Downturn gives planners chance to push smart growth

    From Monday’s City Paper…

    Real estate development has slowed to a crawl. With the economy in a recession and banks being tight-fisted, most developers have no choice but to sit on their hands.

    One local developer said last week he’s focusing his brokerage business because development is just too risky now. Others are laying the groundwork for when things begin to turn. When that will happen is anyone’s guess.

    The flip side to idled bulldozers: Advocates of "smart growth" now have an opportunity build a better framework that guides growth when begins to move again.

    For a decade, various summits, charettes and other discussions on planning at local and regional levels have tried stemming the tide of Middle Tennessee sprawl. The common refrain was, "We don’t want to look like Atlanta."

    Cumberland Region Tomorrow formed in 1999 to educate local governments and to help encourage policy changes that would significantly reduce land consumption. At that time, the region was on pace to eat up 356,000 acres with mostly low-density development outside the urban core. Such growth comes with costs both direct — for the infrastructure of roads and utilities — as well as indirect, in terms of air and water quality.

    Hundreds of Middle Tennesseans participated in planning workshops to develop scenarios that would reduce land that consumption to 91,000 acres. The crux of their thinking was to create density nodes, otherwise known as urban centers, with a lot of green between them. Feeding into that system would be alternative forms of mass transit.

    There’s been a modicum of success. Several dense, urban-style developments have popped up in Franklin and Nolensville, for example. But wholesale change has been elusive, mostly because words have been difficult to translate into action.

    The chief impediment has been development itself. Smart-growth advocates couldn’t move as quickly as developers and cities couldn’t simply halt development to implement new policies.

    Local governments were in a predicament as well. They would agree that sprawl wasn’t the way to go but they were faced with the need to expand their tax bases or lose those dollars to neighboring communities.

    In a sense, more development was needed to help pay for the costs of previous development. It was a tough cycle to break and local government officials couldn’t give much more than lip service to the idea of "smart growth."

    That’s all changed now.

    For its part, Cumberland Region Tomorrow is moving forward with an agenda for 2009 that focuses on regional mass transit and how it fits in with the planning that the group advocates. Leaders are organizing a summit next April to focus on regional transit, bringing together government and business leaders to look at establishing a plan.

    Mass transit dovetails with the concept of density nodes. More than roads, a mass transit system can be the backbone for the ideas CRT has been encouraging and provide developers future opportunities to build.

    Over the past year, local government and transportation officials have been working toward a new mass-transit plan. A five-year vision could be ready by the end of the year and a dedicated funding source will be put in place to operate existing systems as well as fund improvements.

    Bus rapid transit, a system that uses dedicated lanes on existing roads, likely will be the initial focal point. It’s less costly than building light rail but also may work better in certain corridors than rail.

    Bridget Jones, CRT’s executive director, says the goal is to position the region so that it can obtain federal dollars when they become available.

    "It’s all coming together beautifully," Jones said.

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