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Can suburban peace survive the chaos of sprawl?

The Outer Limits


Ah, our morning tonics! For many it's a cup of coffee, for others a pre-dawn jog or Katie Couric's telegenic smile.

For Michelle M. Riedel, who lives with her husband, Daniel, and their 6-year-old son in Short Pump, that tonic comes while driving to work. Veering out of Sherbrooke, a subdivision with reassuringly traditional houses, well-tended yards and occasional deer sightings, she accelerates from Pump Road onto West Broad. She soon passes a long fence that embraces a sweeping field. A barn is in the distance — a vestige of the mostly agricultural landscapes that once ringed the city.

"That farm is beautiful and very stately with its hills. The road's curves are soft," sighs Riedel, "I take a cleansing breath."

Albeit a quick breath. The grassy acreage is anachronistic amid West Broad Street's merging traffic, asphalt parking lots, auto dealerships, glaring signage, generic retailers and clustered apartment complexes.

Ironically, like thousands of other families, the Reidels came to Richmond's Far West End for clean air, open spaces, better schools and safety. But since moving here three years ago from an older suburb near Bryan Park, they have witnessed with growing concern the heightened pace of commercial, institutional and residential development.

"It's really sad because you see all of those beautiful, tall pine trees and that beautiful farm," she says, "And they want to rezone it all."

And while another shopping center proposed to be built adjacent to Short Pump Elementary School has raised concerns among parents and neighbors — "the school's PTA is totally against it," Reidel says, many residents are hesitant about being too vocal for fear of affecting relations with Henrico County, their neighborhoods' images and ultimately property values.

Riedel wonders aloud if the traditional, laissez-faire, suburban design paradigm even works. "If Short Pump is going to become a city," where a school might coexist with a nearby retail, residential or even industrial area, "it should be planned like a city."

Like many growing communities throughout the United States, Richmond is faced with the challenge of addressing new regional traffic patterns and lifestyles as interconnected highways and an information-based, consumer-driven, service economy physically reshape our communities. Sprawl is an increasingly used term that describes unchecked and unplanned commercial, residential and industrial development at the outer limits of suburban areas.

While a number of slow-growth and anti-sprawl initiatives struggled to surface at Virginia's General Assembly this year, recent efforts to significantly curb growth and channel development in Maryland and New Jersey suggest that the Old Dominion could eventually face more regulated growth.

"Despite overwhelming public support for growth management and transportation reform [70 percent of Virginians say better management is key to reducing traffic congestion, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University poll], both parties failed to support legislative initiatives during this session," reported the Richmond chapter of the Sierra Club after the recent General Assembly session. "Much of the failure is due to intense lobbying by the well-financed development, homebuilder and real-estate industries."

Landowners, environmentalists and grassroots activists pitted against developers and entrepreneurs all but guarantee the issue will be hotly debated not just in Virginia but throughout the United States.

The "City Beautiful" movement at the end of the 19th century addressed the environmental and aesthetic issues of increasing industrialism and urban crowding. Much like this, suburban sprawl is fast becoming a defining civic issue at the close of this century, as population growth continues to shift to the suburbs.

"This debate will frame one of the most political issues of the 21st century. ... Sprawl destroys the irreplaceable," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently told the National Press Club. "The debate touches every aspect of our lives — the quality of the natural and built environments, how we feel about the places we live and work and play, how much time we have for our family and civic life."

Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties increased by 32 percent, while Richmond's declined by 7 percent. By 2002, the population in the three counties should increase by another 12.2 percent, while Richmond is expected to decline by 2 percent. The combined three-county population in 2002 will be 599,000 compared to 195,000 people living within the city.

Richmonders increasingly are living, working, and spending their leisure time in the suburbs. Suburbanites seldom need to go downtown, even for cultural and performing arts amenities which were once urban prerogatives. Theatre IV offers plays at Collegiate School in far-western Henrico. Beginning this spring, the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen will offer performances, classes and art exhibitions. The Fan District-based Richmond Ballet has a popular dance school in Chesterfield — on Mall Drive.

Planners in Goochland, Hanover and New Kent, however, hope to avoid the kind of visual and vehicular congestion evident on West Broad Street or on Midlothian Turnpike's "Motor Mile." Chesterfield officials are seeking to contain intense development within designated parts of the county.

But as population and lifestyles continue to shift, once sparsely populated areas are choking on their own frantic — and often unchecked — growth.

"What may finally get people's attention is that sprawl is costing local governments money," says Morton Gulak, a professor of urban studies at VCU and long a proponent of urban revitalization. "It costs money when police and fire departments need to respond to farther and farther distances," he explains. "As the cost of services is increasing overall, local governments are identifying sprawl as part of the reason for these increased costs."

Sprawl is the result of a complex and deeply rooted mixture of American habits and traditions. Only by understanding each of the issues associated with sprawl — and the web those issues form — can we begin to understand its implications for the future.

The attention that sprawl receives may suggest that for environmental, convenience, aesthetic and safety reasons, Americans are beginning to question the wisdom of growth for growth's sake.

"There seems to be much more concern for the environment," says VCU professor Gulak. "This has always been the case among conservation groups. But now even people who live in the subdivisions are concerned. Simply put, they don't like the way things look when they drive places."

Western Henrico resident Michelle Riedel says that the drawbacks of mixing land uses in suburban areas are becoming apparent: "Everybody's already stressed out when they get home from work, but then they have to face residential neighborhood traffic mixed with consumer traffic from other places." Speaking of the Wal-Mart and other Short Pump retail destinations, she says, "I know of people who drive here all the way from Mechanicsville to shop."

It hurts older communities

Sprawl "drains the life out of older communities," says Richard Moe of the National Trust. "It stops their economic pulse and often puts them in intensive care — or sometimes even the morgue."

This is no surprise to Richmonders who saw their once-thriving downtown succumb to competition from suburban retailers, developers and homebuilders. It didn't happen overnight. Richmond's first major shopping centers, Willow Lawn and Southside Plaza, opened in the mid-1950s. Thirty-five years, or a generation or so later, the downtown department stores closed. Richmond, with some help from the counties, is still pursuing urban renewal projects to inject life back into the city, including $162 million for an expanded convention center and $52 million for the new canal development.

Ironically, much of the original, 19th-century James River & Kanawha Canal was destroyed in the '70s for construction of the RMA's downtown expressway which was constructed to ease traffic between downtown and the suburbs.

It increases traffic congestion

In search of a rural lifestyle, suburbanites have clogged former country roads that carry traffic loads they were never designed to handle. Most residential developments and office parks are self-contained enclaves. At rush hours, suburban roads flood like rising creekwaters after a downpour. But unlike a thunderburst, suburban vehicular traffic doesn't necessarily subside. The grid system of a traditional urban plan tends to distribute traffic effectively and evenly. Downtown, even during heavy, rush-hour peak times, traffic flows off the exit ramps of the Downtown Expressway (on Byrd Street near the Federal Reserve Bank) or off I-95 (onto North Third Street), for example, and distributes itself among half a dozen streets.

Time is lost

A recent study of the highly congested Washington, D.C., metro area shows that the average citizen in that region spends 59 hours a year stuck in traffic — not moving. That is the equivalent of almost 1.5 work weeks. While conditions in Richmond are much better, Chesterfield's Midlothian Turnpike and Henrico's West Broad Street try the patience of many a rush-hour commuter.

"Traffic has intensified greatly over the last few years," says Bettie W. Weaver, a historian and retired teacher who has lived in Midlothian since 1946. "I can't come and go off of Salisbury Drive anymore, which is my street. Instead, I have to drive over to Crowder Road and sometimes wait there at the stoplight for 10 minutes.

"Whenever I use Route 60 [Midlothian Turnpike] — to shop or go to the library — I have to go at certain times: always before 3 p.m. And at our 8:30 a.m. service at Winfree Memorial Baptist, at Route 60 and Coalfield, the road has been widened so many times and the sanctuary is so close to the highway, you can't hear the pastor when trucks go by.

"I won't say I close my eyes," says Weaver. "But I almost say a prayer every time I make a left turn onto Route 60."

Sprawl is fueled by ongoing racial fears

"The North may have won the [Civil] war, but white supremacy won the peace," Cornel West, a Harvard professor and philosopher, told a University of Richmond audience last month.

Nothing illustrates this better than white flight from the suburbs and the creation of "chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs," as the funk group Parliament Funkadelic termed it in the 1970s.

In Richmond, white flight accelerated after a series of legal rulings. In 1970 federal judge Robert Merhige ordered intracity busing to achieve racial balance in the city's schools. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a city request to extend busing into predominantly white Henrico County. While schools and safety are the frequently expressed reasons for moving to the suburbs, they are euphemisms for what really is driving affluent and middle-class people of every hue from American cities: the perception that the social and economic problems of inner-city African-American communities are insurmountable.

And the economic gap between those who live in the counties and the city continues to widen. According to city of Richmond records, 26 percent of the city's population lives at or below the poverty level, and 70 percent of African-American children live in poverty. As city residents grow poorer, challenges to city schools will mount, which could drive more middle-class families to the suburbs.

What can be done

Change public policies

Economic development is a necessity. Physical expansion and the automobile are here to stay, but things can be done. More effective land-use planning could restrict areas that could be developed. These places could be more intensely developed rather than the spotty way in which growth now often occurs.

In rural Goochland County, where potential sprawl laps at its eastern border, county officials have a plan to channel and control growth. Motorola is slated to go into West Creek, a 3,500-acre designated industrial/commercial area that is being equipped with the roads, water and sewerage to accommodate major expansion. Conversely, in another part of the county, for a 5-mile stretch along Route 6, the county has restricted construction along this stretch of scenic byway.

"We need to encourage growth," says Robert A. Hammond, county planner and assistant county administrator. "But we need to encourage growth where it's advantageous to the county. Can we continue to preserve our rural character? There's a lot of public concern." He then hesitates and adds, "I've been with the county since 1980; there could be as much change in the next 19 to 20 months as I've seen in the past 19 to 20 years."

In Chester, a new development is being built with clusters of buildings, walkways and plazas and a sense of small-town intimacy. And even at Tyson's Corner in Northern Virginia — which has epitomized suburban sprawl for decades — a major developer announced last month that enough is enough: Future construction would include buildings laid out in an orderly way with sidewalks, apartments, pedestrian amenities and nightlife.

Existing communities and commercial districts could be revitalized before more forests or farmlands are developed. There are scores of empty buildings and commercial structures on Jefferson Davis Highway, Midlothian Turnpike or Mechanicsville Turnpike that are conveniently located between the city limits and the newer suburbs. These areas could be revitalized before pushing farther outward.

Develop regional and public transportation systems

When Richmonders address public transit, it is usually discussed as a system for the poor: busing people to generally low-paying jobs as part of the panacea for welfare-to-salary. But why can't public transit be developed as an alternative to the single occupancy vehicle? Richmonders wouldn't go for it? That argument set metropolitan Washington, D.C., years behind in planning its metro rail system. But the Metro has proved to be a popular success and necessary to movement in that region. The question Washingtonians now ask is why wasn't it designed to serve more areas.

"Too expensive," is often how midsized cities respond to suggestions of regional transit. But it's hard to believe that American know-how can't devise a way to transport people in middle-sized cities. If highway construction and road repairs are tax-supported and highly subsidized, why not give public transit equal funding?

Just stop it

Last year, New Jersey voters voted to set aside 1 million acres of undeveloped land during the next decade. "That's for life," says Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who pushed for the ballot initiative. Before becoming governor she had never held elective office, but participation in preservation projects in Somerset County, N.J., kindled her interest in saving open lands: "Not just for our children, but for our grandchildren and the following generations."

If New Jersey, long the butt of jokes about pollution, overdevelopment and congestion, can take such an initiative, what about Virginia, with its fabled history and its fame as one of America's most beautiful destinations?

The Disney development in Northern Virginia was stopped. And a Wal-Mart was discouraged from setting up shop on George Washington's Ferry Farm. But in Virginia, where developers and homebuilders have long enjoyed liberal reign, leaders are apparently not ready to take even tepid protective measures. In February, the General Assembly defeated a bill sponsored by Fairfax County Del. Gladys B. Keating to name a study commission to examine the costs and impact of evolving land development patterns. Another bill, promoted by representatives of a coalition of 22 highly populated localities seeking to curb growth, also was also defeated.

Continue to Part 2

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