To Grow or Not to Grow

There’s a price to pay for smart-growth strategies

In 1960, Colorado Springs, Colo., was the size of Lincoln, Neb. That the Colorado community once shared identical population stats to a Nebraska town is significant, because it’s no longer true. But that was according to plan.

At just 143,000 people in 1960, Colorado Springs was a smallish mountain town. Over the next 40 years, under an economic plan that opened the city to rapid and substantial growth, the Springs swelled to nearly 525,000 people, well above the national growth rate. But 550 miles east there was a different plan in place. Determined to control its growth, Lincoln’s economic-development leaders implemented aggressive zoning and development laws. In 1960, the population was 145,000. Today, it’s less than 240,000.

Growth has its perks. But so does non-growth. While the city of Colorado Springs faces infrastructure and quality-of-life issues, Lincoln has become a model for smart growth. In November, after an online search listed Lincoln as “one of the most well-managed smart-growth cities in the country,” a contingent of 15 Louisiana officials traveled north from Lafayette and were reportedly impressed with what they saw. “On their bus tour, they were amazed by the way Lincoln’s bustling city streets, dense with development, almost instantly give way to serene countryside and farmland once they crossed city limits,” reported The Independent Weekly, a southern Louisiana publication.

Smart growth is an economic-development strategy that comes with a price. While the positive press talks about how smart-growth cities deliver better-quality services for each tax dollar, what it doesn’t discuss is how many developers are stymied, how many redevelopment projects don’t happen, and how many amenities—e.g. retail, restaurants and entertainment—residents are denied.

I talked recently with Adam Ifshin, president of DLC Management, the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based shopping center developer that has generated plenty of acquisition headlines of late, purchasing 19 centers in 2006 alone. The 19th acquisition of the year, in November, made DLC the proud owner of East Park Plaza in Lincoln. By acquiring a local center, Ifshin became intimately acquainted with my city’s aggressive zoning. “We encountered some interesting restrictions that impact whether you can have another movie theater ever in this part of town,” he said. One source of conflict between residents and lawmakers is Lincoln’s 24-year-old ordinance that allows movie theaters with more than six screens only in the downtown area—and nowhere else. “That’s pretty unique,” said Ifshin, “and given the level of due diligence we do, we were able to figure out that we could get pretty comfortable with the theater operator at East Park [a six-screen cinema] because basically, he can be there forever.” DLC’s plans for East Park Plaza include significant demo work over the next three months and the installation of “a tier-one, quality, big-box tenant.” If it’s a new-to-market tenant, that would be considered real progress by Lincolnites, who respond positively to the arrival of major developers such as DLC, and their national retail contacts. Because while Colorado Springs has Macy’s, Lincoln has Southern tourists who appreciate the serene countryside and farmland.