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Originally published Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

It's time to promote development that conserves land and energy

Contrary to the call for transit-oriented, green development, writes columnist Neal Peirce, the impulses of some developers to go hog-wild with distantly located, energy-chomping, greenhouse-gas-generating development have scarcely abated. Consider a large project proposed in Kittitas County.

Syndicated columnist

Whoa. Let's pause and recalibrate before we equate economic "recovery" with our past practices of devouring land and consuming energy resources with near total abandon.

As a nation we've been wastrels, to be sure. Our mall and big-box mania, dependent on 1- to 4-ton vehicles for simple shopping trips, demanding vast acreage of paved-over landscape, left us (before the current eruption of dead malls) with six times the shopping space, per capita, of Europe.

And housing? Sprawling indiscriminately across the countryside, new residences were gobbling up 3,000 square miles of land a year before the current recession. Were we to keep up that pace from now until 2040, we'd turn territory the size of Colorado into roadways, subdivisions and apartment complexes. The cost in land, energy and added greenhouse emissions would be huge, scuttling any carbon-reduction goals we aspire to.

But listen to our daily news reports. We viscerally cheer at any news of increased housing starts, rarely asking how many of them represent the "same old" versus a new, more land- and energy-conserving mode.

Such acute real-estate/land-use experts as Arthur Nelson and Christopher Leinberger see us shifting course toward more dense, transit-oriented, walkable development. But the impulses of some developers to go hog-wild with new, outsize, distantly located, energy-chomping, greenhouse-gas generating development have scarcely abated.

Consider the plans of developer Robert Congel, super-wealthy founder/managing partner of the Pyramid Companies that have created 19 shopping malls. Congel is pushing hard to bless his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., with Destiny USA, a multibillion-dollar combination shop-store-restaurant-theater-tourist-hotel center, complete with such features as a 65-acre enclosed park, a 15,000-seat amphitheater, an aquarium, a six-story "climbing wall," and a re-creation of the Erie Canal.

Seven years ago I found myself writing with partial sympathy about Congel's plans. He seemed to believe sincerely that his project would draw 35 million visitors a year to economically lagging upstate New York.

Today I'd be far more skeptical — and not just because Citigroup, the construction financer, last June halted its Destiny loan payments.

The fact is, we have a new global reality. Our post-recession future almost surely holds gasoline at $4 a gallon, maybe a lot more. The prospective car travel of Destiny visitors would total billions of miles, generating formidable greenhouse-gas emissions.

OK, Congel has promised Destiny would be America's largest "green" building — powered entirely by nonfossil-fuel energy sources ranging from solar panels to hydrogen cells. Doesn't this change the picture?

No. Buildings contribute about 40 percent of America's yearly carbon emissions. The materials and machines to build new structures are significant carbon generators. Renovating structures in Syracuse's city center would be a dramatically "greener" choice than Destiny.

Indeed, "greenwashing" has become a tactic du jour for controversial projects. Take New York investor John Rudey's proposal to build a sustainable city in Washington state's Kittitas County, 90 miles east of Seattle. The new live-work town would have fully recycled water and fully contained sewage systems, solar energy, all-electric cars and more. There'd even be a massive solar project on 400 cleared acres of the 46,000-acre forestry tracts that Rudey's American Forest Land Company (AFLC) owns.

Sounds great? Maybe, and Kittitas County commissioners are figuratively salivating at the prospect of new jobs. But critics say the site screams sprawl — it's on a two-lane highway leading to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, in heavy snow country, 10 miles from the closest main road. It also requires a major rezoning that has local farmers up in arms, all the more so because it's reported that AFLC has clear-cut practically all harvestable trees from the vast site it bought from Boise Cascade in 1999.

It would be a lot wiser, some say, if AFLC put its model new city right beside Cle Elum, a historic but struggling mining and logging town 20 miles distant. Cle Elum has a hospital, schools and big chunks of a Washington state-designated urban growth area right beside it.

That might be an exciting, truly conserving and green — and, I'd add — patriotic choice. The kind we need a lot more of.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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