Opinion

OPINION | ART HOBSON: Northwest Arkansas housing crunch demands big decisions for the future

Toward a high-density solution

Fayetteville needs more housing. The current shortage creates high prices that force poor people into homelessness, eat up middle-class income and make it financially difficult for teachers, police, firefighters and other essential workers to live in their own towns.

The problem is caused by population growth and sprawl. Population growth was linear (straight-line) and small from 1840 to 1940. It shifted to a higher linear rate during 1940 to 1990. Since then it has increased exponentially (curving upward) at very high rates, while housing has maintained only linear growth.

Is population growth a good thing? The real estate industry likes to tell us that growth is always good but I doubt this conventional wisdom. At any rate, forecasters tell us that, like it or not, the city's current 94,000 population is fated to reach 151,000 by 2045.

Let's talk about sprawl. I love this quirky, artsy, university-oriented city where I have lived and taught since 1964. Beginning early in this century, the city has had the good sense to develop a series of master plans to guide future development rationally and democratically. Mayors Dan Coody and Lioneld Jordan brought in wise city planners to assist this process.

Around 2006, the city sponsored a weeklong series of "charettes" involving some 200 citizen stakeholders who sat around 25 tables to discuss planning ideas, guided by a forward-looking city planning group. At one point, each table was given a city map and a small stack of poker chips. The chips represented future population growth that, like it or not, was coming in Fayetteville during the next 20 years. Each group was asked to distribute its chips in the places where we thought this inevitable growth should occur. Much discussion ensued. When the dust had settled, all 25 tables put their chips near the city's center. No groups opted for outlying suburbs.

The reason is that sprawl kills cities. I could list many good books that make this point but will mention just one classic: "The Geography of Nowhere: The rise and decline of America's man-made landscape" by James Howard Kunstler, published in 1994. Full disclosure: Twenty years ago I invited Kunstler to present a "distinguished lecture" on the campus and to confer with Fayetteville city employees.

Sprawl kills cities because it strangles them with highway and automobile-based infrastructure. We see this most glaringly in highly car-dependent cities such as Los Angeles that feature 100-mile commutes. The antidotes for this sprawl are (1) alternate transportation systems, namely trains, buses, bicycles and walking and (2) building high-density housing close to the city's center.

If Fayetteville continues building four-to-an-acre residential lots, it will destroy itself. Homelessness will increase, only wealthy people will live near the center and, according to current projections, the city will run out of land.

The solution is greater density. Fayetteville should prohibit new development at less than eight homes per acre and encourage apartments near the center. New developments on large lots, especially if they are far from the center, should cease.

Fayetteville needs much more residential multifamily housing. The problem, of course, is the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. There are always a few people ready to scream bloody murder if apartments are suggested in their neighborhood. I suggest that one way of getting around the NIMBYs is to line College Avenue with high-rise apartment buildings. This highway is not a neighborhood. It is currently home to a string of small shops and restaurants that would be more likely to flourish in "nodal" settings at high-density intersections rather than strung out along College Avenue.

However, "high-rise apartment" must not be construed to include anything taller than five or perhaps six stories. Unlike America's towering cities, many large European cities such as Stockholm (where I once spent a lovely six-month leave) go no higher than six stories. Developers will always push for higher limits because it brings in more dollars per acre, but planners must resist these greedy desires.

Apartments will require some serious re-thinking of College Avenue. Fayetteville and other Northwest Arkansas cities have been leaders in building trails and bicycle lanes, and the new plans should by all means follow this pattern. Fayetteville in recent years took ownership from the Arkansas Department of Transportation of most of College Avenue within the city's borders. That should give the city more flexibility in the road's future design.

It seems to me, for example, that the central fifth lane will need to go. This is just one suggestion. I'm certain there are others. We need to talk about it.

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