H e grew up in Connecticut, being driven to everything. He joined the Navy, which sent him to Pensacola, Jacksonville, Sacramento and San Diego -- "classic American sprawl development," places that made no sense to him.
But Charlottesville, where Stewart Schwartz went to college and law school, felt right. You could live your life on foot. Faces became familiar, shopkeepers came to recognize him. "The architecture of Thomas Jefferson's Lawn had a big impact on me," Schwartz says. So did a course on the Legal Aspects of Planning, where he learned how politics and design determine what places look like.
Everything seemed to lead to Schwartz's work, a fight to change the very structure of American life. As director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which battles sprawl in favor of transit-oriented, walkable communities, Schwartz, 44, became the man many Washington area developers love to hate.
When it came time to choose where to live, Schwartz found a second-floor condo at the northern edge of Old Town Alexandria, two blocks from a Metro station. With his wife Alli Alligood, who works as a cabinetmaker, and their two dogs, Schwartz leads the life he preaches. His calendar teems with night meetings of neighborhood activists, zoning boards and county councils from the Shenandoah Valley to the Chesapeake Bay.
He walks to Metro (though he ends up driving to work many days because of all the meetings he has to attend in transit-thin Fairfax and beyond.) He walks to King Street, to the pita place, the chili spot, the natural foods shop (where, he points out with satisfaction, the manager and his family live above the store, the way things should be.)
Schwartz bought his condo back in 1988, when Alexandria was still affordable, when it was possible to buy within walking distance of Metro even on a Navy salary. "I came here for the history and the character of this community, and then for the convenience and affordability," he says.
Only years later did he learn that his complex, Colecroft, was built atop an old public housing site. "That gave me pause," he says. But Alexandria has stayed true to the ideals of a mixed community, and two public housing projects remain within two blocks of Schwartz's complex, which itself attracts a good mix by being part condo and part rentals. On the other hand, what Schwartz bought for $130,000 now costs north of $300,000, pricing out so many people who would like to live close to where they work.
On a long walk around the neighborhood, Schwartz gets excited about the little improvements he and his neighbors won to make a car-oriented society just a bit friendlier to people who walk. At a corner near the elementary school, here's a bump-out, a little extra lip of sidewalk that extends into the street to slow passing traffic. Across from the Metro station, here are flashing lights embedded into the street to warn drivers that pedestrians are here, too.
"Someone who lives here really never has to confront traffic," Schwartz says, and he's not gloating so much as wondering why others may not share his enthusiasm for denser development and a life less dependent on the car.
The two biggest causes of the congestion that paralyzes this region are rush hours, when too many jobs require too many drivers to use the same roads at the same time, and development patterns that require most people to drive to take care of basic daily errands. By redesigning neighborhoods to be more compact and walkable, Schwartz believes traffic can be dramatically relieved for all.
Amazingly, more and more developers are embracing Schwartz's ideas, joining with him to fight for in-fill projects on suburban parking lots, near shops, and, as in Schwartz's own neighborhood, in any space within walking distance of a Metro station. "A century ago, developers thought about where the retail and services would go in relation to housing," Schwartz says. "That has to happen again."
Schwartz would move into the District in a flash -- but he can't afford it. So he stays, happily, in Alexandria, which he is intent on making more friendly to people who don't want to live in their cars. "All of this," he says, "is my larger work brought home."
This is one in a series of columns to appear every month or so in which people explain why they live where they live.