Winston-Salem leaders grapple with urban sprawl challenges

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem architect Rence Callahan thumbs through the Places Rated Almanac.

The public hearing on the South Suburban Area Plan inside the chambers of the Winston-Salem City Council on Jan. 3 featured a spirited exchange between residents and city officials on the sensitive subject of zoning and land use in the context of the city’s long-range development plan known as Legacy.

Residents from the Sides Road area, which lies east of Peters Creek Parkway, objected to the city’s proposal to designate the area for office and moderate-density residential development, such as apartments. Currently, Sides Road is zoned for single-family residential. The debate was heated at times as some property owners accused the city of overstepping its bounds.

“Our tax dollars have paid the salaries of those who are trying to rob us,” one property owner said.

Council member Molly Leight, who represents the South Ward, told residents the area plan does not constitute a rezoning. Leight, along with council members Dan Besse, Denise D. Adams, James Taylor, and Vivian Burke, voted in favor of adopting the plan while council members Wanda Merschel, Robert Clark and Derwin Montgomery voted in opposition.

Rence Callahan, a partner in the Winston-Salem architectural firm of Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce, paid close attention to the outcome of the Jan. 3 meeting. Callahan admitted he doesn’t know everything that’s in the South Suburban Area Plan, but “the more planned we are, the better we are,” he said.

Callahan said the debate at the Jan. 3 meeting underscores a longstanding battle between property rights advocates and smart growth advocates.

“Unfortunately here in the Southeast, we’re on the wrong side of the pendulum,” Callahan said. “In a city where you have a really thoughtout plan and people understand it and react to it, there is ironically more willingness to invest than in a market driven community where you let the marketplace drive things. Whether you’re a [Republican] or a [Democrat] in the political spectrum, the idea that private property owners should be able to do whatever they want on their property ironically doesn’t generate the most investment opportunity.”

Callahan worked closely with city officials on the Downtown Area Plan, the first part of the Legacy plan. Callahan said he’s always taken a keen interest in urban design and urban planning, and their relationship to a city’s overall prosperity.

“I firmly believe that great cities are great because they have a plan,” Callahan said. “They work towards a plan, and it’s not reactive planning, but its proactive planning. Whether it’s worldwide or here in North America, there’s this fundamental difference in terms of willingness to invest.”

And great cities are measured in publications like Places Rated

Almanac, which utilizes a number of criteria to rate the best places to live in America. In the most recent edition, Winston- Salem ranked a disappointing No. 155. There is a reason for the city’s low ranking in terms of overall quality of life, Callahan said.

He cited a 20-year-old study conducted by the American Planning Association that compared two of the fastest growing cities in North America in a comparison of planned growth versus unregulated growth. Toronto has the distinction of being the most regulated, planned city in North America, Callahan said, while Houston is the total opposite.

“In Houston, it’s do what ever you want,” he said. “You could build a high-rise building and someone could put a factory beside it because generally, they had no zoning ordinances. They just let it happen. It is the most sprawled, disorganized city in the country.”

The study demonstrated that property owners were more protected and investment firms were more willing to invest in Toronto than in Houston because “they had a comfort that their investment would be integrated,” Callahan said.

“Where there’s willingness to invest is typically where people are comfortable that the investments around them protect their investment,” he added.

Houston is a prime example of “dumb growth,” Callahan, and the same kind of thinking can be seen in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

“We have this culture in Winston-Salem, specifically in the Carolinas and the Southeast, that development in the suburbs is a good thing, so we continue to reinforce that with the way business is done,” Callahan said. “Why in the world does the city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County endorse widening of Peters Creek Parkway all the way to the Davidson County line? That’s dumb growth; that’s dumb use of resources.”

A study commissioned by Smart Growth America measuring urban sprawl and its impacts ranked the Piedmont Triad as the second most sprawling metropolitan area in the nation, just behind Riverside, Calif. On the other end of the Smart Growth America study is New York City, which was ranked as the least sprawled city in America.

“Great cities are ones where at some point, the light bulb goes off or something else happens and the growth out stops and the growth up takes place,” Callahan said. “High-density development is the transition from out to smart growth.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but the greenest place in North America is Manhattan Island, Callahan said, because of its mass transit infrastructure and high-density development.

“Winston-Salem is one of the least green cities in the country because we are one of the most sprawled cities,” Callahan said. “The ratio of urban development to new development in the suburbs is one of the lowest.”

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the purpose of the Legacy plan is to reduce urban sprawl in Forsyth County, and he believes the effort will garner long-range environmental, economic and public health benefits.

“The same holds true for local government,” he said. “It is much more cost effective to provide services in a more compact, denser environment than in a development pattern in which city vehicles must travel longer distances, utility lines have to be extended, and more miles of roadways must be built and maintained.”

The statistics might appear grim, but Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, is optimistic that high-density development will increase in the downtown area in the coming years.

“It’s already started with a resurgence of people’s interest in housing and living downtown,” Thiel said. “I think that will lead the charge toward additional density.”

The property rights issue aside, investment in downtown is a wise move, he added.

“The density of a high-rise, commercial office building — a tower — generates typically a significant amount of tax revenue for a relatively small area of space,” Thiel said. “It doesn’t require a whole lot of infrastructure or new schools to be built. What it’s doing is providing a tremendous value to the general fund and providing a tremendous tax revenue. A healthy downtown with density is an investment in keeping taxes down for us all.”

Joines said the purpose of the Legacy plan is to reduce urban sprawl by encouraging more infill development, while lowering carbon emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels.

Callahan is also a proponent of green building and environmentally friendly urban development. Callahan’s office on Trade Street has the distinction of being the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED certified space in Forsyth County. When Callahan’s firm applied for LEED certification, he quickly learned how far behind the curve Winston-Salem truly is. As part of the application process, Callahan had to cal culate the overall density in the area surrounding their office, and what he learned surprised him.

“We don’t even come up to what US Green Building Council calls medium density,” Callahan said. “The big picture is, the community can become greener if it actually has significantly more density.”

The only way to shift the current paradigm is through a shift in public policy, Callahan said.

“The fundamental difference that every city in the world ultimately gets to is when do you stop first growth?” Callahan said.

“When do you stop expanding out into the next farm or next forest and grow up instead of out? For the most part, Winston- Salem still operates under 19 th and 20 th century ideas of first growth. When there’s an idea of something being built, we’re moving out to the next farm.”

That kind of antiquated thinking has been reinforced by civic and business institutions, making real change even more difficult, Callahan said.

“The real estate community, the development community, the [NC Department of Transportation], the school system — go on and on through public and private [entities] and the way decisions are made,” Callahan said. “They are made in anticipation of 1960s thoughts — ‘Where is the next development going to be?’ So let’s build the next school out ahead of that development.”

Callahan said Winston-Salem should look to cities like Pittsburgh, Portland and Oklahoma City, all highly regulated cities in terms of growth and urban sprawl, as a model for how to reposition itself in the global economy. And at some point, city and county officials have to seriously look at the idea of metropolitan consolidation. That means having all Forsyth County suburban communities — Kernersville, Lewisville, Clemmons, Rural Hall — under one governmental umbrella, Callahan said.

“Visionary cities are saying, ‘This doesn’t work; we have to consolidate,’” he said.

Callahan moved to Winston-Salem 35 years ago and raised his family here, so he loves the city. But he believes it could be better, and it must start doing better if it hopes to contend with other cities in the highly competitive global economy.

“We won World War II and we got fat and happy,” Callahan said. “We just think it’s going to continue. Meanwhile, other places are moving along. They’re not so [adverse] to change, but here, there’s resistance to change.”