Unstoppable growth is cancer. But John L Clemmer says we can choose a better future. Believe it. A recent set of problems in my local metro Atlanta community revolve around unrestricted or perhaps less-restricted-than-should-have-been growth. Now we’re talking here about the city John Lee Clemmer lives in, rather than Atlanta proper.
The two primary problems Clemmer, along with his neighbors and fellow citizens identify are traffic and school crowding. The town was–and still is, for now–considered a good place to live, and received recognition for that nationally. So of course people wanted to move here. They did, and developers therefore wanted to build more housing. And they made the real estate purchases needed and got zoning approvals and changes that were needed, and built.
The additional people caused more traffic on the roads, of course, and their kids added to crowding in the schools. “We’re growing!” comes the cry from the politicians and community notables who see such things as good. Growth is good, right? Well let’s keep going…
Of Course They Built More
So the town is still attractive as a place to live, new businesses are coming in and doing well, and filling out some places that needed businesses there. That makes sense. But of course then the developers want to take some land, which, to be fair might not be the most lovely plot, and put a high-density apartment and condo development on it, along with the “mixed use” elements of retail shops. And the particular development I’m thinking of is quite nice, good looking, and has decent shops. Notably it does not have the meme contents of “a nail salon, a cell phone shop, and a dry cleaners” that all strip malls seem to have.
Developers of course sought to build a few more of these. And yes, they’re very nice, for what they are. The challenge of course is that they are high-density, and add dozens of residents plus the traffic for the businesses, rather than either no residents, or the few that would be there for single-family homes.
How Many McMansions is Too Many?
And on to single-family homes. In my neighborhood there was a lovely house that happened to be on one of the largest lots in the neighborhood. That house was torn down, and now there are not two, nor three, but five houses going up on that lot! Five! And they are very large houses. Very expensive houses. Some of the most expensive houses that this town could support. There are a finite number of home buyers who can afford such housing. It is a small number, and when you reach that level of purchasing power you can afford to be picky.
So there are now, on that street, for that one lot, five times as many potential residents on that same spot. This, taken to absurdity, of course cannot continue. The neighborhood is “a nice place to live” precisely because of the low density that was part of the design going all the way back to the 1950’s. The “growth above all!” crowd has already transformed several of the streets, putting larger and larger houses on plots that arguably were the “affordable housing” (in the single-family home category) in the area.
You say, “Clemmer, so what? If people want to do that with their property, and they get the zoning and permission, who are you to stop them?” Well, that’s a bit strong. Note that I don’t want to stop them; some particular person who wants a bigger newer house built atop the spot where a 1920’s tiny bungalow stood. That’s a separate but of course closely related topic. Let’s stay focused on Clemmer’s idea that we can choose a better future.
We Can Choose a Better Future: Stop the Growth
What has to stop–not just slow down–but stop, is the growth.
The idea that growth is an unalloyed good that must always be pursued and accepted is not valid nor viable economically. Some people will have a knee-jerk reaction to resist this statement. Modern macroeconomics and monetary theory seeks this growth. The stock market seeks this growth. Beating inflation to preserve the value of your dollars requires growth. But the town? No, the town does not have to “grow” in size, scale, or population. The town can transform, and can mature and improve–that is a very different thing. And a laudable thing.
Surely you see that logically if we just allow for growth continuing beyond a certain point we fundamentally transform the nature of the town and it is no longer what it was. Of course. And that new thing arguably is not what made the town desirable. If you want streets lined with high-rise apartments, condos, mixed-use developments of townhomes with shops, and an intertwined infrastructure of clogged roads, a parking shortage, and a few parking decks that require payment just to do your shopping, that’s what you’ll get. You’ll be in Midtown in just a few years.
The whole point of living here is that it was not Midtown. You could park on the street, or in a parking lot that always seems to have a space. There were just enough shops and restaurants of various sorts that they aren’t too crowded but do well and stay in business. You didn’t avoid going out or running errands around rush hours.
Can’t We Just Build Bigger Roads?
No. Widening the roads, or adding new roads is not a solution. There are too many areas around the town that if we build a better road the pass-through traffic will take that road rather than the one they use now, and you won’t be better off. Besides, once the road reaches a certain size and traffic level, it’s not “nice” to drive on. It doesn’t feel nice and comfortable. You know it, you’ve felt it, and you’ve seen it a hundred times. The road gets to be a certain size and then that section of town transforms over time, because it’s not a comfortable road for certain things. Auto dealerships or other commercial venues move in and replace what was there before. And so on…
Adding “transit” is unfortunately not a short term solution, and not likely a long-term one here. The bus just doesn’t get that much traffic, people here are very tied to their cars. And they need to be, as it’s the only effective way to get to 90% of the destinations out there.
Where is all this leading? “OK, Clemmer, what do we do? How can John L Clemmer help us choose this better future you are so keen on?”
Well, we have to take a hard look at the numbers and see where that sweet spot was where it wasn’t quite this crowded, but still had the population to support the number of businesses we’d like to keep. And then we have to do the hard thing. Not slow the growth, but reverse the growth. “How?” you say. That might sound bad to you. But think about it. You got here through some process, and some towns shrank and then grew again without disaster. Some are poised to grow back to their former sizes in their heydays now… because that would be a nicer place to live!
How Can We Get This Better Future?
The “how” is going to take some work. We don’t have one meeting where I say we can choose a better future and *poof* it’s fixed. First, it requires a commitment from the town government for no more growth. Period. None. No new construction permits for housing, no rezoning to allow for higher density. None. But that’s just the start. We’re too crowded, the schools are too full and the roads aren’t nice to drive on. We need to reduce the population here. Yikes! So this means making the hard choices.
For example, when an older apartment complex is slated to be sold and something else built there, it has to be lower density than what’s there now. Ideally back to single family homes to get that multiplier out of there. Where there were 20 people, have four. Or, if that’s not workable, zone it for retail or commercial if there is demand for it. If that too isn’t workable, bite the bullet and buy it and make it a park or pool or recreation area, or… something. The town is known for having a lot of parks already, it’s part of what makes it so amazing. We could use an additional pool or two, at least a nice natatorium.
A Better Future Costs Money
Yes, this costs money, and impacts tax revenues. But again, remember that we are trying to find that “sweet spot” and public sentiment is very clearly that it is “too crowded” and that there’s “too much traffic” now. We have overshot the optimum. Trying to “grow into it” isn’t workable. The roads can only be so big, and yes you can “build more schools” but they are expensive too.
Other idealistic improvements such as biking and walking trails would of course make for an even better town layout, but we have to be realistic about costs and timelines. If you’re going to always cave and just build bigger, you aren’t honest about solving the core problem. Which is that you’ve put more people in a physical area than is the most comfortable for them if they want to live in the sort of environment a town like this was intended to be.
“But Clemmer, it will never happen!” you say. Well, while the counterargument may be that the only constant is change, that’s often with the invalid presumption that the positive change is positive growth. A little contraction can improve things here quite a lot. “Look, Mr. John Lee Clemmer, you want to choose a better future? John L Clemmer says we can choose a better future, huh? It wont work! It can’t work!” Well, it can, you just have to have the political will to make those hard choices and not turn a 12 or 24 unit run-down old-style apartment complex into a 24 or 48 unit one, and so forth. And when one of those old run-down places ends it’s useful life, you have to be willing to make the decision to rezone “down” to something with less people.
Either a group of single family homes on lots bigger than postage stamps, or be bold and make the area into something useful for the residents around there. A playground or park or senior facility. For those concerned with the loss of housing for the disadvantaged and lower incomes like the elderly, they have to be factored into how this is done. We don’t want to create a community where retail workers and so forth have to commute into the town from elsewhere if we can avoid it, as that would work against the traffic improvement we are trying to achieve. And it’s nicer to have those people feel like part of the community and live near where they work.
Let’s use a term we’ve seen before. “Right-sizing.” We’re going to have to right-size our town. To make a better future.
Some people will surely fight this. Some will nay-say it while still complaining about the problems of the current situation yet not offering realistic solutions.
Look: once you grow up, physically, you reach a certain size, then stop growing. Physically, anyway. You continue to grow in other ways. You mature. Your experiences add to the richness and uniqueness of your life. But if part of your body kept growing without stopping? We have a word for that. It’s cancer. Unconstrained growth is cancer. It is not sustainable. It will kill you as a person.
I assert it will kill the best version of what a town like ours was meant to be. For a town It is workable to just “keep growing!” if you want to retain the living conditions that made the town so attractive a place to live for so long. We can make the right choices now, and if enough of us have the strength of character to do so we can choose a better future for our town. We can make a positive change. I am of course John L Clemmer, and I say we can choose a better future. I hope you agree.