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Speaker urges avoiding sprawl follies

By Ron DaParma
Saturday, June 7, 2003

Some years ago, the state of Maryland provided about $12 million for a new road to help facilitate development of the Country Club Mall, a regional shopping complex built on a parcel of undeveloped land outside of the community of Cumberland.

About two years later, many of the smaller stores in downtown Cumberland had been closed, and ever since, public officials have been putting in money to revitalize the city’s business district.

Such is the folly of some of the economic development policies being practiced today throughout the United States, said Parris Glendening, a former governor of Maryland, and now a leading national advocate of the concept for development commonly known as “Smart Growth.”

“If you go throughout just about every state in the union and map development, you will find exactly the same type of patterns,” said Glendening, who was a keynote speaker in Oakland Friday at a symposium whose main focus was finding ways to deal with the growing problem of having thousands of abandoned buildings in Pittsburgh and other older communities.

The topic was important enough to draw about 300 community leaders, public policy activists, development experts and others to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall at the invitation of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which was host and one of the cosponsors of the day-long event.

One of the foundation’s primary concerns is to prevent the unnecessary demolition of vacant buildings that may still be viable assets to the community, said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of the preservationist organization. The issue includes determining which structures are valuable and which are not.

“This is a problem that is not just a possible loss of buildings and infrastructure, but a problem that neighbors do not want abandoned buildings to stay abandoned,” Ziegler said. Another key question, he said, is to find out how to save some buildings and also have the time necessary to restore them. “We’re often talking about architectural assets, economic assets, cultural assets and neighborhood assets.”

The problem is fairly typical in cities across the country, said Glendening, who is now president of the Smart Growth America/Smart Growth Leadership Institute. In Maryland, for example, he said there are about 40,000 empty dwelling units within the borders of the city of Baltimore alone.

“People are moving further and further from our cities, to the older suburbs, to the newer suburbs, and abandoning each area as they move further out,” he said. “It is important to understand why cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and others all across this country are having this problem.”

Government entities are spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year for new roads, new water and sewer lines and new schools to accommodate urban sprawl, Glendening said. But at the same time, they find themselves having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with social problems in the urban communities developers and businesses have left behind.

One answer is to follow development and tax polices that will help prevent abandonment of even more buildings in the first place, Glendening said. That is why his organization is working with local and state governments across the nation to identify policies that work to redirect economic energy to existing communities and prevent sprawl.

“What we have found is that many of the current administrative and zoning structures and actually the tax structure can actually discourage investment in existing communities and encourages people to go out and pave over one more farm or plough down one more forest,” he said.

Ron DaParma can be reached at or 412-320-7907.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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