Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Atlanta's 'Mr. Region' (who warned against our outerbelt) has died

2009 photo of unfinished I-485 at Old Statesville Road. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Sad news from the Saporta Report in Atlanta: Harry West, longtime (1973-2000) executive director of the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, died Monday morning, reports Maria Saporta.

West, writes Saporta, "probably did more than any other person in metro Atlanta to create a regional mindset." Read more about his role here.

I met West several times over the years, but his most memorable visit to Charlotte, at least in my memory, came in March of 1998. He spoke at a regional conference on the then-unfinished I-485 outerbelt loop. The conference was sponsored by the Centralina Council of Governments, the now defunct regional advocacy group Central Carolinas Choices and - perhaps amazingly - the Charlotte Chamber.

It was a time when some community leaders worried that building the outer loop would create so many miles of low-density sprawling development that Charlotte would go the way of Atlanta.

As I wrote in an April 11, 1998, column for the Charlotte Observer, West described what Atlanta's Perimeter Highway, I-285, had meant to the city and what Charlotte might learn from Atlanta's experience.

I-285 was finished in 1969, he recounted, and was intended to maintain a strong center city. Instead it attracted development, and what Atlanta got was sprawling growth "that doesn't allow you to do anything but use your car," as West put it.

Then came his advice: “If I thought you would listen to me,” he said, “I'd tell you not to build it.”

He didn't mean not to build any more streets or roads or highways. He meant not to focus our transportation plans
around a loop highway. As I wrote then:

“He advised a serious focus on land-use planning along I-485, and requiring development that doesn't force you to drive everywhere. ‘Decide what you want and stick to it,’ he said. ‘Don't change it, don't bend to the market forces.’

“Did he realize he was in Charlotte, the 'Growth Is Good' center of the universe? Market forces here eat land-use plans for breakfast.”

After the conference the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission did a land use study of all the outerbelt interchanges and set "plans" for those that had not been built yet, or that did not already have plans. The plans looked like colored blobs of single-use zoning: office parks in this area, shopping centers over there, single-family subdivisions here and apartment complexes over yonder.

None of those interchange plans, even if they had been followed, would have made any difference in stopping the outward-oozing sprawl. Almost all the the new development was designed so driving is the only way to get around. So much for the cure of congestion. Harry West understood that, and he tried to tell us. But we were not in a mood to listen.

Life along any urban highway. Do highways just induce traffic? Photo: iStock