hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial November 2018



Test for smart growth: Where do cars fit in?


In the many conflicts over development around our region in recent years, the issue of whether a project contributes to sprawl or helps to produce “smart growth” really boils down to one question: Are the buildings and their arrangement on the landscape scaled to people who approach them on foot – or in cars?

The strip-and-sprawl highway development that has defined the ever-expanding outer frontiers of our urban areas for the past 60 years works just fine -- as long as we never have to walk more than a few steps from our cars. And as this type of development spreads, of course, we find ourselves spending ever more time behind the wheel.

But if we wind up in a sprawl zone without a car, we are suddenly lost in a landscape that is utterly depressing and dehumanizing, with everything much too far apart to be reached on foot.
In contrast, the traditional urban fabric of villages and cities that were built before cars – and the new compact, mixed-use developments in which smart-growth proponents seek to emulate that fabric – are designed to be lived in by people who walk. And by definition, these areas make life difficult for drivers: They have low speed limits, they’re densely settled and congested, and they never seem to have enough parking.

That’s as it should be. For pedestrian-oriented development to survive, it can’t make too many concessions to cars. As more than a few of the small cities in our region have learned in the past few decades, sometimes quite painfully, shredding the traditional urban fabric to make it more accommodating to traffic can lead to disaster.

Yet we live in an era in which very few people outside the largest cities can live easily or comfortably without having a personal vehicle, or three, at their disposal. So as our region keeps growing, how many concessions to cars represent the right balance for communities that want to preserve a pedestrian-friendly environment?

Our cover story this month poses perhaps the most obvious case. A gas station, by definition, is a feature of the highway landscape, and it works most easily when we can pull up, fill up, hop back in and floor it. Is it an exercise in futility to try to design a gas station for the center of an area where we want a walkable village?

The Columbia County community of Craryville is about to find out. As our story details, a regional fuel distributor has proposed building a gas station and convenience store at the main intersection of Craryville, a small hamlet within the town of Copake. The town recently adopted a new zoning code that, among other things, seeks to foster pedestrian-oriented development in its traditional population hubs, including Craryville.

The developer’s original plan, drafted under the previous zoning law, called for a standard highway-style design: the store set far back from the road, with lots of gas pumps and enough pavement for 48 parking spaces out front. Amazingly, the old zoning law actually required all those parking spaces.

Now the developer is revamping the plan to conform to the new zoning law. There’ll be only 12 to 15 parking spaces, and although the new plan hasn’t been filed yet, the developer says the store will be moved to the front of the lot, with the parking out back.

Will that be enough to make the project pedestrian-friendly? Perhaps not, but it’ll sure be a lot better than the original plan.



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