Art Hobson, email@example.com
NWA Times, 3 June 2012
Northwest Arkansas Infrastructure Development: Building Wisely
Our region's cities and towns are mostly wonderful places to live. However, our too-rapid growth means we'd better pay attention or things will go rapidly awry. To advance, we'd better build our infrastructure for long-term quality of life, not short-term profits. These decisions will resonate for decades.
Last month's Northwest Arkansas Development Conference laid out plans and problems. As this newspaper reported, Bentonville's Mayor Bob McCaslin and planner Daniel Hitz said renovation around the square, the extraordinary Crystal Bridges Museum, trails around the museum, restaurants, and farmers markets have moved downtown development "off the charts." It's the kind of high-quality people-oriented development that makes our region great.
Fayetteville is moving in several smart directions. Trails coordinator Matt Mihalevich and urban developer Seth Mims talked about the economic benefits of trails, describing projects built or planned along trails or near Ozark Regional Transit bus stops. The ability of such development to draw folks together rather than sprawling them all over the countryside is one of the many benefits of trails, sidewalks, and transit. Maihalevich said developers are "choosing sites based on the trail being there."
Mayor Lioneld Jordan said Fayetteville favors more infill, and that the city's zoning approach mixes residences, apartments, and commercial services to form real neighborhoods while discouraging car-dependent suburbs. It was refreshing to hear of plans for high-density student apartments near the university. High density saves driving, money, time, energy, resources, and environment, while reducing boring sprawl, increasing the feasibility of alternative transportation, and adding to the excitement of urban life.
Speaking of infill, Fayetteville's most glaring example of undervalued, ugly urban space amid high-value surroundings is the block of ground-level parking west of the Walton Arts Center. Such parking sprawl signifies urban decay and the sooner it can be replaced with, for example, decked parking surrounded by people-oriented shops, the better. Some of us have been saying this for years but this eyesore seems eternal.
All this fits squarely into the progressive "new urbanism" principles, although by now this movement is no longer so new. James Kunstler's 1993 gem "The Geography of Nowhere" is a new urbanism classic and still an inspiring read that focuses on the devastation of our urban fabric at the hands of America's car culture.
On a more depressing note, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director Scott Bennett spoke of further Los Angeles-style freeway development out on I-540 where the geography of nowhere so obviously rules. The plan is to finance highway widening to six or (count 'em) eight lanes, along with further megatons of asphalt spread over our gorgeous state's entire landscape, with a half-cent statewide sales tax to be voted on this November. As an indication of the magnitude of this proposal, the state recently began widening a 1.4-mile stretch north of Martin Luther King Boulevard to six lanes. The tab for just this bit of widening is about $6 million--comparable to the $7.5 million that would have been raised each year by the recently-defeated Washington County transit tax. An extra two lanes along a measly 1.4 miles of interstate would nearly pay for widespread buses through the county for a year! Something's wrong with those priorities.
The congestion on I-540 happened because, instead of functioning as a long-distance interstate connection, the interstate was "developed" by our regional planning geniuses into Northwest Arkansas' main street. Big box stores, big box churches, megamalls, and city expansion west of the highway, never should have happened. Instead, I-540 has attracted the kind of sprawl that destroys cities and countryside alike. The downtowns of our four regional cities are fractured these cheesy car-dependent establishments. The malls and big boxes depend on you and me to pay for the highways, cars, and gasoline that bring shoppers out to their sprawling parking lots and their cheap land as they destroy the vitality of the local shops that used to inhabit our downtowns. It's nowhere, indeed.
I-540 traffic is mostly local, generated by the development that was itself created by the highway. More lanes only mean more traffic. It's a developer's bonanza and a self-fulfilling nightmare, especially for those who can't or won't afford the annual $9,000 required (according to the AAA) for the care and feeding of each automobile. And highway planners now ask Arkansans for an additional half-cent sales tax. Our response should be: If drivers want it let them pay for it, through gasoline taxes and tolls.
It behooves us to chose wisely between constructive and destructive infrastructure.