Glendening's Smart Growth: Insider Game

Originally published in The Daily Record

Wendell Cox May 15, 2002

Governor Parris Glendening has been a national leader in the anti-sprawl movement and is even credited with coining the enviable term "smart growth." But the Maryland legislative committee's recent approval of a $1.3 million state grant to finance and otherwise assist the Giant Foods relocation deal indicates that smart growth and fighting sprawl are a matter of who you are.

Smart growth seeks a more compact city --- higher residential densities and greater job concentration. Smart growth advocates believe this will make it possible to attract people out of their cars and into transit, a fundamental objective of smart growth. This, in turn, not building more highway capacity. Urban "infill" and "brownfield" developments are encouraged instead of suburban development.

The state supportive move of Giant Foods from Landover to Jessup violates these objectives. Landover is more centrally located, has more than three times as many people within 10 miles and much better transit. Shuttle buses serve the present location from two Metrorail stations, one with MARC service. There is a direct bus service to Washington. The Jessup location is not within walking distance of regional transit.

Giant Foods provided an opportunity to advance smart growth. There is an abundance of disused warehouse space in central Baltimore. Such a brownfield location would have provided needed redevelopment, while, reducing the pressure for sprawl. There is plenty of transit service. This progress seemed to be partially confirmed by the US Census supplemental survey, released late in 2001, which suggested that for the first time in the four decades for which records are available, the percentage of people using transit (work trip market share) to get to work did not decline.

Of course it is of questionable appropriateness for the state granting public funds and tax breaks to private companies, in this case to a foreign firm with gross revenues approximately equal to that of the state, its municipalities, counties, school districts and all other local units of government combined.

Perhaps Baltimore or Landover would have driven Giant to Virginia. But, if sprawl is really the demon Governor Glendening claims, it would be better to lose Giant than to have more sprawl. But the anti-sprawl movement has overplayed its hand. Urban sprawl, while unpopular at the political and polling level, drives the day to day behavior of the very same populace. Marylanders prefer a house in the suburbs, with plenty of land. They prefer two or more cars, which convey them in comfort to a wider variety of locations in far time than could be reached by any transit system. And its not just Marylanders or Americans. European cities are sprawling as fast as their smart growth regulators will allow. The American dream of home ownership and mobility has become the European dream. And the data shows that the more compact city envisioned by smart growth advocates would have greater traffic congestion, more air pollution and would cost more to live in.

So long as the area grows and people earn more, sprawl will continue. People will buy homes in the suburbs, buy more cars, and expand their travel horizons. And, as economic democratization continues, African-Americans and Hispanic households climbing the income ladder are right to expect the same lifestyle as those who located to the suburbs before. Dr. Matthew Kahn of Tufts University recently found that higher levels of Black home ownership are associated with greater sprawl. This is not to suggest that sprawl should be the objective. The objective should be freedom --- people should be allowed to live and work where they please.

But not in Maryland, where smart growth depends upon who you are. If you are a farmer seeking to make a better life for yourself and your children, then Parris Glendening says no. If you are a lower middle income household seeking to buy a less costly house on the urban fringe, Maryland says no.

If, on the other hand you are perceived to be important enough, Maryland will pay you to sprawl. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of smart growth. Smart growth places too much power in the hands of politicians. In Maryland, smart growth has become an "insiders" game.

-Wendell Cox is Adjunct Fellowof the Maryland Public Policy Institute