When the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance started in 2003, its founders knew their mission would not be without considerable rigor.

The nonprofit group - when created, only the second of its kind in the United States - was promoting a style of development largely absent and misunderstood here: high-density, walkable communities, where sidewalks are plentiful and housing coexists with shops and offices.

The concept remains a vast departure from what dominates this region: zoning that demands that different uses stay separate and that houses be on at least a half-acre.

Progress was made as the alliance promoted the smart-growth concept throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware via educational forums and by showcasing smart-growth development as it popped up.

There lies its current problem: Little has been getting built. And with the development drought has come formidable challenges for the alliance, especially financial ones, as "we've lost many of our early supporters just purely out of the economic downturn," said president Robin L. Murray.

"Many of the developers who had bought into smart growth have disappeared," added the Trenton architect and planner, who in September became the alliance's second president.

Perhaps most valuable to developers has been the alliance's recognition program - essentially a stamp of approval for smart-growth projects.

In all, 26 projects have gotten the endorsement, believed to hold some sway with municipal officials who must approve or reject development proposals.

Applicants for the recognition, issued quarterly, are required to pay $1,000 fees. Those have typically funded 10 percent of the alliance's budget, expected to be $60,000 for 2011, Murray said.

At its September meeting, the alliance's board had no projects to consider. In 2009, two applications were submitted. Three have been filed for consideration next month, she said.

State grants of about $5,000 a year from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware that helped sustain the alliance in its first years have run out.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is no longer able to be a sponsor because of its own financial constraints, said executive director Barry Seymour. That is not to be construed as lack of support for its work, which, he said, "needs to be seen as having value to local governments."

"If local municipalities direct developers to go through that review process, the alliance could become self-supporting, communities could save money on their own site review, and there would be better and more sustainable projects all around," he said.

At a September board meeting, a discussion about charging for membership produced no resolution, Murray said in an interview Friday: "It could be an impediment for people joining." That, consequently, would harm the alliance's ability to "spread the word about the economic viability of smart growth."

Such projects command higher market values - as much as 20 percent - than traditional development, Murray said.

To set the group on a more sustainable path, she has recruited new board members - not only for fresh ideas, but to expand the nonprofit's reach and, in turn, its sources for sponsorships and other donations.

Earlier this month, she sent a letter to each of the alliance's 250 members - a mix of design professionals, developers, environmental advocates, academics, and large corporations - that included a plea for funding.

"In order to continue our efforts," Murray wrote, "we need to have financial viability ourselves."

Her letter also urged members to turn out for the alliance's annual fund-raising symposium, scheduled Jan. 20 at Peco Energy Co. headquarters in Philadelphia with a timely topic: "Smart Growth and Sustainability in Challenging Economic Times."

A project in the city's West Hunting Park/Nicetown section will be highlighted: the Salvation Army's $132 million Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center on Wissahickon Avenue, built on 12.4 acres that once were home to Budd Co. and a proposed site for a casino.

Opened in October, the 130,000-square-foot center has attracted "a lot of interest . . . all across the region" because of its smart-growth features, said Maj. Timothy Lyle, its administrator. Those include natural-lighting opportunities, as well as use of LED lighting, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, rain gardens, and underground cisterns to capture rainwater for use.

"We need to build smarter as we build less," said Amy Stein of MGA Partners Architects, project manager for the center, which "solves a huge problem facing urban America . . . how to repurpose aging industrial sites in ways that stimulate growth and make better communities."

Lyle said he had not heard of the Smart Growth Alliance before being invited to speak at next month's forum.

That is something Murray intends to address over the next year or two, when new development is expected to remain virtually nonexistent.

"It's a perfect time," she said. "Developers are interested in making new connections and partners. To me, it's a real opportunity."

Smart Stuff

For more information on the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance, including how to register for its Jan. 20 symposium, "Smart Growth and Sustainability in Challenging Economic Times," go to www.delawarevalleysmartgrowth.org

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Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.