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July/August 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet Newsletter

Teeming Texas Town Steers Growth

By Ralph Clark

Two years ago, McAllen, Texas, earned the dubious distinction of being named the most sprawl-threatened American city among those with a population of 200,000 to 500,000. It was identified as such in a nationally released Sierra Club report called "The Dark Side of the American Dream," and city leaders could not have been pleased with the publicity that followed.

But for those who work to make McAllen a more livable community governed by smart-growth policies, it was the best thing to come down the pipe in a long, long time. The publicity has led to a victory in McAllen, where the voices of some of the South's poorest residents will now be heard along with those of developers, and where city planning is heading in a better direction.

Odds are you've never heard of McAllen. It's in the Rio Grand Valley of south Texas, three miles from the Mexico border. The average temperature is 74 degrees, the population is 82 percent Hispanic and the local newspaper is advertising for an opinion-page editor "capable of writing from a libertarian point of view."

It's located at one end of an international bridge that links McAllen to the Mexican city of Reynosa, facilitating trade between the two countries. General Motors, Zenith and Converse Athletic Footwear are among the companies that have built Mexican factories, or maquiladoras. The McAllen chamber of commerce says more maquiladoras have relocated to this area than to any other industrial border location in south Texas.

McAllen's economy has grown 138 percent in 10 years, and with it has come unplanned, sprawling growth.

When the Sierra Club released its 1998 sprawl report, Jim Chapman, chair of the Lower Rio Grand Valley Group, spread the word through the McAllen Monitor. The newspaper in turn exposed the city's car-based culture, excess signage, strip malls and unplanned development.

In response, a local group organized under the name Futuro McAllen to work on historic preservation, green space, building standards and the arts.

Then the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the McAllen city planning department invited a team of specialists from Houston and other parts of Texas to study the city and recommend ways to confront its sprawl problem. Futuro McAllen and the Sierra Club were invited to participate.

The groups pushed for a city that invites foot traffic and bicycles, with mini-parks, narrower streets, more trees, a farmer's market and a thriving city core.

The architects devised a plan that fit the bill. Its centerpiece was a corridor running from the airport to the city business center, incorporating a rejuvenated mall and shopping areas, the college annex, a shady tourist walkway, city hall, a new farmer's market, an arts and crafts area and the library. A key component of the plan was to construct a new convention and civic center in the corridor. A light-rail system was also recommended.

The great news is that the city council approved the plan. But three of the commissioners voted to relocate the convention center to a location that will spawn still more sprawl - and improve financial opportunities for developers.

But the vote inspired a church coalition called Valley Interfaith to petition for a change in the process by which commissioners are elected. In the current at-large system, the entire city votes to fill every vacant seat on the commission. But with a single-member-district system, commissioners would come from specific sections of town and represent those constituents.

Real estate and the business community poured lots of money into defeating the measure, but the church group's grassroots efforts prevailed, and they won by 2 percent in May. In a community where there are millionaires on one side and some of the poorest people in the South on the other, this could make a difference in the city's future growth.

A shift in power away from those who stand to gain financially from poorly planned development will be a positive step for the city's future growth. There's no doubt it will be better than where McAllen was headed before the Sierra Club made it infamous among American cities.

Ralph Clark is chair of the Rio Grande Chapter's sprawl committee.

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