Sunday, August 29, 2004

The slow-growth paradox

Chapel Hill News editor Ted Vaden writes today about the Town Council's downtown redevelopment project. The project, which has been contemplated for years, seriously got under way last fall when the town hired John Stainback as development consultant. He hired ERA to do a market demand analysis, and with that in hand, the town is now actively planning to redevelop two downtown parking lots into residential/retail space while also adding four floors of residential space to an existing parking deck. The number of housing units planned is around 300. If all goes according to the best plan, the project will also include a transit transfer center for Chapel Hill Transit. The square footage of the combined proposed project, about 750,000, is huge by Chapel Hill standards--about the size of the controversial Meadowmont, Vaden estimates.

Vaden is surprised that this particular Chapel Hill council is moving ahead--and so quickly--with such a large-scale development, since most of us "were elected on slow-growth platforms." But there is not really a contradiction here.

In its comprehensive plan of 2000, Chapel Hill adopted a strategy of environmentally responsible growth that involves encouraging density where density is appropriate (downtown and in certain other identified corridors) while vigorously protecting the surrounding environment. Our urban services boundary, a progressive land use tool that greatly restricts growth in the areas surrounding the town, is a key component of this strategy.

The Sierra Club is actively engaged in fighting sprawl through promoting dense urban development, because it understands the environmental issue.

Scientists studying the future of our planet tell us that

Increasing urbanization should . . . help the environment. Almost all of the extra three billion or so people expected by midcentury will live in or around cities, according to studies by the United Nations and the National Academy of Sciences. City dwellers tend to use energy and other resources more efficiently, and have less direct impact on untrammeled landscapes like forests.

Just building density alone is not enough. It has to be combined with serious efforts to change transportation systems and conserve energy and preserve the surrounding environment. Chapel Hill is trying to do all of that, too--trying, in its own way, to become an ecocity. It's going to be a long struggle, and the odds seem stacked against success. But this is the lofty goal behind what may seem like just one more mega-development.

No comments: