A game of homes (and jobs, farms and more)

“Smart Growth was an intellectual fetish of a self-selected liberal Eastern elite.”

Robert J. Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah, a public-private collaboration in the Salt Lake City region, told about 400 Charlotte region residents that his Western region calls what it does “quality growth.”  “It was our growth,” he said. “It was our decision.”

Whatever you call it, it’s impressive. The Salt Lake City region is building, in the next seven years, some 70 miles of mass transit lines. They’re building commuter rail, light rail, streetcar rail and bus rapid transit – simultaneously. Four counties adopted a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the projects. It’s part of a planned, 130-mile system. And all this in a state so politically conservative that, Grow said, Bill Clinton came in third in Utah, behind Ross Perot.

More on RealityCheck2050

“When we built our first light rail line” he said, “people thought it was a Communist conspiracy.” The first light rail line opened in 1999. The area now has three lines; its 44-mile commuter rail opened in 2008, and a modern streetcar line is due to open by the end of this year. “There isn't a city in Utah that isn't trying to get the rail to come,” he said.

Grow’s lunchtime remarks were part of a daylong exercise, RealityCheck2050, sponsored by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute and part of the multiyear CONNECT process, a 14-county regional planning endeavor. The RealityCheck idea is to let participants grapple with where thousands of expected new jobs and houses should go – dispersed throughout the region, concentrated along transportation corridors or clustered in existing cities and towns.

What made the difference in Utah, Grow said, was that Envision Utah, created in 1997, used computer modeling of regional growth projections to show that developing with a vision for public transit, for protecting open spaces, and encouraging development along transit corridors, would save billions in public spending.

“Strip retail? That's retail from the last century.”

“If you're afraid to say no to anything, you will get the worse of everything.”

“You can grow without destroying the things that people love.”

Ed McMahon, Urban Land Institute, speaker at RealityCheck2050

Whether the CONNECT process ends with a similar vision or similar regionwide support can’t be known yet. The morning exercise had participants at more than 30 tables using Lego blocks to try to show where best to locate expected new jobs and new housing among the 14 counties surrounding Charlotte.  As Michelle Nance, planning director for Centralina Council of Governments, told the crowd, “The population and employment projections for this region are, well, staggering.”

By 2050, the region of 2.4 million is expected to grow by 1.8 million people and add 863,000 jobs. The tables could add new transit or highway corridors, transit centers, greenways, and protect undeveloped or agricultural areas.

Different tables arrived at different solutions, ranging from an outer-outer belt highway – but lacking the housing and retail development that typically follows those highways – to clusters of Lego blocks stacked mostly in Mecklenburg County to Lego blocks clustered along proposed transit corridors throughout the region.

At the end of the day, participants voted with hand-held electronic devices on a variety of goals and solutions. Adding more light rail and transit snagged 84 percent of votes.

Topping the votes on a vision for the region were better transportation connections, more compact development, encouraging development where infrastructure already exists, and protecting water quality.

The region’s biggest challenges, the audience voted, were lack of access to alternative transportation (45 percent), lack of job creation (44 percent) and “insufficient cooperation among leaders” (39 percent).