Guest comment: 20 years in, still lots of smart growth work to do

The Coalition for Smarter Growth celebrated its 20th anniversary last week at an event that captured the diverse coalition helping to shape a more sustainable path for regional growth. Founded in 1997 by the D.C. region’s leading regional conservation groups, CSG today partners with housing, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian groups, neighborhood activists, the development, architecture, and planning sectors, and local governments to promote mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented development.

We’ve supported millions of square feet of development and tens of thousands of housing units in smart growth locations. We’ve also pressed for the policies necessary for these projects to be sustainable and inclusive, including good design, reduced parking, affordable housing, “complete streets” designed to be safe for all users and modern stormwater management. The market has responded:

  • 86 percent of new office development is within ¼ mile of Metro;
  • Marriott, Nestle, Hilton, Choice Hotels, and many other corporations are moving to Metro station locations;
  • The JBG Cos. and Vornado Realty Trust are merging and concentrating their entire portfolio at Metro; and
  • D.C. has added 120,000 new residents over the past 12 years.

Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova has said “transit-oriented development is Fairfax’ future.” So have leaders of most other jurisdictions, who have incorporated transit-oriented development as the core of the Council of Government’s Region Forward vision plan.

We’ve learned a lot along the path:

  • The demand for convenient urban living has helped revitalize neighborhoods but also created major affordability challenges. We need more housing closer to jobs, bigger housing trust funds, inclusionary policies, and more rapid planning and zoning changes – especially for commercial strip corridors.
  • Neighborhoods are concerned about rapid change and the addition of medium- to higher-density development. We need everyone at the table in planning for the future, excellent architecture, community benefits including town greens and pocket parks, and parking reform and demand management to ensure walking, biking, and transit are the predominant travel modes.
  • Partnerships are critically important. We would not have made this much progress without working with other nonprofits, smart growth developers, progressive architects and land use and transportation planners.
  • Transportation planning changes far too slowly and too few recognize the limitations of highway expansion – that new highways and additional lanes induce travel pattern changes and more auto-dependent development which fill up the new lanes in as little as five years.
  • Pricing matters – low gas prices and free or reduced-price parking encourage longer commutes and more driving while adding to congestion, while higher gas prices, market-priced parking, and affordable, frequent transit encourage transit use and living in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.
  • Leadership by elected officials, local planners and the private sector is essential. That’s why our annual award event recognizes the critical role of our democratically elected leaders, the technical skills of local planners, and the commitment to well-designed projects by the private sector.

Our region faces challenges, which we intend to help tackle in the same spirit of partnership that got us here. These include Metro’s aging infrastructure and a transit funding crisis, ongoing neighborhood concerns about medium and higher density development near transit, housing affordability, and the urgent need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.

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