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Letter: Smart Growth For Alexandria

To the Editor:

Many Alexandrians are worried that more development inevitably means more traffic and a less desirable city. That’s an easy conclusion to draw when you look at the result of bad planning decisions here and elsewhere.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Through my work as a transportation policy professional, I have learned about hundreds of jurisdictions all over the U.S. and the world that have committed themselves to the principles of “smart growth.” When done right, smart growth can mean new development and redevelopment that results in less traffic and an improved quality of life. If it is combined with a truly interactive public participation process, it can present a way to give Alexandria a brighter future with broad community support.

There are other names for the smart growth approach, including “the new urbanism”, “urban villages”, and what the Obama Administration calls “livable communities.” But they all involve certain core principles, including:

  • “mixed-use development,” mixing a variety of housing choices with commercial and retail spaces so residents and workers can walk to a lot of what they need;

  • “transit-oriented development,” providing attractive and convenient transit options to those residents and workers so they don’t always have to drive to more distant destinations;

  • “complete streets” that welcome pedestrians and bicyclists, wheelchairs and strollers and produces streetlife that makes neighborhoods safer; and

  • “place-making,” creating public spaces that people actively enjoy.

Smart growth development greatly increases the value of that property. That increased value can be “captured” to pay for transit and other improvements in that area and throughout the city.

I am not proposing a subway in Alexandria, but Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor generates half of Arlington’s tax revenues from 11 percent of its land, and traffic counts in the Corridor are less than they were in the 1970s. Arlington’s smart growth in that Corridor was good for the Corridor and for the rest of the County.

In Alexandria, some people use the term “smart growth” when they really mean “growth that isn’t stupid.” We are getting better at real smart growth: both the Potomac Yard development and the Beauregard Corridor small area plan honor its principles to a large extent. But Alexandria needs to really commit itself to smart growth in the way Arlington, Washington, D.C., the entire State of Maryland and hundreds of other jurisdictions have done.

That would mean integrating our land use and transportation planning. Instead, we have two silos: In the planning silo, transportation is often an afterthought. In the transportation silo, the land use impacts of transportation choices is not part of their job description.

Instead, transportation choices should often be the earliest and most important choices in planning because those transportation choices can drive the rest of development. Highway construction induces sprawl. Rail transit construction induces transit-oriented development.

Smart growth is more environmentally sustainable because it reduces automobile usage. It especially benefits seniors and lower-income residents who don’t want to depend on cars to get anywhere. It also presents great opportunities for affordable housing.

Smart growth also fits well with a more inclusive, interactive public participation process. Instead of focusing on public meetings where staff and citizens make speeches, the City could implement smart growth through real dialogue with citizens, utilizing new technologies through comment sections with on-line City documents, webinars, blogs and electronic town meetings. Alexandria is blessed with so many well-informed citizens with real expertise who should have more opportunities to contribute to the development of City plans when they have the time to do so.

Smart growth presents a new way to look at Alexandria’s future with optimism instead of anxiety. It is an approach that has proven itself hundreds of times over. When combined with an interactive public process, it would enable Alexandria to handle development pressures in a way that reduces traffic and enhances our quality of life with the understanding and support of its citizens.

Tim Lovain

Alexandria