieving what is meant by concurrency.
To that end, I'm pleased that the City of Bellingham has now bought into the idea of a Transportation Commission to advise it on how best to fully utilize the Transportation tools it has in planning for future growth.

The Herald's article 'Bellingham seeks applicants for new Transportation Commission' explains this idea further.
I'm glad the City has decided to go forward with more focus on Transportation Oriented Development, as was discussed over 2 years ago.
I may even apply myself for one of the 9 seats envisioned.