I’ve been ragging on Marc Fisher, the WaPo’s self-styled urban-grit columnist and all-around bleeding heart for his efforts to blame the intractable social problems of the underclass on the rest of us whose taxes are channeled to support other people’s self-destructive lifestyles.
But Marc deserves a pat on the back for his stand on one important issue: the efforts of not-in-my-backyard self-styled no-growth activists who pull every procedural lever to stymie the vibrant concentrated commercial real estate development that turns social problem-plagued urban wastelands into thriving downtowns–and for those who live in the suburbs, effectively counteracts ugly sprawl. Here is Marc on greenies in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., which has, thanks to “smart growth” concentrated development over the past decade turned into a vibrant retail and restaurant mecca with a genuine urban flavor:
“For three years now, a relative handful of very loud people from that alternate reality have fought against the latest modest expansion of the small-scale busyness of the new downtown Bethesda….[The “bureaucracy-savvy” activists, as Marc describes them, oppose a development corporation’s] plan to extend its stretch of award-winning, mixed-use buildings from the Landmark movie theaters and Barnes & Noble bookstore to the site of a shuttered Giant supermarket on Arlington Road.
“Last week, oppositionists watched the county planning board vote 5 to 0 to approve a pedestrian-friendly street of cafes, shops and 180 apartments, including 23 units set aside for moderate-income tenants.
“End of the battle? Not a chance: Even though developers, environmentalists, government and many residents have joined forces in Bethesda and other places across the region to support this kind of smart growth — and therefore slow the march of sprawl — the Not in My Back Yard activists do not take yes for an answer.
“The planning board has approved this project five times already. Still, opponents fight on.”
Good work, Marc. The “ugly NIMBYs of negativism,” as Marc calls them have used the bureaucratic process to keep in limbo for years projects all across the country to transform outworn 1960s shopping centers, ugly strip malls, and seedy downtowns not just in the Washington area but across the country into densely populated, exciting places to work, live, shop, and enjoy oneself.
I know, because I live in one of those blighted areas (and I plead a bit of conflict of interest here): the Washington waterfront district. Back in the 1950s, ambitious bureaucrats literally leveled most of my neighborhood, using powers of eminent domain to seize and shut down thriving businesses on its downtown main street and evicting residents from their row houses so that the houses could be torn down and replaced with Soviet-style housing projects for the poor and massive apartment buildings for the rest. The result? Today my neighborhood, dominated by a hideous, cheesily built, three-fourths-empty 1970s shopping center, is mostly a wreck, the housing projects are a no-man’s-land of drugs and muggings, and our middle-class component is a beleaguered bunch. A developer has stepped in with a proposal to give us back our downtown grid, our dense population, our safe streets, and our former urban feel–and gotten all the zoning approval required by city authorities. You’d think my waterfront neighbors would be thrilled. But no–NIMBYism has set in, and most of them are blocking the project in any way they can, terrified of “growth.” Go figure.