NAHB's Garczynski, Sierra Club's Olson discuss 'smart growth' and development

With environmental groups and real estate developers alike pushing for more densely built, transit-oriented development, has smart growth become part of the mainstream, or is it still a niche segment of the marketplace? Gary Garczynski, former president of the National Association of Home Builders and Eric Olson, director of the Healthy Communities campaign at the Sierra Club look at some of the traditional neighborhood design projects underway in the United States. The two also discuss the recently passed transportation bill, brownfields remediation and the role for state governments on urban planning issues.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Eric Olson. He's the director of the Healthy Communities campaign at the Sierra Club. Also with us is Gary Garczynski. He's the former president of the National Association of home builders. Thank you both for being here.

Eric Olson: Thanks great to be here.

Gary Garczynski: Our pleasure Brian.

Brian Stempeck: Eric, the Sierra Club just came out with a major report looking at some smart growth projects. Talking about examples around the country where you think there is a lot of good work being done. Tell us what kind of characteristics you're looking for as you look at these different communities.

Eric Olson: Sure. Well there's a number of criteria that we looked at. One of those is transportation choices. So it's walkability. It's public transportation access. Also we're looking at mixed use and housing, jobs and retail close together. We're also looking at significant community input into those buildings. So going to the community, finding out what the community wants and trying to deliver that. We feel like those are key components of making sure that development, and actually redevelopment is one of the other key points that we looked at. Rather than developing on green fields, looking at doing infill development and brownfield development.

Brian Stempeck: Give us an example of some of the projects you're talking about. I think there's about 10 different states where you looked at some of the efforts going on.

Eric Olson: Sure, sure. We looked at the whole range of projects from smaller towns to older suburbs to large cities. We looked at things like Atlantic Station in Atlanta, which is a 138 acre brownfield redevelopment. We looked at Fruitvale, which is a transit oriented development in Oakland. We looked at a small place in Massachusetts, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, where right next to a commuter line affordable housing was developed by the city and their redevelopment agency. We looked also at things, Hopkins, Minnesota had an old warehouse which they redeveloped housing in the old parking lot. It was an old torpedo factory actually. And they have new businesses that are developed inside of the warehouse and they have houses just outside. So a lot of the workers actually live in the housing and can walk to work.

Brian Stempeck: Gary same kind of question for you. I mean as president of the Homebuilders you did a lot of work with smart growth yourself. What are the types of characteristics that you look for in looking at these communities that you would choose to kind of point out?

Gary Garczynski: Well, Brian I think one of the chief components of our smart growth policy at the National Association of Home Builders has been to acknowledge the tie in between land use and transportation facilities. I think that's important for any growing metro area, such as the one that I practice in, which is right here in the Washington area. And then tying that down with, translating that into density as well where density is not a four letter word, a nasty four letter word. It's something that can be accepted. We have to do a good job as far as our industry is concerned in making sure that density translates into good design because that's an important component of selling density. So we're looking at that aspect as well. So land use, transportation. Good density developed in the metro areas I think adds to not sprawling. Which I don't think any public association, such as ours, is an advocate of. We want to see that environment protected. We went to see better use of multi-modal transportation systems.

Brian Stempeck: Since the smart growth movement when it came about, starting kind of the early to mid-90s, since then we've heard a lot of talk about traditional neighborhood design. Projects that have popped up all over the country. How far do you think the market has come in terms of private developers saying this is something we're going to offer on a more regular basis?

Gary Garczynski: I think from our industry's standpoint it's almost come 180 degrees because I think the education of the public helped by, the realtors for instance got very involved in smart growth, what the Sierra Club has done, a number of other organizations. We're all talking. We're in dialogue and that's helped. And I think the translation now is how can you start, or take that dialogue and put it into practice? And we're starting to see more and more examples of that around the country. In Washington Metro alone we started the Smart Growth Alliance and in three years since its inception we've already had 12 communities designated as smart growth communities. And that's an example of what I'm talking about, this change that's occurring.

Brian Stempeck: Eric same question to you.

Eric Olson: I think that's right. We are actually seeing a lot more demand for this type of urban infill housing and other mixed use housing and retail than there is supply. And we're seeing a boom in construction, in redevelopment, within our urbanized areas as well is in our older suburbs. I think that that is to be encouraged, although it does have to be done looking at the community and having significant community input. You want to make sure the neighbors help, have input into that process. But there's a lot of demand for housing that is close to jobs. People don't want to be stuck in traffic. I mean that's something that is really driving a lot of people to try and buy within urbanized areas. People want amenities close to home. They want to be able to walk to a restaurant. They want to be able to jump on a transit line and get to work or get to entertainment. So we are seeing a lot more demand than is the supply out there.

Brian Stempeck: Is there concern though that what's being created here is kind of a niche housing? In some of the communities that you mentioned, Manchester-by-the-Sea, this is a very, very wealthy community in Massachusetts. A lot of the projects we've seen are getting kind of a cost premium. I mean you could argue that that's because people want to live there. The demand is going up for it.

Eric Olson: Right.

Brian Stempeck: But at the same time these tend to be very wealthy communities that are built, kind of a niche segment. Is this mainstream or is it just for people who want to have a coffee shop downstairs?

Eric Olson: Right, well one of the things that we looked at in our report, one of the criteria that we looked at, was affordability because we think that's very important, certainly from a social aspect, but also from an environmental standpoint. You don't want to have a segment of the population that has to travel 20, 30, 40 miles in to get to work. You want to make sure that everybody has access to living in quality housing near their jobs. So I would say that in a lot of places that's a concern, that we need to make sure that affordable housing and moderately priced housing are also available in these types of infill developments. And that's something that we stressed in this report. I think almost all of the examples that we looked at have at least some component. And some of them are entirely affordable housing.

Brian Stempeck: Gary.

Eric Olson: Our example in Milwaukee being one of those.

Brian Stempeck: Gary, your thoughts on that question?

Gary Garczynski: I think that the affordability issue or I guess what's in vogue right now is workforce housing, which is all the teachers, the policeman, the firemen. Encouraging them to live within the communities they're serving becomes a real challenge, especially in high cost areas. So the affordable factor has to be a component of the mixed use that we are promoting. And one thing I think we need to make clear though is that we are proponents of mixed use development, infill development and revitalization of older urban areas, but we also want to make sure that there is a balance of housing types still offered. Because let's face it, not everybody wants to live in a high rise by the metro. So we still have to try to incorporate some sustainable concepts into the development of green fields. And I'm not talking about rampant development of greenfields, but when you're offering a single family detached home you still want to be cognizant of open space that you want to preserve or that it's near a transportation system. And still have that balance of housing so that Americans have a choice and it's not just one-dimensional.

Brian Stempeck: Well kind of following up on that, in some states we've seen the government take a pretty strong role, Oregon, Maryland, there's been pretty extensive smart growth programs. What's your reaction to that? I mean is the government out of line -- is this something that the private sector should be doing on its own?

Gary Garczynski: No, I think the governments in the states that you mentioned, I guess Oregon has always been the poster child because of their growth boundaries. And they've have pros and cons about whether they've worked, they've had them then expanded, but there's a partnership here. I mean it can't be all private sector and it can't be all just citizens input period. It's got to be the government, the local government especially, combined with the private sector and the private citizens trying to come up with the compromises that can work and make it a win-win for everyone. Doesn't always happen. For instance, our smart growth alliance designated a site at the Vienna Metro station, which is a major suburb in Washington, D.C., for designation as a smart growth community. Mixed use, high rise and yet we had that backlash from the older citizens of the older neighborhoods. And that's kind of where Eric was talking about taking their input, but not yet blunting their input, but yet not also taking away from what this new community is trying to do. That's the whole challenge that faces our industry today. I think for all of us.

Brian Stempeck: Eric your thoughts on what the government role is here? We also saw a lot of smart growth type programs that are included in the federal transportation bill that just passed Congress recently.

Eric Olson: Sure. Well government does have a role to play in this, state government, but also local government. Local governments of course control the zoning. So there are opportunities for infill development for transit oriented development that I think local governments can designate and work with citizens to work on developing and redeveloping. But in terms of, yes, the larger state policies, I mean it would be great if we could have private industry take the leading role in redeveloping, unfortunately that's not, left to the market that's not all that's happened. But there are a lot of developers that are starting to really focus on redevelopment. And this report really highlights those success stories where developers are doing the right thing by going in and revitalizing neighborhoods, finding sites, brownfield sites or other gray fields, things like that that are being used to the best possible use. So I would just say that ideally, yes, the private sector would be the way. And some are, but government does have a role.

Gary Garczynski: I think one of the things I would also add to that Brian is that we're seeing more and more localities trying to partner with private industry on public/private partnerships. Where maybe an inventory of land that's owned by the locality can all of the sudden be converted into maybe affordable housing, public/private partnership project. And I just, in the past five years I think you can see the geometric progression that's happened on that attempt by local government.

Eric Olson: I think that's right. If I could add one, our example of Tacoma, Washington. The University of Washington, in partnership with local businesspeople and in partnership with the local government, founded an actual campus of theirs in the downtown area. It's really sparked an incredible amount of revitalization by the water. It's sort of an entranceway. It used to be a warehouse district and the place is booming. So that's another real success story and that's highlighted in our Building Better report.

Brian Stempeck: What are the environmental goals you're looking at here? The obvious question I think a lot of people would ask is why is the Sierra Club getting involved in what are essentially housing issues?

Eric Olson: Sure. Well land use has an incredible effect on the environment. And it's everything from transportation, where you have people needing to get to work and reducing commuting times and the commutes of people. Encouraging walkability so that more people are out walking around creating a more vibrant lively atmosphere. And you also look at water quality and water impacts and air quality impacts as well. Those are things, and energy usage. The more compact you develop the less energy you use, the fewer people there are driving. And also the way that you mitigate your storm water, which is something, another thing that we looked at. You can let the green design. You can look at green building. You can look at roof gardens and things like that. But also when you develop out on the fringes of towns you are likely to have an impact on streams and waterways and wetlands are out in those areas. If you're redeveloping aside from what's already been developed, you lessen that effect.

Brian Stempeck: Gary your thoughts on how the housing sector can kind of alleviate some of these environmental problems.

Gary Garczynski: Well I think one of the things that we can do is continue to be advocates for good planning. Our policy is that every community should have a master plan with citizen input, where they sit down and say, all right, and these are the environmentally sensitive corridors. Let's make sure we're protecting them. This is where we can doesn't make growth to happen. And have a plan that had the input of the citizens, that the government then has the impra motto on. And it's not reactionary. It's not all of a sudden somebody won the build on this piece and everybody is throwing their arms up saying, oh, you can't do that. It's environmentally sensitive, after the fact. Let's do it before the fact in good master planning, follow with good support of the infrastructure that takes, for those designated growth areas. Then we're making progress. And that's what we're advocating.

Brian Stempeck: All right. We're out of time. We're going to stop there. Gary and Eric thanks a lot for being here today.

Eric Olson: Thank you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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