For much of its 68-year history, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) focused on land use and real estate development issues in cities across America. The emphasis was on re-energizing cities that lost ground to emerging post-war suburbs through redevelopment that led to job growth, better schools, shorter commutes and mixed uses appealing to a broad demographic of businesses and residents. While many cities were saved from irreversible decay from such efforts, the mythic appeal of suburbia continues to reign in the American psyche.
But with that appeal has come a host of problems. Top on the list is suburban sprawl, a trend not easily reversed. According to ULI, 60% to 80% of economic growth in the U.S. will occur in suburbs, not cities. Building on its foundation of knowledge about real estate growth patterns in cities, ULI has been applying some of the lessons of urban development patterns to ensure “smart” growth in the county's leafier environs. NREI recently spoke with ULI chairman Harry H. Frampton, who also is managing partner of East West Partners, a development company in Beaver Creek, Colo., about smart growth and what it means for the future.
NREI: In your experience as a developer, how have you come to define smart growth?
Frampton: Smart growth is all about finding a balance. There's no one simple answer for what smart growth can mean because every planning situation is different. But there are a whole series of issues that have to be considered when accommodating growth, such as preserving open space, trying to minimize automobile traffic, protecting the environment, creating a sense of community, creating an appropriate architectural style, creating projects that work economically for the developer, the local government entity and in terms of the social fabric.
NREI: Developers will have to live with smart growth as an issue, and arguably they are contributing to the problem. Why should they care?
Frampton: There's clearly been a backlash in many communities across the U.S. stemming from excessive sprawl. For any developer who has a long-term perspective, accepting smart growth is in his or her best interests financially. There's no question that consumers will pay a premium for these well-developed communities. Developers sometimes underestimate the value that customers place on smart growth.
NREI: What's really new about smart growth?
Frampton: There's no question that the hot new topic is transit oriented development (TOD) — major developments around transit stops. We're seeing that TOD is taking off. Virtually all local governments are trying to figure out how they get high-density pods around transit stops. The second area is multi-use. It used to be that multi-use projects were very controversial. What we're seeing now, often around transit stops, is the grouping of commercial with condos, apartments and retail in high-density pods. There's a new kind of acceptance in suburban areas, and that's part of the smart-growth movement.
NREI: What is the biggest lesson you've learned from your life as a private developer?
Frampton: The biggest lesson is that planning generally does work. The airing of all the issues in the planning process, although messy, sometimes contentious, will on balance yield a lot better results both in the short and long run.
NREI: What drives your passion for this topic? Is it the burning issue of 21st century development?
Frampton: I've been in development for 30 or 40 years, and I get a good feeling when I see projects that are well developed. The businesses there are happy, people who live there are happy. It's what we like to see.