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, February 23, 2000

February 23, 2000 - Town Center Issues at Highlands Ranch

One of the head-scratching realizations of advancing age is that sometimes good people have honest disagreements with each other.

For the past several years now, the Douglas Public Library District has been working with Shea Homes and the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan Districts (HRMD) to jointly create a Town Center. All of the land once belonged to Shea, although the company has deeded parcels, free of charge, to the library and to HRMD.

The library got a 3.5 acre parcel. Our contribution to the Center has been our 42,000 square foot Highlands Ranch Library, which is nearing completion.

The library has worked very hard to make the building fit into our understanding of an urban center. We have, for instance, a strong street presence on Ridgeline, having tucked our parking around the back.

But our strongest orientation has been to the south. Through many meetings, we worked with the Metro Districts to treat the library and the proposed Civic Green (a 5 acre parcel immediately to the south of us) as one relatively seamless piece of property.

The library entrance is also an entrance to the Civic Green. Our second-story balcony overlooks the park. Our children's area and public meeting rooms rest on its edge.

After a very inclusive public process, the Metro Districts staff came up with a plan that incorporated a host of delightful features: a fountain that could double as a performance stage, a stream that gently burbled along half the open green, a playground, and many quiet nooks and reading areas.

In this vision, library space and public park space flowed smoothly into one another. I believe that together we have designed a space far greater than what either of us could have built alone.

Here's what I like and respect about all of this: Shea Homes, largely through the facilitation of Steve Ormiston, brought a well-researched, team-based approach to the Town Center. Yes, the company wants a commercially viable downtown. They are in the business of making money. But I believe they also want a downtown that captures what Highlands Ranch residents genuinely desire: a place that is interesting, walk-able, and populated with more trees than parking lots.

What I like about the HRMD is its recognition that the Civic Green is not a typical suburban park. The Civic Green has required lots of new thinking -- and money. HRMD staff, as I've mentioned in previous columns, have consistently impressed me as dedicated, honest, and insightful public servants. They've done a fantastic job.

In the past four years, I've seen at least three different plans regarding downtown development for Highlands Ranch. Yet plans change when you not only pay attention to the market, but also bring new players into the process. The bottom line: our town center is better conceived than any new downtown in the metropolitan area. It's a place where people would want to spend some time.

Here's my issue. The most recent draft of the downtown plan moves Main Street (the main commercial street) a couple of blocks south. There's some logic to all this: the road would be more visible from C-470; it would also be longer, and research suggests that there is such a thing as a minimum length for a successful business street.

When this plan was first presented, however, both library and HRMD staff noticed we were no longer so easy a destination, no longer just across the street from a commercial center.

There's not much the library can do about this. Our building is nearly done.

But the park has not yet begun construction. Would it make sense for the park to move west, across the street to the west side of Ridgeline? There are some pluses for the idea. The main one is a closer integration with the heart of downtown, through a sort of wandering trail system.

I know the HRMD staff well enough to know they will give thoughtful consideration to the issue. (We have also asked Shea Homes to find another option: a way to strengthen the connection to their new main street and the joint library/civic green.)

But just for the record, I believe the library and civic green should stay together. Shea's plans call for a 10 year development cycle. If at any point, some piece of their plan doesn't work, we run the risk of fragmentation: a library on one block, a park across the street from it, and a main street too far away to have a connection with either of the other two.

Development follows success. Right now, the library and the civic green together will make a dynamic pair, whatever happens to the economic climate. Libraries and parks endure; commercial developments sometimes flop (remember Cinderella City and the River Front project in Littleton). Moreover, a Civic Green is not the same thing as a business park.

Highlands Ranch residents know what commercial development looks like. What they have not seen is civic development -- the creation of public space that is thoughtful, multi-faceted, and inviting.

Right now, the public sector has an opportunity to demonstrate genuine civic leadership in its most important task: the building of community. I don't think we should give that up.

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