The EP Times did a fluffy story on EPISD's effort to practice "smart growth" when building their future un-needed schools funded by your tax dollars.
The article cheerily describes how EPISD officials are finally talking with city officials on how best to marry future growth with future un-needed schools. What a concept - 20 years it took them to figure out that the city has all the information on approved future growth that they could have accessed and planned their un-needed schools around. Oops.
It's all bullshit and nothing is going to change in the end, but it does make for some good press.
Now to "smart growth."
As some of you may know, I was a part of the government affairs team at the National Association of Realtors for a few years during my career in Washington, DC. The Realtors have the highest grossing PAC for any non-union professional association in the country. They bring in more than $4 million in PAC donations each year and usually have in the neighborhood of $15 million in political dollars on hand at any one time. To say that they have influence is to understate their pull in Washington.
Part of their government affairs duties for their members (Realtors) is to help them implement real estate policy from the national level down. This function of their duties is where the idea of smart growth was born.
Let's pause of one second and realize that many groups of people claim to own the idea of smart growth and they all have different definitions of what they think it is. Some think it's smarter urban sprawl, while others swear it's urban infill. Still others claim it's no growth at all.
Smart growth is a term that was gobbled up by modern snake oil salesmen who prey on city governments looking for some kind of "consultant" to solve all their problems. I equate their work to the spanking Dick Florida gave us with his "creative cities" bullshit.
Back to the Realtors...
Realtors in the mid-south and in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore and several cities in north New Jersey were having a peculiar problem. A lot of these east coast cities had stop growing. There simply wasn't any room to build new houses. That's bad news for Realtors who need people to be buying and selling their homes. New development always affords them new clients because as new neighborhoods are built, the people in the old neighborhoods move to them, which leads to people moving into the house vacated by those moving out to the new neighborhoods. This worked well for years.
When everything was built out people stopped looking to move within their city. With nothing new on the market they weren't interested in trading their used property for someone else's used property. Realtors needed to find a way to get people to move around in the "land locked" communities. Thank God for them that the Realtors had among their staff and members some very good smoke and mirrors sales people and idea people.
Lots of the "land locked" cities in the region were very old. They featured old brownstone homes that were three stories tall and the first single family home that was responsible with its overall footprint. Built over a 100 years ago, their design still holds today as a very good way to give people a quality living space in a small area.
These areas were generally worn out and worn down. The Realtors devised a plan that helped their real estate brokers all the way down to their individual agents. They figured they could come up with a scheme to get cities to either give them that property flat out, or at least put up some money to make the spaces livable and marketable. They did it under the guise of bringing communities closer together and revive the spirit of downtown USA. Sound familiar?
They created a whole department at NAR and my buddy was the second in command. They presented all over the nation telling town councils and aldermen that if they would submit to a smart growth plan, they'd revitalize their community as a whole. At the time they were flashing pictures of the more vibrant parts of northern Virginia where necessity, not planning, stacked people and business on top of each other for what seemed like the perfect community that you'd never have to leave to get what you needed in life. New York City was shown as the ultimate smart growth success, which was brilliant because nobody would argue against having their own little New York City in their hometown.
It was all a sham. The big brokers weren't just running a bunch of real estate agents, they were buying real property at this time like gang busters. These communities that were tricked into adopting smart growth plans gave them extremely low interest loans to buy up the inner city and either subdivide the apartments or knock them down and build mixed use mid-rises. The taxpayers were put on the hook for all of this development and eminent domain was used extensively - the worst kind of eminent domain, by the way. The type of eminent domain where they take your land and give it to another private entity so they can turn a profit on it.
Let's not forget that the cities were promised that the taxable value of these buildings was going to be huge. Town councils were licking their chops at the thought of their own little Greenwich Village coupled with millions in increased tax receipts.
The Realtors now had the new development they needed to get people moving again. Brownstones that were subdivided to make them into quadplexes now afforded Realtors four closings instead of one. The brokers who bought up the land with taxpayer dollars and developed mixed use buildings sold their interests to real estate trusts eager to tap back into new urban markets.
The buzz term "smart growth" took off and overnight there were hundreds, if not thousands, of "experts" on the subject. Most of the initial movement centered around stacking as many people and businesses into a small space as possible. We had made fun of the Japanese for living in closet sized apartments in high rises where they worked, shopped and never had to leave the building. Somehow this whole movement ended up making us the butt of the joke.
Needless to say, by 2004 the fecal matter had hit the oscillating cooling device. The annual real estate conference in Orlando was packed with smart growth consultants trying to sell their services to the very group that invented the concept. Most of these "consultants" were not educated, licensed or trained in any formal way. They knew a little bit about zoning and a lot about stacking people. There needed to be a come to Jesus meeting on smart growth.
The Realtors had to have a meeting to decide what smart growth would actually be. Nobody could agree and the industry is now unregulated and undefined. Any Tom, Dick or Harry with a laptop and a projector can be a smart growth consultant - no credentials needed.
Even worse is the fact that nobody realized that there were statistics about population densities and the correlation between crime, health issues and infrastructure issues. Seems like sociologists, land planners, engineers, law enforcement and a myriad of other groups knew that stacking people like sardines wasn't a good idea for many different reasons. "Smart growth" became a buzz term no one on the eastern seaboard ever wanted to hear again.
You see, when the real estate market died it hit the east and west coast first and it hit them extremely hard. Those lovely buildings with the condos on top and the starbucks on bottom stand half empty and are now catering to section 8 qualifiers. The cities are on the hook for the unpaid loans and are using taxpayer monies to battle the lawsuits brought by the landowners who had their land taken from them using eminent domain.
The real estate agents went by the wayside as the housing market and economy dipped. The poor folk are now moving back downtown where they used to live, only with better digs that they had before.
It should be noted that places like Washington, DC and Arlington, VA are still doing well. They are flush with very highly educated and paid people who insulate them from the realities other cities face. However, the poor in those cities are being forced to move further and further out of the city. Further away from jobs, schools and opportunity.
Some leaders in our city are screaming for smart growth and I wonder if they know exactly what they are getting into. El Paso's current "walkable" communities are very poor and crime ridden. Why would we be trying to copy that pattern to other parts of town?
I think we need to lose the term "smart growth" and talk about the responsible development of land and property rights.