by Tara Perkins, Contributing Writer
For several years now, NAR’s Smart Growth Grant Program has assisted local REALTOR® Associations with the development of communities. Projects incorporate mixed-land uses and compact building design to create a range of development opportunities, choices, and walk-able neighborhoods.
Applying smart growth principles is a proven, favored approach to development. Work is done to preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas while also providing more transportation options.
Here’s a look at four local REALTOR® Associations utilizing program funding to spur smart growth in their communities.
Project Spotlight: Austin, Texas
In January of 2016, Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR) used a grant to complete a visioning project for a downtown parcel that was mired in controversy. At stake was a large development proposal for Austin Oaks, which came to a standstill the previous Fall. The proposal was at the junction of land use and growth challenges facing Austin. Similar projects created tension between residents and developers, resulting in stressful negotiations and decisions made without regard to broad community goals. However, the proximity of Austin Oaks to ABoR’s headquarters offered the team an opportunity to help develop and support a design charrette to discover consensus.
The proposed redevelopment area, purchased by Spire Realty and represented by Northwest Austin Civic Association (NWACA), is a 31-acre suburban office park containing 12 low-rise buildings adjacent to an expressway linking it to downtown Austin. Most of the suitable land developed between 1960 and 1980 has since grown past NWACA’s margins, and come under pressure to redevelop. In 2014, Spire sought to rezone the property for a mixed-use development with office/retail and apartments, but the existing transportation infrastructure would have become more taxed, causing further congestion.
At the behest of neighborhood representatives, Spire agreed to engage an alternative, design-based approach: a plan grounded on the National Charrette Institute (NCI) model. The design charrette for Austin Oaks offers a precedent for collaborative decision-making regarding land use, serving as a productive conduit for public input and establishing a collective vision prior to development. This process squares the redevelopment goals of the city, the developer, and the community, preventing costly zoning disagreements. “NAR’s Smart Growth grant provided a valuable opportunity for the Austin Board of REALTORS® to partner with a neighborhood group on a shared vision for Austin Oaks. The design charrette engaged all parties with the evolving proposal. Ultimately, the final plan offers significantly more benefits to the neighborhood and is a sound example of the power of this process,” says Andrei Lubomudrov of ABoR.
In this case, community values and smart growth development will replace urban sprawl, creating a distinctive, walk-able neighborhood. The natural landscape will be preserved, protecting large oak trees and a creek on the property. Stakeholders have agreed to create a range of cost-effective housing opportunities and a pedestrian/bike path that co-exists with transit within the neighborhood, alleviating congestion.
Project Spotlight: Asheville, North Carolina
Like Austin, the Asheville Board of REALTORS® (Land of the Sky Association) has a new vision for a downtown parcel and is in the midst of a project scheduled for completion in 2018. The Land of the Sky Association and Asheville Design Center (ADC) were asked by the Asheville City Council to facilitate a consensus community visioning process for a mix of public and private use of a city-owned, downtown property, Haywood Street Properties.
The city had entertained proposals for private development on the site, including a parking deck, a hotel, and corporate office space—none of which came to fruition. Locals are tired of the unattractive gravel lot, which has remained vacant for 12 years, earning the undesirable nickname “The Pit of Despair.”
The existing site discourages pedestrians from visiting nearby shops and attractions, which include the historic Basilica of St. Lawrence, Grove Arcade, county library system, and U.S. Cellular Center. As a result, the community is eager to create a new vision for the acre-wide hole in Asheville’s thriving downtown.
The Land of the Sky Association and ADC are forming an Advisory Team to hear the community’s suggestions and needs, to craft alternative uses and benefits, and to conduct strategic planning and coordination. With this input, ADC will coordinate temporary onsite installations to better inform future designs and deliver recommendations to the City Council.
Haywood Street Properties will contain a blend of property types, including ground floor retail space with a form of pedestrian-friendly, ADA-compliant civic gathering space, and creative parking solutions. Public sentiment favors density in low-rise and mid-rise structures. Views of the beautiful mountains and the historic landmarks in close proximity to Haywood Street are paramount.
Broad collaboration is a new approach to tackling controversial decisions around city-owned properties. Engagement with local stakeholders and property owners will identify opportunities for pop-up retail and/or cultural attractions and activities to enliven “The Pit” in the immediate future. These installations will test proposed ideas and activities on the site prior to commitment to development and investment. By engaging the public before decisions have been made, a more predictable and desirable process for downtown development is a welcomed and highly likely outcome.
Project Spotlight: Kauai, Hawaii
Kauai Board of REALTORS® (KBR) has received NAR funding to embark on a Main Street revitalization project and is currently working with a consultant to develop a strategy to rejuvenate the Rice Street commercial district. The Rice Street commercial district will benefit greatly as it will provide additional housing in the mixed-use zone, create vibrant economic activity, develop a walk-able area, as well as beautify and enhance Rice Street and the adjacent neighborhoods. The end result will also increase density (which will simplify the sale and transfer of property rights, benefitting property owners within the area) and will bring value to the surrounding neighborhoods.
The effort to revitalize Rice Street Commercial District is embraced by all stakeholders as plans to boost the area have been stalled in the past. KBR’s Government Affairs Committee is working in partnership with the County of Kauai, Planning Department, the Lihue Business Association, Kauai Chamber of Commerce, community, stakeholders, and property owners to collaboratively realize the revitalization of this pivotal area and to create a central civic gathering place.
“Despite significant planning and support by the town government, and commitment by businesses and investors, plans to redevelop and improve properties in the Rice Street downtown district have always resulted in an impasse. KBR volunteered as an active partner, convening the players to build a strong civic gathering place, a key element of smart growth strategy for any community. We look forward to a successful implementation,” says Karen Ono of KBR.
Project Spotlight: New Hampshire
In the state of New Hampshire, the permitting process for projects varies significantly by community, with only some processes being predictable, fair, and timely. The New Hampshire Commercial Investment Board of REALTORS® (NH CIBOR) goal was to create a uniformly fair, inclusive development approval process. Last fall, NH CIBOR completed a community forum project, which has proven to be a vital tool for local REALTORS® looking to expand their involvement with local leaders.
The forum hosted a panel of NH CIBOR members, town/city leaders, and managers, involving discussion around best practices for development and approval strategies and methods. Disparities in the permitting process across communities were investigated, and a report offering guidance about actionable strategies and tactics was produced and distributed. The forum will positively impact future NH development processes by encouraging best practices and eliminating obstacles.
“Our forum connected and improved the relationship between NH CIBOR, and New Hampshire municipal leaders, and developers. The first step was to identify areas that needed improvement. We then documented best practices. The third step was hosting another forum that featured community best practices. Future steps might involve elected officials, legislation, government agencies, and regulators. We demonstrated that the REALTOR® Association is committed to working cooperatively with multiple stakeholders in the NH economy,” says Patrick McDermott of NH CIBOR.
Smart Growth for Smart Communities
NAR’s Smart Growth Grant Program brings REALTORS® to the table and provides an opportunity to collaborate with other interested parties in their communities to improve public landscape and amenities, and to spur smart, future development.