This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 23, 1997

April 23, 1997 - Highlands Ranch Quest for Community

I attended a meeting last week of the Highlands Ranch Development Review Committee. Featured were James Van Hemert of the Douglas County Planning Department, and several people speaking for the Mission Viejo Company, including their consultants, RNL.

My interest in the meeting was that it addressed planning issues around Mission Viejo's "Civic Center" (also called a Town Center). Mission Viejo has pledged 3.4 acres of land for a new Highlands Ranch Library, although it will be at least two or three years before the library can save up enough money to build it.

The library district is grateful for Mission's important donation, enabling us to respond far more rapidly to tax-payer needs than would otherwise be the case. But we were also curious to see how our new library might fit in to Mission's plan for the larger area.

The meeting — ably and sensitively facilitated by Gordon Von Stroh — was fascinating. Here's my take on some of the issues:

Highlands Ranch residents have a profound longing for community. Some months ago, twelve thousand copies of a survey (put together by a subcommittee of the development review committee) were distributed to area residents. In essence, the survey asked what Ranchers wanted to see at the civic center. Over 2,600 responses were turned in. Not only did residents have (obviously) strong feelings about the subject, they also tended to agree with each other.

What people wanted, as the RNL consultant noted that people often say they want, was something like the downtown of the movie "Back to the Future." They wanted a pedestrian-friendly square around some well-respected civic structure or structures. They wanted tree-lined streets. They wanted lots of little businesses as opposed to a few (or many) big boxes. They wanted a place to stroll around with their kids, grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone. They wanted a social gathering place where they could hear live music.

I have to admit that part of me wondered: if this was what people really were looking for, why on earth had they moved to Highlands Ranch? Unless they had been kidnapped and driven blindfolded to their homes, it should be perfectly obvious that shady streets are some two or three decades away.

It is also clear that the basic ruler of the development is hardly the human stride; it is the length and width of the automobile. You can see this from the facade of all the houses (two or three car garages), the narrow sidewalks, and major intersections so wide you need a car to cross them before the light changes.

But in the presentation by RNL, it was clear that some different ideas, loosely called "New Urbanism," were beginning to work their way into community planning.

Mission Viejo had directed RNL to base their proposal on the documented values of Mission residents. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many of the folks sitting in that evening, RNL did a pretty good job.

The street plan followed a modified grid (adjusted for topography). There was an attempt to scale the downtown area to human dimensions, to create a space where you could leave your car behind and actually talk to your neighbors.

James Van Hemert spoke very clearly and intelligently about how the planning department is seeking to encourage the implementation of such people-oriented places.

Taken together, these are very encouraging trends. People thought they were talking about Highlands Ranch and Mission Viejo. In fact, their concerns and comments are about some of the core issues of American culture.

There are two ways to look at Highlands Ranch. One is that it is an exactly backwards city planning effort. A second way is that in fact Mission Viejo has achieved something both remarkable and magnificent.

By "exactly backwards," I mean that historically, most larger cities coalesce around an economic and civic core, then radiate outwards. Highlands Ranch is a patchwork of developments across broad tracts of land. Almost 20 years later, it's looking for the center, its heart. This is much like being born an adolescent, then trying to retrospectively create a childhood. But childhood is where your real values are formed.

By "magnificent," I mean that Mission Viejo is about to pull off the creation of a city of between 50,000 and 100,000 in just two decades.

If you look at Mission as "founders" (as they will be known by history) as opposed to "developers" (a term with mixed connotations in Douglas County at the end of the 20th century), you'll see that they have been remarkably successful. Many Douglas County developments have not been, or at least not so consistently.

While Highlands Ranch still doesn't seem to me to have the civic infrastructure of a true community — the civic groups, the local businesses, the history of social cooperation both large and small — it is nonetheless true that the thirst for such things is deep and genuine among current residents. And they're showing up to talk, and I hope, to do, something about it.

I believe that together — developer and home owner, consultants and civic leaders — they will build a true community, of unusual scale and scope, in an astonishingly short period of time.

To that community, the Douglas Public Library District is proud to contribute.

No comments:

Post a Comment