Giving smart growth a leg up

Recognition programs help good projects gain approval, but occasionally some extra tweaking is in order.



Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

The Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance announced its support in January for two projects in the region encompassing Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, and the southern half of New Jersey. That’s twice as many projects as the Alliance awarded recognition to during all of last year.

Meanwhile, the Washington Smart Growth Alliance, which covers the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia, is seeing an upturn as well. After three years of depressed conditions, “development in the Washington area has begun to increase,” and developers are requesting statements of support for multifamily, townhouse, and mixed-use projects, says Robert Harris, a Bethesda, Maryland, zoning and land use lawyer who chairs the group.

Across the country, at least 15 regional Smart Growth Alliances have been formed since 2000 — affiliated with either the Urban Land Institute or a council of governments. The Alliances try to encourage real estate projects that make sense from a regional perspective.

Each Alliance chooses its own means of winning governments and the public over to compact, land-conserving, often transit-connected development. Two of the groups — in metropolitan Washington and in the Delaware Valley — several years ago launched programs that recognize worthy smart growth projects and thus help them obtain needed entitlements.

Last year, a third recognition program — in the Seattle-Tacoma region — was started  by the Quality Growth Alliance (QGA), which so far has announced support for four projects: three in Seattle and one in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb that has a well-established, pedestrian-scale center.

“We help them through the approval process,” says Bill Kreager, who chairs the QGA recognition program. “The whole thing is about raising the urbanist thought and raising the quality of life in our region,” observes Kreager, an architect who for many years was a principal in the Seattle design firm Mithun.

Kelly Mann, executive director of ULI Seattle, says public testimony by QGA appears to have played a critical role in gaining municipal approval for Parkplace, the Touchstone Corporation’s proposal for 1.2 million square feet of technology-office space, 300,000 sq. ft. of retail, 160,000 sq. ft. of “public realm,’’ a hotel, and 3,500 underground parking spaces in downtown Kirkland.

“That project had engendered some public opposition based on density,” says Mann. “Our testimony provided assurance to the City Council that the project met the QGA criteria and exemplified the quality growth that our region needs to accommodate 1.7 more residents by 2040.”

The three projects in the City of Seattle are:

• Housing, retail, and office space in an area called Interbay — a development of The Freehold Group that was described by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as aiming at “creating a neighborhood where none exists.”

• Replacement of Yesler Terrace public housing with offices, retail, and new housing.

• Conversion and expansion of the historic Sunset Electric Building on Capitol Hill into 89 affordable, energy-efficient apartments.

 ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval’

Since 2005, the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance (DVSGA), representing more than 200 government, private-sector, and nonprofit organizations, has recognized 28 projects (available here), including Voorhees Town Center in New Jersey (see New Urban News articles here and here); Westrum Development Company’s 16-acre Brewerytown master plan in Philadelphia; and Arcadia Land Company’s 2,582-acre Bryn Eyre brownfield development in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

In January, DVSGA recognized a vision plan intended to encourage redevelopment along 2.5 miles of the Old York Road corridor (Rt. 611) in Abington Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and redevelopment of the Franklin Mint property in Middletown Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

The Franklin Mint development, in which new urbanist planning consultant Tom Comitta has been involved, envisions the conversion of an underused 173-acre site into a mixed-use town center with 1,253 houses and apartments, 798,000 square feet of commercial space, 235,200 square feet of offices, a 225-room hotel, and about 70 acres of open space and civic uses. Pennrose Properties is working with Wolfson Verrechia Group, the McKee Group, and Dewey Properties on the project, which is adjacent to a proposed commuter rail station.

Of the 26 projects chosen by DVSGA between 2005 and 2010, “most of them have received their approvals — probably 75 percent,” says Susan Baltake, administrator of the three-state organization. “Many have not started due to the economy/lack of financing. One received so much community opposition that it is being built on a different nearby location.”

How important is the designation? “We are told it is extremely useful,” Baltake says. “Many applicants call it their ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’”

Robin L. Murray, a Trenton, New Jersey, architect who has been involved in DVSGA since its founding in 2003, says the confidentiality given to applicants during the application process is particularly helpful. If a project doesn’t win recognition, there is no public announcement and thus no embarrassment.

“A great number of people have come back” after initially failing to win designation, Murray notes. Verbal suggestions about how to improve a project have resulted in modifications to some proposals, which obtained recognition on a second try.

Jurors generally regard density as desirable, whereas municipalities, especially in the suburbs, are sometimes initially hesitant to allow more intense land use. Density doesn’t automatically gain the program’s approval, however. Murray points out that DVSGA declined to support proposals that were seen as “overcrowding the site.”

In the three-state region, smart-growth development over all has fallen since 2007, Murray says, because “the economy has reduced all development projects.” On the other hand, she notes, “there are projects that are going forward and getting funding because they’re smart growth projects.” And, Murray says, enough smart growth projects have been completed that banks are now willing to finance them, even though they depart from what the banks had previously been accustomed to.

Capital region progress

In the Washington, DC, region, where transit-oriented development has been embraced even by previously automobile-dependent jurisdictions, smart growth projects have fared well. Of the 61 projects that have won recognition from the Washington Smart Growth Alliance since 2002 (available here), 30 percent have been built, 23 percent are under construction, and another 28 percent are considered on track to be developed, says Deborah Miness Westbrooke, the Alliance’s executive director. “Only a handful of proposals — seven — have simply gotten nowhere,” she says.

A project can obtain “preliminary recognition” when it is an early-stage proposal, with few of its details set, Westbrooke notes. “Final recognition” is based on detailed design and specification data and graphics. “It indicates that the development would, if built as planned, help the region accommodate growth in a manner that achieves sustainable economic environmental, and quality-of-life objectives,” explains a ULI publication, Moving the Needle: Regional Coalitions as Catalysts for Sustainable Development (available here). “Exemplary recognition” is granted to developments that meet even stricter criteria.

“We have enlightened a lot of people in the Washington area about the benefits of smart growth and how to do it right,” says Robert Harris. Prior to formation of the Washington Smart Growth Alliance, “the development community, and even governments, weren’t paying a lot of attention to [those benefits],” he says.

He acknowledges that governments rarely shift toward smart growth overnight: “Changing policies, changing regulations takes time.”

The Alliance has adopted — and periodically tweaked — a set of standards that includes location, design, mix of uses, and density.

Key to the success of these programs, Harris believes, is agreement among business and environmental interests as to what constitutes a good project.

David Dixon, principal in charge of urban design and planning for Goody Clancy Associates, notes that smart growth alliances can be particularly useful as “an informal go-between” — as an organization that gets developers and business interests to work effectively with governments. They can “cajole developers to go after a project,” he says. They can also provide “political cover” for governments that otherwise would find it hard to approve a good project that is denser than local residents are accustomed to.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, says the Washington program has been helpful in “supporting local elected officials in their approvals of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable/bikeable, and transit-oriented communities.”

Pitfalls of smart growth

Not all of the recognized projects would be rated excellent by new urbanists. “Many people in the smart growth movement have not fully embraced or understood what it takes to create the quality and character of environment that is necessary,” observes Dixon. A challenge that’s been difficult for some developments, he says, is:  “How do you get the density right?”

With jurors weighing criteria on location, mixed uses, mixed income, community benefits, community participation, and other matters, sometimes the question of what life will be like on the streets gets less attention than is ideal.

The Spring Hill Station/Tysons West development, which recently won preliminary joint recognition from the Washington Smart Growth Alliance and the ULI Terwilliger Center for Workforce Housing, illustrates some of these difficulties. A bird’s-eye perspective of the project, the first transit-oriented development in an “edge city” that grew up oriented to the automobile, shows a number of “object-buildings” — towers that seem intent on making individual statements rather than coalescing into a unified place.

The nearly 6 million sq. ft. project, put forward by the Georgelas Group, a McLean, Virginia-based developer, offers a dense mix of uses around one of the four Metro rail stations to be built at Tysons Corner. There would be a street grid, a public plaza, and 14 buildings, including two hotels, high-rise residential and office units, and ground-floor restaurants and retail. A fifth of the housing would be affordable and workforce units.

The view from the air shows tall buildings suggestive, in the words of Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer at AECOM in Orlando, Florida, of “different perfume bottles all lined up on a shelf” — the usual approach of nontraditional architects who lack experience in creating urban ensembles. Will people find a lively experience in the public spaces at ground level? It’s hard to tell. The fact that most of the illustrations on the project’s website (click here) are aerial views leads an urbanist to suspect that the designers focused only a fraction of their attention on the experience of the pedestrian.

Certainly the Georgelas project would improve greatly on what currently exists on the 28-acre site — “a mishmash of establishments, such as low-rise car dealerships, an industrial park and Georgelas’s headquarters,” The Washington Post reported last year (here). In fairness to the developer, it should also be noted that the transportation network — existing arterial roads with about eight lanes of traffic, plus a future Metro line that will be elevated — makes it hard to design in a pedestrian-appealing way.

“It will still have high-speed roads between connected places,” Lockwood points out. The natural tendency, he says, is for a developer to turn the project’s back on the unpleasant thoroughfares and focus the public life on the interior of the project instead.

The challenges could be dealt with better if the Virginia Department of Transportation and other agencies were willing to transform the arterials into handsome, lower-speed boulevards, Lockwood says. There are big roads in Paris and Barcelona, he observes, but they are designed to work for pedestrians as well as for vehicles. “The key is lower speeds,” he emphasizes. “Once you get a slower design speed, all sorts of improvements can take place. You can have on-street parking, wider sidewalks, beauty.”

As it is, the current planning for Tysons suggests that “they’ll have to wait for a whole other generation of buildings, or they’ll have to retrofit them,” Lockwood says.

When the Washington area’s recognition program was new, the jury sometimes attached conditions to the statements of recognition — identifying elements that could be improved. But developers were uncomfortable with statements expressing qualms, Westbrooke says, so that kind of elaboration was discontinued. In the letter of recognition, “we have to be very positive in our comments,” she says. “In private comments, the jury might point out areas for improvement.”

In contrast to the Tysons West plan, the North Potomac Village master plan — another winner of the Washington group’s recognition last year — appears to have strong urbanistic traits. The plan, produced by Autunovich Associates Architects for developer McCaffrey Interests, for a site that has been occupied by the Potomac Yard shopping center in Alexandria, Virginia, envisions “over 7.5 million square feet of fine-grained mixed uses, including offices, retail, hotel, and about 4,500 residential units,” according to the Alliance. Buildings are to be organized around a grid of streets. “Ground-floor retail, parks, gathering places, broad sidewalks, and trails will encourage pedestrian and bicycle use,” the Alliance says.

Dixon at Goody Clancy says that on the whole, the projects that have won recognition in the Washington region are “pretty good.”

Reality Check 

Around the nation, Smart Growth Alliances have been formed mainly as a result of Reality Check, a regional visioning exercise promoted by ULI and its regional organizations, says Heidi Sweetnam, ULI’s vice president for district councils. Since the first “Reality Check on Growth” exercise — in October 2002 in Los Angeles — a dozen of these events have taken place.

Though the specifics vary from one place to another, Reality Check (a guide is here) typically brings together 200 to 400 individuals from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. They engage in exercises aimed at determining how the region should grow. Over the past nine years, a variety of factors, including transportation and climate change, have been added to the program’s focus.

To further the Alliances’ work, ULI has established a forum (available here) called Smart Growth Alliances Information Network (SGAIN), with financial support from the US Environmental Protection Agency. “It meets yearly to share best practices, and we do a monthly phone call,” says Murray, in New Jersey.

In Seattle, Kreager notes that the Quality Growth Alliance uses a number of methods to help recognized projects move forward. These include offering testimony to local governments, writing to HUD to request project financing, and favoring zoning changes or annexation.

Participants interviewed by New Urban Network said collaboration among people from differing fields has generally gone well. Decisions are reached through consensus. Said Kreager: “Without all sides of the table working closely, we will never get to where we want to be.”

David Dixon thinks that as more experience has been gained, the results have improved. “All of these programs,” he says, “do a better job now than they did initially.”