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Taking a Closer Look

School Sprawl

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The story is a familiar one: a wealthy business owner offers a cash-strapped state university a free piece of land in a suburban business park, as the site for a new satellite campus. Of course the state will still have to pay for road improvements, sewer and water extensions, and the classroom building itself, but boosters say the school will help attract companies to the business park. It sounds like a great deal. So what does the state do? It turns the offer down and decides to move the university center into a complex of three empty city-owned buildings in the heart of a faded downtown.

“Why build new when we could, for less money, create a quality educational center in the heart of our community?” asked Hagerstown, Maryland Mayor Robert Bruchey. Why indeed.

Instead of a large single-purpose classroom building in a suburban office park, the state’s decision means that in just a few years over 1,500 students will be attending classes in downtown Hagerstown, Maryland. This surprising decision is just the latest manifestation of Maryland’s three year old Smart Growth Initiative and it illustrates how the actions of federal, state or local government can either contribute to or help to prevent the kind of suburban sprawl that is so common throughout America.

Federal, state and local governments construct new facilities all the time. The location and design of these facilities can either help make local smart growth strategies work or they can make the problem worse. In announcing the state’s decision, Maryland Governor Paris Glendening said that “the downtown site meets our smart growth goals, since we are investing in the Hagerstown economy and revitalizing the city, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary roads and other infrastructure costs, and preserving our open space and natural resources.”

Travel across the country to Tacoma, Washington and you’ll hear the same story. The University of Washington rejected a greenfield site for its new South Puget Sound campus and, instead, decided to restore six historic warehouses in a dilapidated district on the edge of downtown Tacoma. Today, the area is a thriving museum and university district. Retail and restaurants have returned and downtown is undergoing a renaissance. Hagerstown and Tacoma are two “win-win” examples of how smart growth ought to work, but these examples are the exception rather than the rule, especially when it comes to school construction. …

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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