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How we should rebuild Talent and Phoenix

From a brutal and unforgiving force of nature, the towns of Talent and Phoenix almost perished. Biblical in its proportion, the Almeda fire ravaged to the ground hundreds of homes and businesses. As shell-shocked residents slowly returned to their neighborhoods, instead of houses, they found a war-torn, smoky emptiness with their possessions burned to ashes.

Neighborhoods, commercial districts, transportation networks, public buildings and parks will now have to be rebuilt and connected again. Undoubtedly, the restoration will redefine the character and attractiveness of Talent and Phoenix. And with this comes hope. With foresight and patience, these strong and proud towns can rebuild to provide sustainable economic development and better quality of life amenities for those that live and work in their communities.

With the use of “new urbanism” and “smart growth” models, Talent and Phoenix can lead the way in Southern Oregon of how to combine quality of life measurements, sustainability and smart growth to achieve sustainable development. In many ways, “new urbanism” reflects a desire to return to an earlier time where towns had mixed uses of housing options, walkability, transit options, easy access to work, entertainment and services. By increased density of development that contributes to a more walkable and transit-friendly environment, Talent and Phoenix could support new and vital businesses that meet their communities’ needs and provide affordable housing compatible with their natural environment.

To achieve these goals, zoning practices of one-size-fits-all need to be replaced with land-use policies that are flexible and performance-oriented. Adaptability and flexibility of land-use policies will help create livable and safe neighborhoods easily connected to businesses, open space, entertainment and services.

Quality of life and sustainability should now be the criteria used for new infrastructure that will be needed. An example is with “complete streets” that require all new roads to be constructed as complete transportation corridors with sidewalks and bike lanes. As streets are rebuilt, they would be retrofitted to meet the new quality-of-life standards that add substantially to pedestrians’ and cyclists’ safety and enhance transportation options for young and low-income families to schools, parks and basic retail and service stores. Like many other towns in the region, Talent and Phoenix have overlaid one kind of zoning law on top of another, along with a host of confusing variances and exceptions. It is now time to look anew at zoning codes and the approval process to make sure they support sustainable development and affordable housing.

Talent and Phoenix are known as communities that provide opportunities for low and middle-income families. As these towns rebuild, we need to make sure that gentrification doesn’t replace affordable housing. Zoning policies must allow accessory apartments in single-family homes, making family dwellings more affordable to their owners and providing more low-cost rentals. As builders build single-family homes and condominiums, new low-cost rental options must be made available. Without them, the number of homeless will increase. Along with low-cost rentals, safe and secure trailer parks with easy access to public transportation and essential services are needed.

In the end, “sustainable” development must fit the priorities and the pocketbooks of local citizens. That is why citizen involvement in setting goals is essential as Talent and Phoenix start the laborious process of rebuilding. If citizens are not willing or unable to pay for development, it is not sustainable.

The test will ultimately be one that adjacent cities like Ashland and Medford are struggling with: How do you set policies that allow for economic and population growth, while also asserting the public interest in quality of life, affordable housing and sustainability? Inevitably, goals and values will conflict with each other and tough decisions will have to be made. This requires political maturity from both elected officials and the public. If the debate about priorities is out in the open, full awareness of costs and benefits is more likely to happen and make them more acceptable — and sustainable.

Richard Holt is professor of economics at Southern Oregon University. His new book, “A Community of Strangers: Bringing Back Civility and Tolerance to American Universities,” will be published next year.