'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions? With many boomtime developments now just dusty wastelands, Sun Belt suburbs like those outside Phoenix are shifting gears. Some planners argue for a radical option called "smart decline" — letting empty lots go back to nature and even, in some cases, tearing down infrastructure.
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'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions?

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'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions?

'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions?

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The population in the Southwestern U.S. has been growing, but in the last years of the real estate bubble, developers bet on much faster growth than actually occurred. Now, in the aftermath, people in some cities are thinking about whether the population will ever catch up with the infrastructure they built. Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ reports on the concept of smart decline.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: On the westernmost edge of Phoenix, it's easy to find vast sections of empty land once prepped for two-by-fours and work crews.

GREG SWANN: It's tragic. It's heartbreaking.

O'DOWD: Realtor Greg Swann has watched this neighborhood boom and bust. At our feet are reminders of better times.

SWANN: Wiring, phone wiring, cable wiring, that kind of stuff.

O'DOWD: This is zombie subdivision. Some experts believe up to a million dirt lots in central Arizona were in some stage of approval for new homes when the market crashed. Where planners see a problem, Swann sees opportunity.

SWANN: At some point, sometime fairly soon, this land will be profitable again and it'll turn into houses. And you'll drive by this five years from now and you won't remember that you were here, because it'll be completely different. And that's the way Phoenix works. I mean, Phoenix changes like dreams.

O'DOWD: Have you ever heard of the idea of smart decline?


SWANN: You know, I never have.

O'DOWD: Advocates of this idea, smart decline, wonder what happens if optimistic growth projections don't work out. Tufts University Professor Justin Hollander wrote a book called "Sunburnt Cities," about smart decline in the Southwest. He says after the bust, more than a third of ZIP codes in major Sun Belt cities saw population losses.

JUSTIN HOLLANDER: People are leaving. So that means all the houses, all of the roads and infrastructure that supports those houses, it just doesn't just disappear.

O'DOWD: In some cases, Hollander calls for tearing down the infrastructure, like Rust Belt cities that took generations to realize the depth of their problems.

HOLLANDER: If you don't do a good job, it further destabilizes the neighborhood. It further creates a cycle of disinvestment.

JIM HOLWAY: I tend to assume that we will grow again.

O'DOWD: Jim Holway works for the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute, a group that promotes sustainable development in the West.

: Is it possible the forces that drove the growth in the West really have come to an end? I think it's unlikely. Certainly, this is a time for creative thinking.

O'DOWD: And there is creative thinking. Holway agrees letting land go back to nature - farming or desert - is one solution for the most unattractive zombies. But says the land closest to the urban core still has a chance. This brings us to a third option: start over.

BRENT BILLINGSLEY: Oh, man, this is a big piece of property.

O'DOWD: Brent Billingsley stands on the edge of a dirt lot with room for 182 houses. Billingsley is the city of Maricopa's development services director. Maricopa grew up south of Phoenix almost overnight. During the boom, planners issued 600 housing permits a month. There's even sidewalks here.

BILLINGSLEY: There's even sidewalks up to this point. Yes, sir.

O'DOWD: But this land has now been rezoned for mixed use. The Catholic Church bought the parcel, and now there are plans for a private school, shops at ground level and loft-style housing above. Billingsley says this type of creative redevelopment didn't happen before.

BILLINGSLEY: Everyone has taken this opportunity to kind of catch our breath and take a look at how we want to grow in the future. And we've been at a balance now for the last couple years and able to catch up and to be smarter.

O'DOWD: It will still take Maricopa years to swallow the 16,000 lots set aside for residential development. Public swimming pools, baseball fields and schools will replace some of those zombies. It's acknowledgment that times have changed, and that building a community takes more than new single-family homes. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.

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