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Hasta La Vista, Baby! 

Some parting words

Several people will be pleased with this column. It's my last one for Creative Loafing, at least for many months. My wife, Linda Brown, CL's longest serving art critic, and I are under contract with an English publisher for a book on urban planning and design, due out in 2004 in America and Britain. With the manuscript deadline early next summer, that writing task takes priority over everything else.

I'm leaving the local public forum at a time when the recession is giving Charlotte a short breathing space on its headlong rush to become Atlanta. Maybe, if we're very lucky, we'll never get there. Perhaps we'll forego the broad and seductive straight path, the eight-lane highway that leads straight to hell-on-wheels. Perhaps we'll tread the narrow, difficult path to salvation -- a sustainable city that lives and grows within its means.

Perhaps. I'm not holding my breath.

At a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute, two powerful Charlotteans crossed swords about the way we grow. On the one hand, Jim Palermo, the top executive at Bank of America for property development, argued articulately for intelligent and sustainable growth, focused on a healthy, vital center city and more compact, transit-oriented developments in the suburbs.

Arguing against this more sustainable urban future was Henry Faison, the city's biggest shopping mall developer, and a powerful advocate for sprawl, for building all around the outer belt and covering Mecklenburg's remaining green fields with new suburban development.

This is the classic dilemma: the difficult, sustainable future versus the easy, throwaway one. The newest flashy shopping centers around the city's edge draw customers away from older properties, which decay into the big-box "greyfield" wastelands we know so well. These defunct developments devalue our city, sapping our civic morale as they squat in ugliness amidst crumbling stucco and weed-riven asphalt.

Like most of America, we're "in denial" about our urban wastelands, and to avoid thinking about the problem, we drive out to our newest retail playground where we can sip our chardonnay at a "sidewalk cafe" and pretend we're in a real city.

It would be nice to take a break from our urban fantasies, and buckle down instead to the task of building real urban places instead of the ersatz version currently in vogue as "shoppertainmant."

There is some evidence that citizens comprehend the choices that face us; the recent outpouring of public demand for transit gives cause for optimism. However, when general principles of smart growth evolve into specific proposals that might touch us as individuals, we turn tail and run, hiding behind our NIMBY barricades.

Smart growth means limiting the haphazard sprawl round our edges, and densifying the center city and adjacent neighborhoods. It's our only choice if we want to avoid a polluted future with a decreasing quality of life. With a lower quality of life comes economic uncertainty, as we're unable to attract new companies and new investment to our city. And with economic uncertainty comes the prospect of decreasing property values and a general decline in prosperity. Not a pretty picture.

People in the suburbs pollute America's air and water at least three times as much as folk who live close to the center city. But NIMBYs who oppose infill development aren't interested in the facts, or in the examples from other American cities that demonstrate the benefits of smart growth to neighborhoods. They prefer not to believe that homes adjacent to good pedestrian-friendly infill developments gain in property values.

At a recent neighborhood meeting designed to stifle a good redevelopment project in Charlotte, one angry resident referred to developers as "scum." In another context, a planning official in our region said she'd learned never to trust developers: they never tell the truth.

Developers in Charlotte must have behaved very badly and produced garbage to warrant such anger. It is indeed easy to find examples that fit this profile; our city is littered with trashy projects, built for short-term gain with no thought to long-term consequences.

But increasingly Charlotte is home to a new breed of developer, one that has learned that profit and community value are not mutually exclusive, and that sustainable cities make economic sense. Our tragedy is that neighborhood opposition is trained most fiercely upon these developers who propose denser infill schemes in locations that do the city good. NIMBYs can't tell the difference between good developers or bad, or between building projects that reinforce the quality of city life and those that diminish it. Everything and everybody is tarred with the same brush.

My attempts in these columns to set forth facts and to puncture pervasive myths of urban development were attacked at a recent NIMBY meeting as "offensive propaganda" by an individual who seemed distraught at the thought of sharing the neighborhood with folk who earned less money than he did. You know those unsavory characters -- teachers, firemen, nurses, and young professionals just out of college.

Our local NIMBYs are such classic stereotypes that they'll have a walk-on role in our book, to illustrate the depths to which we can sink. I'll miss my fortnightly discourse, but an international audience beckons. Hasta la vista, Charlotte!

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