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  •   Gore Taps Voter Concern on 'Livability'

    Vice President Al Gore
    Vice President Gore at the Milano Bakery in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday. (AP Photo)
    By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, May 5, 1999; Page A2

    DETROIT, May 4—The economy is humming, the Cold War is over and the voters have turned their attention to other concerns: Is it really necessary to build the 15th strip shopping mall around the corner? Why does it take 45 minutes to drive to work when it used to take 20?

    Livability or growth management has emerged as a major issue at the state and local level, and the question now is whether it will resonate with voters choosing their next president. Vice President Gore thinks so.

    "Many Americans today are reaching for a new prosperity defined not just by the quantity of their bank accounts, but also by the quality of their lives," Gore said here at the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America. "They want smart growth that produces prosperity while protecting a high quality of life."

    The vice president announced 47 relatively modest federal initiatives aimed at promoting what he and others call "sustainable growth" or "smart growth." Earlier this year, he announced a $10 billion plan to improve water quality, protect green space and clean up polluted and abandoned industrial sites and another $6 billion for public transit projects that reduce traffic congestion.

    Since the end of World War II, the depopulation of urban centers has been a basic tenet of American life as families abandoned crime and congestion for the ever-greener pastures of suburbia. The GI Bill and infusions of federal highway funds helped make suburbia possible for the growing baby boom generation. The federal government was a willing partner with local and state jurisdictions in the sprawling of America.

    But today, more than a half-century after World War II, politicians are starting to reassess the toll sprawl is taking on communities across the country. Gore told the 3,000 community, environmental and business leaders at today's conference that they represented a growing movement across the country supporting innovative strategies that promote a high quality of life, a healthy environment and strong economic growth.

    Gore says "livability" is an issue that obliterates party lines, as voters, increasingly stressed about traffic, congestion and destruction of natural resources, are looking for answers from government. For proof, he points to the more than 200 growth-control initiatives--70 percent of which were approved by voters--that were on ballots across the country last year.

    "Striving for a better quality of life is a basic human aspiration, and it's very clever of the vice president to detect this," said Ron Utt, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who has studied and written about the subject of sprawl. "I think the clever thing is, it taps into a constituency that has always leaned toward Republicans. Talk about a big tent; It's amazing how many people fit under this one."

    And even some Republicans and independents agree that, depending on how it's handled, taking on sprawl could be a powerful tool to lure suburban swing voters who are increasingly distressed about long commutes, pollution and disappearing farms, parks and open spaces.

    But, Utt and others say, there are inherent risks for any politician, particularly a presidential candidate who might come across as trying to dictate where people should live.

    And other than Gore, none of the other major presidential candidates are focusing on the issue. Former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has mocked Gore for focusing on small-bore ideas. This week, his spokesman, Eric Hauser, would not comment directly on Gore's livability agenda, but did say Bradley believes "the voters are interested in broad directions of leadership that a president would take the country."

    Many Republicans have derided Gore, suggesting his sprawl initiatives are much to-do about suburban traffic patterns and little more than a government solution in search of a problem. While Republicans are split on the issue--some see little problem at all; others see a problem but believe local and state government should handle it--there seems to be virtually unanimous agreement that the federal government should play as limited a role as possible on growth and land-use issues.

    "The vice president's 'livability agenda' may sound like a solution to the traffic jams and strip malls that pockmark our suburbs, but it's really just a stalking horse to increase federal spending and meddling," said Republican presidential candidate Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes.

    Even New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for aggressive government efforts to control sprawl, said in a radio interview Monday that she had qualms about Gore's emphasis on land-use issues and feared big-government intrusion on issues typically left to states. Last year, Whitman pushed a $3 billion initiative to purchase 1 million acres of open space--half of what was left in the Garden State--for preservation. The measure was approved overwhelmingly in a vote that cut across party lines, officials there said.

    Gore has heard the criticisms and bristles at them. In an interview after his speech today, he said his vision is not for the federal government to act as a "local zoning board or a beauty commissar" but for it to give "tools and resources and options" to communities to solve their own problems.

    Tim Hibbitz, an independent pollster, said that in his surveys in Oregon and Washington state voters are calling growth management their second most important concern, behind only education. "I don't see it being the issue, but if the economy stays good, it is going to be an issue," he said. "If we have a faltering economy, I think Gore will be off base."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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