Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Lack of Regional Planning Contributes to Area Decline

The purveyors of sprawl development are at it again in our area. It's tough to say what ugly wasteful development came first in this string of ugly wasteful developments. There is the enormous and completely unnecessary retail power center in Webster, the unabated cancerous growth of new and expanded Wal-Marts (Albion, Brockport, Canandaigua, Geneseo, Geneva, Greece, Lima, Macedon, Newark, Seneca Falls), yet another Bed Bath & Beyond here and a Walgreens there, the proposed sprawl plaza in Chili, etc. The list of bad land use development decisions in this region continues to grow as fast as the average American's waistline.

In today's paper, a short blurb noted that the Victor Town Planning Board is considering the Environmental Impact Statement for "Victor Commerce Park" - another sprawl plaza of the worst kind. The so-called Park would include a Super Wal-Mart, 100k square feet of additional retail space, and two outparcels for chain restaurants. This proposal has actually been around for a very long time and has been quite controversial. It sits on a hillside adjacent to relatively upscale houses overlooking the southern hills (and the scenic NYS Thruway). It originally included a few hundred thousand square feet of office space as well but I suppose that given the horrendous state of the local economy, the developer thought twice about trying to promote that use at this time. Yet somehow our economy can absorb another few hundred thousand square feet of retail? Where is this income growth coming from?

Sprawl retail does not create local income growth. Rather, it drains income away from this area and into the pockets of out-of-town retail conglomerates hell-bent on world domination through low prices. Just as every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings; every time a cash register at Wal-Mart rings, a local farmer goes bankrupt trying to produce more with less and a Cambodian teenager gets whipped for working too slow. But what do we care? We're saving a dollar on a bushel of corn and two dollars on a t-shirt. The attractiveness of convenience and affordability is not lost on me. I understand that majority rules and that the majority of folks around this great nation prefer the long drive, parking lots, and mediocre disposable architecture that comprises the modern American retail experience. My question is, why do we need more of the same in this region?

If Census estimates are accurate, and they rarely are, we're losing people. That's right, Greater Rochester, the diamond in Upstate NY's rough has fallen on hard times. It's not just the fact that we're losing people, it's that we're losing those people with the most money to spend. As a twenty-something, I can attest to the fact that I am a rare breed around these parts. Most 25-34 year olds have moved on to the supposedly greener pastures of California, DC, Boston, the Carolinas, Texas, and elsewhere. Spitzer was mostly right when he said that Upstate is like Appalachia. But we aren't just LIKE Appalachia, we ARE Appalachia. I love this City and region, but for most young people, it's far too depressing here. Building more and more Wal-Marts, Bed Bath & Beyonds, and Applebees isn't going to change that. They have just as many Home Depots and Targets in Georgia as we do here.

The unneeded growth in sprawl development will not only not change things, in fact, it will only exacerbate the problem. In a region with zero population and income growth, every additional square foot of retail that is constructed on the periphery means less money spent somewhere else in this region. When that additional retail is of the big box variety, it's even worse as the profits made there are shipped out of our region, never to return. That puts all of us (cities, towns, and villages) in a more precarious position. Can we afford to further hollow out our inner city and villages? It is the type of urban, mixed-use feel found in our cities and villages that young folks are attracted to. If we continue to harm those environments, we will only further hasten our decline.

Sadly, there is no way we can ever change the way we develop regionally. We lack a comprehensive regional planning board that can affect how towns develop. Having such a Board, we could put limits on the total number of new retail space constructed in the region. We could limit the number of sprawling housing tracts built in suburban and rural areas. We could make a regional decision to redirect development into our cities and villages, thereby reinvigorating those areas that young workers are attracted to. We talk about reversing the "Brain Drain", but without real regional planning, we're just pissing in the wind.

Which do you prefer, typical suburban strip mall development (above) or vibrant urban downtown development (below)?