by Sean McManus
The man who’s about to take over the nation’s largest building association has some advice for Jacksonville: learn from other boom towns.
When Gary Garczynski is sworn in as president of the National Association of Home Builders this month, he will lead a 203,000 member organization during a time when the realities of population growth often collide with the principles of growing smart.
As a Beltway Builder, Garczynski is responsible for guiding the construction of over 4,000 homes in 30 communities throughout Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia. He has been a member of the NAHB for 30 years, spearheading the group’s Smart Growth Initiative, and most recently serving as first vice president. He was in Jacksonville last month to meet with one of his biggest members, the Northeast Florida Builders Association, and attend an awards ceremony at Fairway Oaks for HabiJax.
“Jacksonville is going through what Northern Virginia went through in the 1980s,” said Garczynski. “It’s a high-tech boom. Lots of jobs are being created. And you’re dealing with the kinds of problems that cities that are booming deal with.”
Garczynski and NAHB work to make sure that the climate is friendly for the residential construction that accompanies high growth. He looks at his job as an economic development project as well as a quality of life project.
“Homes are where jobs go to spend the night,” he said.
Garczynski said Americans really like to have it both ways. We want lots of jobs and economic opportunities, but we don’t really like sprawl and density.
So Garczynski, in conjunction with the other leaders of NAHB, work to make sure that comprehensive planning goes into development projects to mitigate against future problems. That means bringing together architects, city planners, landscapers, politicians, transportation authorities, school boards, homeowners, environmentalists and builders to figure out the best way to grow smart. NAHB wants to build a bridge between design and construction of homes on one side and policy issues such as land use, the environment, affordable and sustainable housing, and special needs housing on the other.
“Jacksonville needs to make sure that it doesn’t make the same mistakes other cities around the country have made, and that’s allow its core to deteriorate,” said Garczynski. “It seems like the people here are working to remedy that.”
He’s talking, of course, about downtown, the focus of some major new residential projects designed to revitalize Jacksonville’s core. But Garczynski was quick to say that New Urbanism isn’t for everybody.
“For a lot of people, the American Dream is a white picket fence and a house in the suburbs,” he said. “We just want to make sure that cities are cognizant of issues like transportation, schools, and infrastructure when they are searching for theAmerican Dream, regardless of whether it’s urban or rural.”
So what are some criteria for smart growth?
According to Garczynski, the first rule is that the transportation plan is tied to the land use plan. Being from the Washington, D.C. area, he knows how bad traffic can get.
The second is that there are levels of affordability.
“In the top 15 cities in the country, middle-income families can’t really afford to buy a home in a safe neighborhood. Where are the teachers and the fireman going to live if we don’t solve that problem?”
Third is sensitivity to environmental concerns.
Garczynski said he will work to bring groups like the Sierra Club and Green Builders to the table during discussions regarding smart growth.
“We have to be sensitive to the critical habitat. It’s part of the quality of life.”
That strikes a chord locally as the City currently battles with a tree ordinance that Florida builders think is unreasonable.
“The reality of our business is that we can’t save every tree,” said Garczynski. “What we do is support replacement policies to plant new trees and canopy cover policies to encourage builders to make a certain percentage of their development green. That way we are supporting positive initiatives instead of fighting the inevitable.”
Fourth is making sure developments are compatible with the surrounding areas. Garczynski thinks that a big picture approach and good neighbor policies prevent problems later.
When asked what lies ahead for home builders, Garczynski said that we will always be dealing with the fact that of the 1.5 million new households that emerge in the country every year, most of those will want to live in 13 states. So there’s a lot of planning that needs to be done.
Garczynski spends a lot of time just supporting basic economic stimulus programs to make sure the economy stays afloat, and therefore the housing market.
Garczynski is also a businessman. He is president of National Capital Land and Development, which develops land for some of Washington and Virginia’s largest national builders. And he is a principal of Urban Dimensions, Inc., which builds and renovates properties in the inner city.
Garczynski said 67 percent of Americans own their own home, but that doesn’t mean we should stop there.
When asked what cities Jacksonville should use as models for smart growth, he called Denver a “poster boy.” He also likes Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Sacramento, Minneapolis, Austin, and of course, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.
The NAHB is currently drafting an 1,800-page “Builders Guide” that takes all the real world experience of home building and talks about the problems and the solutions. Garczynski hopes this will be the “planner’s bible” as the cities and the country get bigger while trying to grow smart.