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Westfair Communications

Smart growth drives development in suburban communities

By John Golden
March 31, 2016

Visiting Westchester recently, Parris N. Glendening, the former Maryland governor, dined one evening at a restaurant on Central Avenue. A national advocate for smart growth – high-density, mixed-use development near mass transit centers to reduce sprawl and protect the natural environment in more walkable cities and suburbs – Glendening glimpsed the commercial avenue’s possibilities beyond its streaming lanes of exhaust-emitting auto and truck traffic.

“What a grand boulevard that could be,” he mused before an audience of about 225 real estate, finance and planning professionals and municipal officials from New York and Connecticut at Pace Law School.

Glendening – the keynote speaker at a recent panel discussion on smart growth presented by the Land Use Law Center at Pace and the Business Journal’s parent company, Westfair Communications – was alluding to a rising trend among municipal planners and private developers that promotes foot traffic in place of driving in urban areas being redeveloped for a new generation of downtown residents. The new urbanism championed by Glendening, first as Maryland’s governor and now as president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute and the Governor’s Institute on Community Design, and adopted by an increasing number of municipalities in this region is to a large degree, as New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson noted on the panel, “the old urbanism all over again.”

For public officials like Bramson, smart-growth development proposals often encounter strong local opposition. “The job of a mayor in moving development forward is tough,” said panel moderator John R. Nolon, a Pace law professor and founder of the Land Use Law Center. “There are two things that Americans hate: one is sprawl and the other is density.”

The millennial generation, which includes more than 83 million young Americans, is a major driving force behind smart growth development, Glendening said. Unlike the 75-million-strong baby boomer generation, a majority of college graduates today, 60 percent, decide where they want to live and then look for jobs there rather than finding a job first and moving to that location

“Once you get a 25-year-old saying, ‘I can see myself living here,’ you’ve won half the economic development battle,” Glendening said.

For companies hiring those millennials, the “number-one qualifier” when considering relocating to a community is that “it must be on a transit line,” he said. “Office parks just do not work in attracting talent to these companies.” That has led landlords to redevelop their office properties for mixed uses at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, a leading high-tech research and development center, and along Westchester’s Platinum Mile, where White Plains and Harrison officials have revised zoning and master plans to accommodate mixed-use development.

Both public officials and developers on the panel cited financial obstacles to smart growth. Bramson said the risk-to-reward ratio can be unfavorable for developers, especially in communities most in need of redevelopment.

“It costs the same to build a high-rise in New York City as it does to build a high-rise in Westchester,” said Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. But a developer’s return on investment is less in a suburb such as Yonkers, he said, where the city and businesses have partnered in a Generation Y multimedia marketing campaign “to attract the millennials back to Yonkers.”

Despite the financial obstacles, Spano said the city has about 2,000 residential units completed or in various stages of development on its waterfront.

Developer Alex Twining, president and CEO of Twining Properties in New York City, noted that Westchester County has $1 trillion of built infrastructure, making it ripe for high-density development. “If we’re not doing something, we’re just wasting our money,” he said.

Twining said smart-growth developers need forward-thinking government leaders and staff “who really can work with us and think outside the box.” Like Glendening, he said zoning needs to be more flexible and adaptive, such as the form-based zoning codes adopted by New Rochelle and Yonkers that regulate the physical forms of development in an area rather than specific uses of properties.

Arthur Collins II, president of Collins Enterprises LLC in Greenwich, a pioneering developer of high-rise apartments on the downtown Yonkers waterfront, agreed with Twining that financial incentives are needed by smart-growth developers. His company in Yonkers received tax credits from the state’s brownfield cleanup program for developers who remove environmental contaminants from a redevelopment site before construction.

Collins said developers also need a pro-business government administration to work with and a municipal master plan to guide development. Voicing a common complaint of developers delayed by extended municipal reviews and approvals of their projects in Westchester, Collins said, “There are many, many towns that have a permit process that has actually gotten out of hand.”

Joan M. McDonald, a former New York state transportation commissioner and former economic and community development commissioner in Connecticut, noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has budgeted $100 million for the state’s Cleaner, Greener Communities program to support smart growth development. “This is a huge deal and I think that is the wave of the future,” she said.

But climate change and the series of tropical storms and hurricanes that wreaked major damage in this region in the last five years might have slowed smart-growth initiatives, McDonald said. “I think with 2011, smart growth might have taken a little bit of a backseat to resiliency” and investment to strengthen infrastructure and properties against future storm disasters.

Glendening said smart growth with its focus on walkable communities “has a strong and practical emphasis on equity” in a society where working families earning less than $50,000 annually spend on average one-third of their income on transportation. Yet in some new transit-oriented development areas, residential costs are so expensive that middle-class workers have been forced to move out, he said.

“There’s got to be a very conscious attention to these issues,” Glendening said. “How we grow can help address the inequity and have a huge impact on the future of this country.”