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Vol. 8, No. 24
June 15-21, 2000
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Richard Moe
Keeping the National Trust

with Bill Lambrecht

As president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe advises Americans that dumb development carries a steep price.

Richard Moe has breathed the rarefied air of the top levels of government. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and trusted adviser to White House hopefuls.

Nowadays, he holds a position of no less influence, one that is arguably more important to people than the care and feeding of politicians: He’s president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.

The Trust was chartered by Congress in 1949 with goals that were lofty and vague: Saving America’s diverse historic environments and working toward livable communities. Once upon a time, the Trust did little more than stick up name plates on 200-year-old Gothic mansions.

These days, the mission of the Trust has changed, in large measure because of a force rampaging across the land: Sprawl. Moe finds himself on the side of folks around the country trying to keep Hooters out of their landmarks and stop Wal-Mart from murdering their downtowns.

A lawyer by training, Moe has emerged as an intellectual force in the high-stakes development wars being waged across America. He is consulted often: In May alone, he showed up in news stories in Maryland, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Ohio.

Last weekend, for instance, he wrote an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in his home state, taking to task the Target company for its plan to locate a 126,000 square-foot store in the historic town of Northfield. He observed that the superstore threatened the town’s character and added: “This is the kind of development that has drained the vitality out of countless American downtowns.”

Moe, 63, also has been outspoken about Wal-Mart’s drive to build stores in Maryland. He has a special stake in Maryland: He has kept a home in Calvert County for nearly 20 years, and he enjoys the Chesapeake Bay.

In his National Trust office in Washington — located, fittingly, in an historic building on Massachusetts Avenue — Richard Moe spoke to Bay Weekly co-founder Bill Lambrecht.

Q Is your message that America is beginning to look the same everywhere?

A What’s happening in Annapolis or in Baltimore is the same thing that’s happening around the country: Huge, 200,000 square-foot boxes and a lot of residential sprawl. Just these endless, shapeless subdivisions.

Q Since Maryland’s Smart Growth became law three years ago, growth management efforts have popped up around America, not always in the obvious places. Instead, in places like Tennessee, Alabama, Atlanta …

A Atlanta is the mother of all sprawl …

Q We’re seeing ballot proposals, citizen drives and efforts by office-holders at many levels to stall sprawl. What does this tell us?

A They’re everywhere, and it tells you that people really care about their communities. And that they know they have to organize to do things differently if they are to preserve the values of their community.
People have different approaches, but I think they are increasingly focused on quality-of-life issues. Whether they’re caught in traffic because they have to drive everywhere or whether it’s this visual blight that you see increasingly, people know that things are not going to change unless they get involved.

Q Are there any encouraging signs out there?

A There are really two elements to this sprawl issue. One is how you use new land for development. The other is how you use existing communities, how you revitalize existing communities so that you keep people there and hopefully attract other people back. And that’s where we try to apply preservationist tools for community revitalization.

It is happening. It is happening in Annapolis, and it is happening here in Washington. More and more people are attracted to living downtown. There’s a modest but unmistakable back-to-the-city movement in a lot of communities. It’s very encouraging. The numbers are modest so far. But the trend line, I think, is going in the right direction.

Q Maryland’s Smart Growth law was one of the first growth-management laws in the nation. But it looks as though it may not be smart enough to prevent Wal-Marts in sensitive areas like Chestertown and Kent Island.

A Maryland has been a real leader, and Gov. Parris Glendening deserves a lot of credit. But the law is not perfect.

Q You wrote in the Minneapolis newspaper that a building proposal there “is the sort of development we’ve come to expect from Wal-mart.” Are you saying that Wal-Mart proceeds in ways other than you’d like to see?

A Yes, it does. The reason I made that distinction is that Target usually tries to go in and work with a community with a site and design. That is not the practice of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart will very often come in beneath the radar screen, buy up options on land quietly and just present the whole thing as a fait accompli. Communities, particularly small communities, get overwhelmed by the resources of a Wal-Mart. It’s not a fair contest.

But the good news is that in places like Kent Island, people are determined to make their own decisions as to what they want their future to be like and what kind of a community they want to be. That’s what these decisions are all about.

Q What’s at stake for communities when the Wal-Marts and these big-box stores come knocking — or should we say barging in?

A If communities want a Wal-Mart, they ought to have it. But they ought to do it with their eyes open, knowing what the consequences are. It will drain the traditional downtown and it will change the social and economic character of those communities.

I think there’s a place for these kinds of retailers. But what we try to do is to encourage them to come downtown in a smaller size and reinforce the economic and social activity downtown. And be part of the community instead of going out by the beltway or the freeway or the interchange and draining the social and economic life out of the downtown.

Q You’ve kept a home on Broomes Island for a long time. When you drive down Route 4, what do you see?

A Calvert County has a comprehensive plan, and on the whole it’s a pretty good one. But there’s a lot of development already in the pipeline. I think that Calvert County is the fastest growing county in Maryland, and they’re struggling with ways to deal with that.

There are no easy answers, but you have to think differently about things. It’s interesting that there was a survey a few years back that asked what is the single most important thing you want to see retained in Calvert County. The answer overwhelmingly was its rural character. It has a great rural and water character that’s becoming more and more difficult to retain with all the development. But there are some good people making valiant efforts.

Q Annapolis prides itself on preservation. Are you struck by any of the efforts or the challenges as far as preserving what’s special there?

A I love Annapolis. There is nothing like its historic core. It’s one of the great places in America. But on the outskirts, it looks just like any other city in America, in terms of the strip malls. You could be in Denver or Albuquerque or Atlanta. They have not done a very good job of controlling that kind of development.

Q What appeals to you about Chesapeake Bay?

A We’re out there every weekend. We’re on the water. We fish a lot. I love to work, putter around. Gardening. Building things. Doing a lot of reading. I just love being there. More important than doing anything is being there. We’ve been down there for almost 20 years now, and we’ve become very attached to the place. We have a lot of friends there, and we spend a lot of time on the water.

Q When we met in the mid-1980s, you were giving advice to office-holders and candidates. What would you tell them now about how to frame these issues on a national level in an appealing way but in a fashion that doesn’t offend the pro-property forces and perhaps even the political contributors who build these developments?

A I think what I would say is that public policies over the last 50 years have had the effect of driving people out of the cities. Whether it’s tax policies or housing policies or, especially, transportation policies, they’ve contributed heavily to the emptying out of our cities. What we need is at least an even playing field.

I think that it ought to be public policy that encourages people to live in older communities. It saves the environment and adds to the tax base. We can’t exist as a society without strong, viable cities and older communities of all sizes. We need more emphasis, more incentives for people to stay in cities, to invest in cities, to employ people in cities.

Q Are you still dispensing advice to politicians, formally or informally?

A I’m out of that. We’re bipartisan and I don’t have time for that. I’m fully engaged here.

Q I saw a profile about you in which a friend of yours said that your vision of America is the one from your youth in Duluth with “neighborhoods and people sitting on stoops and kids playing stickball and neighbors walking across the street to talk to neighbors.” Anything to that?

A I think everybody aspires to have a community. Where it’s pedestrian-friendly, where you know your neighbors. We all get nostalgic about that, but it’s achievable. And it’s a reality in a lot of urban areas still today where you don’t have to drive everywhere and you have random encounters with your neighbors. That’s really what makes a community vital and attractive to a lot of people.

Not everybody; some people like to live in the sprawling subdivisions. That’s fine. They ought to have that choice.

But too often, people have been denied that other choice. But you know there’s this new movement, the New Urbanist Movement, that is putting emphasis on building new communities on old principles. The principles that you outlined a minute ago are many of the principles that work. They worked in the past, and they can work again.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly