The `Burbs Fight Back

They're teaming up with cities to lure back business and families

In the years after World War II, Euclid, Ohio, epitomized the American Dream. Thousands of war veterans moved seven miles from working-class Cleveland neighborhoods into spanking-new bungalows near Lake Erie. By the 1970s, though, Euclid's factories began shutting down. Its middle class fled even farther out, leaving behind a poorer, aging population of 53,000. Today, its tax base eviscerated, Euclid needs money to repair sewers and streets and to reopen schools for a recent influx of lower-income families from the city.

What bothers Euclid Mayor Paul Oyaski most, though, is that government money is funding new infrastructure in the high-growth outlying counties that have gutted his tottering town. Ohio and the U.S. are spending $46 million, for example, to expand Interstate 90 in wealthy Lorain County, which has gained as many residents since 1990 as Cleveland and its immediate suburbs have lost.

So Oyaski and mayors from other close-in Cleveland suburbs are fighting back. With lobbying help from city officials, their First Tier Consortium is pressing the state to stop building new roads and to start repairing old ones. It wants the legislature to limit new communities from offering state tax breaks that draw businesses from the inner core. "The state has the obligation to correct the damage," Oyaski says.

It's the arrival of "metropolitics." Across the nation, cities and their bedroom communities argue that they can't slow their downward slide if cheaper land, lower taxes, and government-subsidized services in exurbia suck away middle-class families and businesses. So city and surburban officials--backed by downtown business executives, environmentalists, farmers, and church leaders--are looking to flex their muscles collectively.

RADICAL. Their agenda borders on the radical. They want wealthy enclaves to place property-tax revenues in a regional pool that would be used, among other things, to redevelop abandoned land downtown. They also want the state and federal governments to end policies such as infrastructure subsidies that fuel sprawl. And they're pressing for growth limits in fringe areas and low-income housing in outer suburbs. If exurban growth is curbed, they argue, middle-class families and businesses will stay in the inner core. Regional transit systems and affordable housing, meanwhile, will bring poor city residents to jobs and homes in the suburbs, reducing the concentration of poverty in the city.

Such arguments are winning converts among business executives, who say the long-term vitality of a region is tied to the health of urban downtowns. In Pittsburgh, for instance, CEOs want a metrowide sales-tax increase to finance new riverfront projects downtown. "A lot of businesses recognize that inner cores are assets they should build up, and that leapfrogging sprawl is economically inefficient," says Bruce Katz, an urban affairs expert at the Brookings Institution.

The new movement began in 1992 when Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator, made computer-generated maps that tracked the migration of wealth from the Twin Cities. He found vast disparities between inner-ring and fringe communities in household income, infrastructure subsidies, and tax burdens. Orfield, who coined the term "metropolitics," says similar maps show the same phenomenon in Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

UPHILL. The urban-suburban alliances face an uphill battle against powerful private land-owners and municipalities opposed to ceding autonomy and money. But in Minnesota, a coalition of city and inner-suburban legislators led by Orfield passed fair-housing state legislation in 1993 and 1994 and a tax-sharing bill in 1995 that was vetoed by the governor. It also put $1 billion of regional sewer, transit, and land-use planning under a metro council with taxing authority.

Now, nascent alliances are starting to score victories elsewhere. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening recently pushed through legislation confining state infrastructure subsidies largely to existing municipalities. It also would ease environmental cleanup rules for companies that want to locate on abandoned industrial sites. Glendening says the initiative would do much "to help established communities, to upgrade or rebuild infrastructure, [and] to direct jobs and business to older areas." In York, Pa., a business coalition is seeking a state measure offering incentives to outlying municipalities to curb growth. And church ministers around Gary, Ind., have convinced county officials to place a landfill in an exurb rather than expand an urban one, and to keep a courthouse in downtown Hammond.

Do such strategies work? Advocates point to Oregon, where counties were required 20 years ago to draw an Urban Growth Boundary. Lands beyond the boundaries are zoned for farms and forests only--no new homes, offices, or shopping centers. The result: While the Portland area's urbanized population grew by 14% in the 1980s, developed land expanded by just 11%, says urban consultant David Rusk. Downtown Portland is booming, and property values in even the poorest district have doubled in the past five years.

Resistance to such restrictions is inevitable, of course. Robert F. Crossk, a member of the county council that represents Gary's outlying suburbs, says urban residents "should be worrying about their crime and youth problems instead of telling us how to run our government. Every area should be able to grow the way it wants." To which the metropoliticos respond: Unless the forces of sprawl and polarization are checked, the middle class will move perpetually outward. Today's exurbs, then, could become the Euclids of tomorrow.

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