Recently, at a Moscow development meeting, a local architect-cum-attorney (or attorney-cum-architect; I can never quite recall) declared that he’d like to take a torch to all of the enormous, ostentatious, eyesore houses that have sprung up in recent years atop Moscow’s surrounding hillsides. He was being facetious – I think – but I’m sympathetic to both the sentiment and the impulse. With malice aforethought, I’ve been watching a nasty new house growing up on a nearby hill. Okay, it’s not really nearby – it’s at least three miles away or maybe more, but it’s clearly visible from my living room windows, and that ticks me off.
Sure, at the moment I can only see it clearly via binoculars, but it’s not yet finished and it’s not yet occupied. There are no lights, and no regular comings or goings, but I don’t want any damned neighbors, not even at what more reasonable people might deem a reasonable distance. This is not why I moved into a windy, inconvenient, snow-filled valley in Ass End, Idaho. I moved out here to be a semi-hermit, and now someone’s f*@king with my cave.
And yet, I’m not anti-growth. Far from it. Change is a necessary evil, particularly if I want an economic future here for my children. Moscow currently enjoys a 1% growth rate. One percent. Uno. Papa Bear thinks this is too much. Mama Bear thinks this is too little. Goldilocks thinks this is just right. I think it leaves bupkes for Baby Bear, and if we don’t want him growing up and moving to Seattle, or Spokane, or Portland, then we’d better get on the stick and do something.
I believe, reluctantly, in smart growth; my belief is qualified by the ways in which I see it practiced and advocated for locally. I certainly support the fundamental principles of smart growth: creating attractive, walker-friendly neighborhoods; preserving open space; protecting environmentally sensitive areas; encouraging community participation in land-use decisions; and expanding public transport. My questions and concerns arise from putting these principles into practice. In Moscow, too many of the proponents of smart growth make too strong and too often a distinction between “neighborhoods”? and “subdivisions,”? a distinction that I find both condescending and offensive. Subdivisions are defined as the newer housing developments on the eastern and northern ends of town, while neighborhood seems to mean one thing and one thing only — Fort Russell, Moscow’s most central and most desirable residential area.
Don’t get me wrong; Fort Russell is a lovely place. The trees are tall, the houses are old, and the sidewalks are well trodden. If I wanted to live in town, I’m sure I’d want to live in Fort Russell. Also, right in the center of the neighborhood, sits Moscow’s civic pride and joy, East City Park, home to the Renaissance Fair, Rendezvous in the Park, the Hemp Fest (uselessly renamed Earth Fest), Gay Pride, and just about every other annual outdoor event. East City Park is a picnic area, a playground, a meeting place; it’s somewhere to greet your neighbors and walk your dog. East City Park, like Fort Russell, is the envy of all of those benighted and maligned subdivisions on the edges of Moscow, but that needn’t be the case. A smart growth developer would create other city parks and open green spaces in those subdivisions. A smart growth city council, supported by a smart growth staff and smart growth planning and zoning, would force the issue.
But then, would Fort Russell be Fort Russell? Would it be Moscow’s gem community? Would its residents continue to look down their long noses at “subdivisions,”? reciting the principles of smart growth while failing to enforce them? I see an unsustainable gap between Moscow’s needs and its desires, and, from time to time, I wonder if smart growth isn’t code for no growth, and if sustainable development is really no development. We’re stubborn here and averse to change. The idea of Moscow being invaded by a WalMart Supercenter drives me around the bend. It’s hard to know which I hate more – the house on the hill or the prospect of a 40-acre monstrosity perched like a vulture directly across from the Moscow City Cemetery. (Though as long as WalMart is expanding into financial services, why not cremations and burials? Have granddad toasted while you shop for artificial flowers and a black crepe dress.)
I suppose if I really wanted to be a hermit, I’d move to Deary or Bovill or Helmer, but rumors are flying about the kaolin riches of Helmer. I might move there only to find myself surrounded by an Albuquerque or Mesa-style arts community. Good grief! If that happened, I might have to stop hunting deer from my front yard.
Smart growth, dumb growth, no growth, slow growth — what is it that we want? I know what I want – all the benefits of strong growth and none of the negatives. I want the kind of jobs that allow people to build houses on the hilltops, but I don’t want any more houses on the hilltops.