"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Progress (?), Part II

News stories can be classified according to their scope: international, national, state, regional, citywide, local, and really local. This particular item is one of the latter, as it's newsworthy only to a handful of households on my street. But for those few people, this event has greater impact than any headline out of Washington.

I wrote here Monday about a local developer who has recently clear-cut a wooded area on my block in order to build a shopping center, and I was somewhat surprised to see that this was a front-page story in our local Sunday paper today. Under the headline "The grass isn't so green on the other side of the strip center", the story quotes several local residents who were taken by surprise when all the trees were plowed down by construction crews.


"We came home and they had cut down everything," said one. "It's just gone. Basically, we thought they would leave a thin line of trees behind the buildings, but they didn't. Now everyone can see our house from Wal-Mart."

Our street has always been a fairly secluded and peaceful neighborhood, where folks walked their dogs and could sunbathe on their front lawns. It's close to shopping, but was also hidden from view. That's not the case anymore, and for some, they've decided it's time to move.

"We just don't want to be here anymore," said a homeowner who lives directly across from what up until two weeks ago had been a greenbelt. "And they are going to put in some kind of drainage area in the back right across from our house – that's not going to help property values. And instead of trees, we're going to be looking at the back of a shopping center, so no one is exactly happy about it."

Others are worried about the noisy hum of bulldozers which wake them up early in the morning, as well as wildlife that have suddenly found their habitat gone. Even though we are at the other end of the street, we have noticed a huge increase in the number of gray squirrels that are showing up in our backyard to eat the sunflower seeds we put out in our bird feeders. We used to see them only occasionally, but are now getting them every day ... sometimes four or five at a time. There's no doubt in my mind they've been displaced from their homes by the construction.

A member of the City Planning Board said the future retail space indeed looks much different today than it did a couple of months ago, but one of the biggest requests the city gets every year is that local residents want to see more progress – more shops, more restaurants and more choices. This sentiment was echoed in a letter to the editor which coincidentally also appeared in today's paper:
"The Chamber of Commerce needs to think about what [residents] would like besides hunting and fishing. We formerly lived in a smaller city that had a Cracker Barrel, TGIF, Texas Roadhouse, Carrabas, Joe's Crab Shack, and many other well-known restaurants, as well as locally-owned restaurants. While there are many restaurants here, there are not enough. We also need a decent mall...the only place to shop is Wal-Mart. Will we ever have decent shopping? It really doesn't sound like it... Most newcomers here eventually hear the "rumor" that long-time residents do not want growth, do not want new stores and restaurants, and want the area to remain quiet. We can understand that wish, but if the city planned its growth properly, it could have both the amenities that people need and a quiet town."
This conflict between economic growth and quality of life is a common theme in small-to-medium size towns like the one I live in, and it's a legitimate debate. Most people here have to make a minimum 60-mile round trip to the nearest city that offers decent shopping and dining, and some of us find it necessary to make the 300-mile round trip to Houston on a semi-regular basis. With the price of gas rising to astronomical levels, the cost of such a drive can be significant.

Before the construction on my street began, there was supposedly a meeting between the city and residents to let them know what to expect and to get their input and feedback, but it was not publicized well and most people had little idea of the magnitude of the development that has now taken place.

On a more positive note, the developers say they will comply with city landscaping and screening ordinances by putting a natural "green space" barrier between our street and the strip center. Bradford pears, live oaks, Shumard oaks and crape myrtles will help add some aesthetics back to the neighborhood, and may soften the urban sprawl. We have not been told what stores will be located in the new center, although the newspaper article revealed that plans include at least one free-standing restaurant and up to 21 stores.

I suppose progress is inevitable ... but at what price?

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