Area gets tips for 'Smart Growth'

October 29, 2007

By PAUL COLLINS - Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer

Improving the area's quality of life makes good business sense, the former governor of Maryland told The Harvest Foundation staff and board Friday night.

Parris N. Glendening, who now is president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, talked about how to lead a community to be economically competitive and a place where people want to live and visit.

Smart Growth Leadership Institute is a project of Smart Growth America. That is a nationwide coalition of nearly 100 organizations promoting a better way for communities to grow, one that protects open space and farmland, revitalizes neighborhoods, keeps housing affordable and makes communities more livable.

Glendening travels around the country advising about the dangers of urban sprawl -- the spreading of developments, such as houses and shopping centers, on land near a city -- as well as recommending a range of solutions.

Glendening said he thinks Henry County and Martinsville have much potential, despite the loss of many textile and furniture jobs. But it won't be a quick solution, and people's optimism needs to improve, Glendening said.

He suggests, among many things, that instead of building new developments outside of communities (urban sprawl), people should develop existing vacant land and parking lots between buildings, as well as redeveloping existing buildings.

Sometimes building and zoning codes need to be made more flexible so that, in addition to protecting health and safety, it is possible to have mixed uses in buildings, such as a combination of retail space, offices and apartments or condominiums, Glendening said.

Sometimes existing buildings have unused floors or space that could accommodate other uses. But other times, there is no available space and property owners may want to build additional floors on the building.

Glendening told an example of a building in Asheville, N.C., that was redeveloped to have retail space on the first floor, office space on the next couple floors and residential space on the top floor. He said the place is thriving.

Also, sometimes building and zoning codes need to be revised because they go beyond merely protecting health and safety and regulate less important things such as door size. With thick walls in older buildings, installing the required-size doors may be cost prohibitive, he said.

He also proposed such things as developing wider sidewalks (wide enough for two people to pass each other) and street landscaping. He praised The Harvest Foundation for investing $1.5 million "over three years to transform Martinsville and Henry County into a place where streets are accessible to all, making biking and walking integral values of the community."

Glendening also proposed other ways to bring people back uptown, such as developing sidewalk cafes and providing townhouses, condos or apartments uptown for empty-nesters, whose children have left home and who want to move out of their big houses and not have to keep up their yards.

In a "smart growth" effort, he said, a core leadership is needed to develop a handful of top priorities. The leadership could include elected governmental officials, business people, chamber of commerce and economic development groups and nonprofits, such as The Harvest Foundation. The public should be involved in the process of setting priorities. After the priorities are set, implementation should be done one step at a time.

Glendening said there needs to be much cooperation between the city and county governments, for example, perhaps sharing services and special tax incentives to encourage development in existing communities. For example, some governments have used what is called a tax overlay district, in which a district being developed or redeveloped receives a portion of the extra tax revenues generated by the new development to help pay the bonds that fund that development. The district could be just a few blocks, he said.

He suggested that Henry County not allow haphazard pockets of development and that it work to preserve its natural beauty, such as hills, streams and farmland. During the eight years Glendening was governor of Maryland, 400,000 acres were preserved.

In conclusion, Glendening said, there's "exciting opportunity here."


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