Antidotes to Sprawl Taking
Sunday, October 6, 2002
By Dennis Hevesi
Of the 62 acres purchased two years ago by a
developer in the town of Greenburgh, five miles north of New York City in
Westchester County, only 10 are being developed -- creating 86 attached
homes while preserving the rest as wooded open space.
In Willingboro, N.J., 20 miles south of Trenton, a
bankrupt and abandoned 1950's-style open-air shopping mall surrounded by
what were once the cookie-cutter tracts of the third Levittown development
is being resuscitated as a mixed-use community. The new Willingboro Town
Center will have 210 three-story town houses concentrated in 30-unit
enclaves, a library, a college building, an amphitheater overlooking a
computerized 16-jet fountain, a supermarket, small retail stores and a
pharmaceutical company's vast mail-order distribution plant, all in
walking distance of bus and light-rail connections to Trenton, Camden and
To the roll call of often-conflicting parties
engaged in the development process, both regionally and locally, the
Greenburgh and Willingboro projects are prime examples of ''smart
It is a phrase and a movement and a cause for some
contention -- if only over what truly constitutes ''smart growth'' -- that
in recent years has permeated the dialogue among planners, politicians,
environmentalists and public health advocates, not to mention developers.
It is everybody's remedy, although with varying
doses and ingredients, for sprawl.
In essence, smart growth calls for the creation of
higher-density communities within walking distance of transportation,
shopping, schools and, where possible, jobs; or the redevelopment of
underutilized and sometimes environmentally tainted sites, often in an
urban core. All of which is intended to reduce automobile congestion --
both to and from the suburbs, as well as within a city -- promote walking,
save open space and lower tax burdens by reducing the need for new
And while, like apple pie, it is hard to find
anyone who opposes smart growth, some developers do raise questions: about
the looseness of the definition -- a legitimate concern given government
support for some projects -- about the balance between calls for land
preservation and the incessant need for more housing, and about land-use
restrictions lowering property values, even if they curtail sprawl.
''Sprawl's been criticized for decades, from
social critics dating back to the 1920's to the 1950's when suburban
development really took off,'' said Don Chen, director of Smart Growth
America, a nonprofit advocacy group. ''But even though the problem has
been around for a while, it really has only taken off as an important
political issue and market issue in the last 5 to 10 years.''
In 1998, at a meeting of a group called the Smart
Growth Network in Washington, advocates, planners and developers adopted a
10-point protocol calling for, among other things, ''walkable
neighborhoods,'' a variety of transportation choices, development directed
toward existing communities, compact building design, mixed-use
development and preservation of open space. Soon after, the National
Governors Association adopted the principles.
In recent years, polls conducted by the Federal
Highway Administration and the National Association of Realtors documented
mounting public frustration with automobile congestion.
At the same time, researchers at the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have conducted studies linking
sprawl and traffic congestion to health problems among Americans,
particularly obesity and cardiovascular disease due to lack of physical
activity and fuel particulates in the air. ''Basically, there are concerns
that many health and environmental problems that we face are generated by
the inefficient land-use patterns that market-driven, speculative sprawl
has imprinted on the countryside,'' said Dr. Elliott Sclar, a professor of
urban planning at Columbia University. ''If your kid gets driven to school
every day or if you go through the McDonald's drive-through for your Big
Mac and a milk shake, you're going to have a hard time keeping the weight
For more than a decade, activists say, the New
York State-chartered Empire State Development Corporation and the New
Jersey Department of Environmental Protection have promoted projects
incorporating smart-growth principles -- largely through planning grants
and tax incentives -- a strategy more recently adopted by the Connecticut
State and local initiatives are currently
supporting projects as varied as the reconfiguring of a fishing village on
Long Island, the conversion of an 1856 lock factory in a rundown section
of Norwalk, Conn., into office space -- with new housing on adjacent lots
-- and, on a broader scale, the transfer of development rights from tracts
of privately owned wilderness to parcels already zoned for construction.
Population trends are an impelling reason that
smart growth has increasingly seeped into the development debate. ''If you
see demographics as destiny,'' said Mr. Chen, ''it makes sense that there
was an enormous suburban housing boom in the 50's to accommodate G.I.'s
returning from the war front, and after that baby boomers, to address
overcrowding in cities.''
''Now,'' Mr. Chen continued, ''as our demographic
profile changes, there's increasing interest in in-town living, not only
among young people, but also baby boomers as they become empty-nesters and
start to retire. They see advantages to living in places with greater
sense of community, more convenience. And that trend will be more
pronounced over the next two decades.''
The transformation of the old mall in Willingboro
seems an indicator of the trend.
''It's being converted to a mixed-use town center
where people can live, work, shop, study and walk,'' said Robert Stang,
managing member of Renewal Realty, the developer of the Willingboro
What the developers found when they first surveyed
the site in 1998 was nearly 600,000 square feet of retail space in
abandoned buildings -- including a Woolworth's, a Sears and an Acme
supermarket -- at the core of 56 acres and surrounded by ''a sea of
parking lots,'' Mr. Stang said. Surrounding that were 11,500 single-family
''It was the third Levittown, built in the late
50's,'' Mr. Stang said. ''It's name was changed because it was too close
to the second Levittown, in Pennsylvania.''
The mall had been a retail hub along Route 130 --
until Interstate 295 came through town in the mid-70's. The interstate,
with big-box stores like Home Depot off its exit ramps, ''sucked the
retail out of the Route 130 corridor,'' Mr. Stang said.
His company, Mr. Stang said, paid the previous
owner, who had long tried to attract a brand-name anchor store, $185,000
for all 56 acres. ''I figured I could never get hurt,'' he said. ''It
would always be worth more than that.''
With backing from the town, which took temporary
title to the land, Renewal Realty received a $2 million low-interest loan
to clean up the property. ''The town had title, but we could acquire it
for a dollar after we cleaned it up,'' Mr. Stang said.
Soon after, a master plan was drawn up very much
in line with what Mr. Chen of Smart Growth America says is a growing trend
toward replacing old malls ''with entire P.U.D.'s -- planned unit
developments -- meaning instead of building one house here, one house
there, you build a community with residential, commercial, civic uses.''
Willingboro's mayor, Paul Stephenson, is
enthusiastic about what has arrived and soon will come. Merck-Medco, a
subsidiary of the pharmaceutical company, took over a 100,000-square-foot
existing building, added another 100,000 square feet and after opening its
mail-order center ''brought nearly 1,000 jobs into our community,'' Mayor
Stephenson said. Burlington County College leased 19,000 square feet of
existing space for a satellite classroom building. A supermarket and
smaller retail stores have opened.
''The next piece,'' the mayor said, ''is about 200
housing units that will primarily serve folks who have already raised
their children, looking for transition from a big house to something more
manageable.'' The first homes, for rental and later for sale, will be
completed in about a year.
''Now,'' Mayor Stephenson said, ''we take that mix
and add our own investment -- a library-media center, an amphitheater and
a magnificent fountain.''
''With the advent of the national trend toward
people seeking gathering places within their communities,'' he said,
''this is smart growth right on time.''
The advent has actually been a long time coming.
''Smart growth is certainly a new term,'' said Dr.
Sclar at Columbia, ''but the concern with sprawl -- meaning that the
metropolitan area was growing in an unplanned pattern -- goes back to the
turn of the last century.''
Professor Sclar cited Forest Hills Gardens in
central Queens, built in 1909, as ''basically what the smart-growth people
are hoping to recreate in the 21st century.''
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the
landscape architect of Central Park, Forest Hills Gardens is a 142-acre
community of large homes and row houses -- many bearing the red-tile
roofs, turrets and dormers in the English Tudor style -- lining winding,
tree-arched streets and spacious greenways.
''When you go from Station Square,'' Dr. Sclar
said -- referring to the Olde English town plaza where the Long Island
Rail Road stops -- ''you walk under an archway into the greenway and
there's smaller attached houses, one apartment building and the elementary
school, P.S. 101. Then as you go further into the Gardens, the lot sizes
and houses get bigger.'' One block north of the train station is Austin
Street, lined with almost every conceivable sort of store, and Continental
Avenue, where the subway to Manhattan stops.
''What the smart-growth people are talking about
these days is basically to expand the supply of Forest Hills Gardenses,''
Dr. Sclar said. ''The problem is the regionalists of the last century were
never able to make this the standard, so you ended up with highways, strip
malls, social isolation.''
In 1929, an influential nonprofit group, the
Regional Plan Association, asked Charles Dyer Norton, a famous planner, to
help draft a development strategy for New York City. ''When Norton came to
New York, he realized such a movement here would have to be regional,''
said Thomas Wright, the current executive vice president of the
association. ''You couldn't plan for the city alone and address the
fundamental issues because New York already was starting to function as a
metropolitan region; people were already starting to commute.''
The committee eventually created a comprehensive
regional plan, calling for major investments in infrastructure, open-space
preservation and new communities similar to Forest Hills Gardens. It
included ambitious proposals for highways and railroads.
''The point is that the highways were built much
more quickly than the railroads,'' Mr. Wright said. ''Therefore, we
developed in a more automobile-dependent manner.''
And after World War II, the nation experienced the
suburban boom, fueled by federal policies encouraging home ownership --
the tax deduction for mortgages and the Interstate Highway Act -- ''which
provided enormous funding for building the Interstates,'' he said,
''while, at the same time, mass transit was essentially going bankrupt.''
''How do you undo that?'' Mr. Wright asked. ''How
do you retrofit sprawl to create communities that have the benefits of
open space, diversity, opportunity.''
Some developers have some ideas.
Martin Ginsburg is president of GDC, which has
built about 3,000 homes, most of them town houses, in Westchester,
Rockland and Fairfield Counties. In Greenburgh, N.Y., the company bought
62 acres of green space for $5 million and named it -- appropriately --
''There was a strong movement in the community to
keep it open space,'' Mr. Ginsburg said, ''but they couldn't raise the
money to buy all 62 acres, so we came up with a compromise.'' With
financing assistance from the state, Westchester County and the nonprofit
Open Space Institute, the town bought 42 of the acres to be preserved as
''We ended up developing 86 units on 10 of the
remaining 20 acres,'' Mr. Ginsburg said. ''The result was less
development, but some development, on only 10 of the 62 acres.''
In a more urban setting -- along a rundown
riverfront stretch in Norwalk, Conn. -- Kim Morque's company, Spinnaker
Development, has converted an old lock factory into 104,000 square feet of
''nontraditional office space.''
''It's open; exposed-beam ceilings, brick walls,''
Mr. Morque said. ''Tenants devise their space according to their needs.''
From 1856 to the mid-1950's, the three-story
building was the Norwalk Lock Company. In recent decades, until Spinnaker
bought it for $3.25 million in March 2000, it housed ''small
manufacturers, carpenters, artists, even a sailmaker,'' Mr. Morque said.
''This is smart growth because we are recycling
land, taking industrial sites and brownfields and creating new projects,''
he said. ''And because we're using an existing building, we're utilizing
existing utilities -- water, electrical, sewage -- and not building new
The building is five blocks from the South Norwalk
train station. ''About 250 people work there,'' Mr. Morque said. ''They
can walk to lunch, shop on nearby Washington Street. Many of them live in
Across the street, Mr. Morque said, plans call for
construction of 10 condominiums, 3,000 square feet of commercial and 5,000
square feet of street-level retail space. ''Then we have plans for 200
apartments and a hotel on the site to the east,'' he said.
For Jim Tripp and Eric Kulleseid, two prominent
land-preservation activists in the New York area, Mr. Morque's downtown
Norwalk redevelopment and even Mr. Ginsburg's limited development on 62
acres in Greenburgh are significant examples of smart growth. But their
sights are set on far more ambitious efforts to limit sprawl and protect
vast tracts of open space.
''It may be smart growth on a microscale to
cluster development on a fraction of the parcel and set aside the
remainder for open space,'' said Mr. Tripp, general counsel for
Environmental Defense, a national nonprofit organization. ''But you can
take that notion and look at the whole metropolitan area, much more
macroscale, and ask yourself: what large pieces of land do we want to
protect that are in private ownership, where we could redirect development
to other more appropriate places?''
Mr. Tripp and Mr. Kulleseid, who is the New York
State director of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, believe it is vital
to preserve, among other swaths of wilderness, up to 500,000 privately
owned acres of forest in the undulating highlands that stretch through
northern New Jersey, across the Hudson and into Connecticut, as well as
100,000 acres in Suffolk County called the Long Island Pine Barrens.
Mr. Kulleseid's group is one of a network of
organizations that specialize in finding funds to compensate landowners
who sign easements agreeing never to allow development on their property.
''We need forests and wetlands because they give us clean water, places to
be physical and not just denizens of the local mall,'' Mr. Kulleseid said.
And, viewing forests as akin to lungs, he said, ''They soak up greenhouse
gases and give back oxygen.''
Mr. Tripp of Environmental Defense is also
chairman of the Pine Barrens Credit Clearinghouse, an arm of the Long
Island Pine Barrens Commission. The commission was created by state
legislation to preserve about 100,000 acres of pitch pine and oak forest
in the sandy soil that forms a sort of spine through the Suffolk County
towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southhampton.
Under the plan, two tools are used to protect
privately owned land. One is outright acquisition, for which the county
and state have spent about $100 million. The other is the transfer of
UNDER the transfer program, private landowners in
the core of the Pine Barrens can be allocated development rights based on
the amount of land they own and the applicable zoning. If, for example,
the zoning is one house per acre, the landowner is entitled to one credit,
which can be sold to any developer who owns land where the three towns
have designated a receiving area for higher-density development.
''The developer knows that rather than building
one house for every two acres, for example, he or she could build a house
on every acre,'' Mr. Tripp said. ''What the landowner in the Pine Barrens
must do to obtain this right is record a conservation easement on the
property. They retain the title, but they can't develop it.''
''And this does not cost the public a cent,'' he
said. ''The saving of that land, in effect, has been paid for by
developers who find it economically worthwhile to build higher-density
A bit farther east, at the tip of Long Island's
South Shore, local officials and developers hope to devise a smart-growth
plan for the tiny fishing village of Montauk in the town of East Hampton.
''Growth has been constrained by outdated zoning
and by a single loop road in and out of the dock area,'' said Jonathan F.
P. Rose, president of the Jonathan Rose Companies. Mr. Rose's firm has
been asked to draft a plan ''that allows businesses to grow, creates
housing and rationalizes traffic.''
Rather than allowing development to spread, the
key might be the renovation of a half-dozen ramshackle hotels, said Town
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. ''There's the fishing pier, and right across
from it you have this blighted area, all these boarded-up buildings,'' he
''The community is facing a challenge to provide
adequate housing for workers,'' Mr. Schneiderman continued, ''and one
thought is to create employee housing in this area, and, at the same time,
some new shops and offices. Of course, there would be pedestrian areas,
open space. And there might be apartments over the shops.''
Whatever plan is adopted should retain, said Mr.
Rose, the developer, ''the funky nautical character of the place, and not
make it a sanitized touristy resort.''
Supervisor Schneiderman said, ''All ideas are on