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Published: Thursday, 1/20/2005

70 at forum brainstorm 'smart,' clean city growth

Visions of Toledo streetscapes, both current and potential, flashed across a screen at the Martin Luther King Plaza last night as part of a discussion on smart growth and neighborhoods.

About 70 citizens, government and school officials, architects, and urban planners turned out for a forum on "Smart Growth in Brownfields Communities," led by Douglas Farr, founder of Farr Associates, a Chicago architecture and planning firm that tries to minimize the negative environmental impacts of its developments.

After listing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the city, the audience viewed 35 pairs of pictures and rated them on a scale of -5 to 5, based on how appealing they were.

The photos, from Toledo and other cities, included sidewalks, riverfronts, schools and other civic buildings, neighborhood shopping centers, and housing.

Audience opinion was most united on pedestrian walkways and housing styles. The audience did not like sidewalks passing by blank walls or big parking lots with no designated pedestrian paths. It also did not like "snout houses," houses with large garages in front, preferring front porches and townhomes.

Opinion on the riverfront was split, with people approving of both natural areas with lots of plants and user-friendly areas with benches and docks.

Regarding civic and commercial buildings, isolated buildings and the SeaGate Centre's big brick wall were not popular. Some people liked the large concrete-and-glass Kalamazoo Public Library. Others preferred less modern designs.

According to the audience, the city's strengths included highway access and cultural institutions. Weaknesses included brain drain and perception of poor schools and high crime. Opportunities included linking the parks with walking and bike trails, the Maumee riverfront, and making the city a tourist destination. Threats to the city included sprawl, an aging infrastructure, and competition with surrounding communities.

The forum was part of a city project funded by a $50,000 grant awarded last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Ford Weber of the city's public utilities departmentsaid.

He said city and school officials hope to combine new schools with cleanups of dilapidated neighborhoods and industrial sites. "We could create a critical mass of redevelopment," he said.

The city and Toledo Public Schools are taking advantage of the 12-year school building project to work on planning new neighborhoods around the city, including the new buildings. The city hired Farr Associates and Woodlands Consulting last year to work on the project.

Mr. Weber said the end result will be a set of smart growth-ranking criteria that could be used not just for projects in Toledo but for the whole country, to help planners determine what citizens want.

The criteria include the type of development, how dense a neighborhood should be, how close to transit, and whether neighborhoods should be walkable.

Knowing what people want will allow the city to do a better job of creating urban neighborhoods, he said.

"We aren't offering a rich urban experience," he said.

Mr. Farr will take the results of the forum and other input and begin developing the ranking criteria. He plans to return to Toledo in late April or early May to look at sites and make more specific plans.

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