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, January 29, 2003

January 29, 2003 - Highlands Ranch, Part 2

I collect quotes. The first time I heard this one, I laughed out loud: "Everybody talks about the weather. But nobody DOES anything about it." (Attributed to Mark Twain, but probably by his "The Gilded Age" collaborator Charles Dudley Warner.)

For developers, "the weather" is strip malls and big boxes. The whole economic system is organized around a model: huge parking lots visible from the highway, cheap buildings on cheap land with the deliveries in back, lots of square footage. Banks know how to give loans for that kind of project. Construction companies know how to slap them together cheap and fast. Landlords know how to charge for the space and maintenance.

It is to the credit of Shea Homes that when they tackled the idea of the "town center," they actually tried to do something about the weather. Based in part on a Highlands Ranch Community Association survey about what people wanted to see (a pedestrian friendly main street, with smaller, local shops, something with individuality and character), Shea set out to see how close they could get to it.

They visited town centers that actually worked (meaning that people could make a living both working in such shops, and managing such properties). And Shea learned some things that hearkened to an earlier time: don't use minimum setbacks from the street, use MAXIMUM setbacks, meaning allow the buildings to have a genuine street presence. Don't put up huge monolithic structures, but smaller, more varied ones, where the facade of the building changes to reflect what went on inside of it. Downtown streets should be narrower. Use real sidewalks, with real trees between the street and the sidewalk.

There were some cautionary notes, too. What people say they want and what they actually do aren't always the same. People want pedestrian-friendly places ... that they can drive to. But some of those centers have figured that out, too: a different kind of parking, a different rhythm of traffic flow.

Shea, again under the work group management of Steve Ormiston, translated all this information into a genuinely interesting, people-oriented place.

After all of this good work, Shea then shopped it around to potential clients. And, at least to hear their sales staff tell it, they couldn't find any buyers. All the retailers were dressed for one kind of weather, and Shea seemed to be in a different climate altogether.

Then, after the round of new consultants I referred to last week, the plan got tweaked. That's too kind. It got compromised. The placement of the Home Depot is a good example. It repeats the planning error of the Safeway center: wide open to its football field of a parking lot, closed to its neighbors, another big, hulking suburban island that doesn't know how to play well with others.

Shea will say smaller retailers want an anchor store, something to generate traffic. That's true enough, of course, but who will drive to Home Depot, then walk around downtown? You can marry a big box to a main street, but are they compatible?

Let's be clear about the good news, though. Shea's commitment to the now very abbreviated main street is good planning, thoughtful, and even visionary.

But there are two reasons Highlands Ranch residents are going to wind up with mostly the same weather they always get. Both of them are business decisions made by Shea, which, of course, it has the perfect right to make. The first is the simple fact that Shea wants to retain ownership, and thus control, of the land. They are in business to make money, and so they want people who can pay the rent.

One kind of developer works with a lot of local startups. It's risky. A lot of new businesses go under. The profit margin is slimmer. The locals love it, of course, because such stores are unique, have character, and are tailored to their communities.

Another kind of developer works with franchises. Franchises are successful business models with good credit. They don't take as much handholding. They make rent. And of course, they EMPLOY local people. But nobody local owns anything.

In my opinion, Shea took a model designed for the first kind of developer (the nurturer of local business) and tried to pitch it to the clients of the second kind of developer (the lessor to franchises). Unsurprisingly, the clients weren't interested. Not their kind of weather.

Shea Homes is not a public entity, despite its many contributions of land and money to such entities. That includes the library, incidentally, whose response to Mission Viejo/Shea's generosity was a significant commitment of your tax dollars to a library building. We were proud to be the doorway to the new downtown.

That library has been in place for two and a half years now. While it is an undeniable success, it also sits next to a long neglected civic park. The library has the back of one big shopping center to the northeast, and will soon have the back of another to the southwest.

It's not quite the vision we started with, is it?

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

January 22, 2003 - Highlands Ranch

I often tell people: I thought I was getting into the book business. Somehow, I wound up in the business of community development. The clearest example I have is our library in Highlands Ranch.

A "master planned community," Highlands Ranch could only have come about as a suburb. The economic, cultural, and even civic life of the community belonged up north, to Denver, or to other suburbs.

Historically, cities began at the center and radiated outward. Greeley, Colorado is a good example: the downtown business district was laid out first, with pride of place given to governmental structures and parks. The scale was pedestrian. Then came the homes (all in a grid), then the ranches.

Highlands Ranch has been the story of development waves, in direct opposition to Greeley. First were the ranches. Then came the houses, rooftops popping up like mushrooms amidst the strangely organic swirls of cul de sacs, themselves spilling into roads so broad one cannot walk across them easily.

Then came the commercial development -- but not centralized. Instead, it was all about big boxes strung along the highway. But that too has its history: many American business sections once followed rivers, close to the byways of distribution.

There has been some governmental presence, but in an oddly decentralized, even minimalized fashion. The Highlands Ranch Community Association has many of the trappings of government, but a much smaller purview, primarily recreation. The Metro Districts of Highlands Ranch has most of the responsibilities of civic infrastructure, but has kept a relatively low profile architecturally.

The library stepped into the picture twice. The first time was when we rented a storefront (the ONLY storefront available in Highlands Ranch in 1991). The second time was when we built what was supposed to be the first civic building at the entrance of what Mission Viejo, now Shea Homes, called its "new downtown."

When we were still planning that second building, I remember a meeting with representatives of the developer. They looked at the map of the sprawling ex-urban community and asked, in all seriousness, "Where should we put the center?"

"Downtown," in other words, wasn't really the historic middle. It was a construct, a created place to serve what was really a psychological purpose. At what point do 80,000 people make the jump from housing development to community? Answer: when those people create or discover their community's heart.

I have been fortunate enough to participate in Shea Homes' "work group," a committee headed by Shea's always thoughtful Steve Ormiston, and involving members of HRCA, the Metro Districts, the library, the county, and several others.

Over the years (it's been years, now), Shea brought in a parade of consultants, and conducted several comprehensive studies. The intent was to come up with a good answer to a good question: What makes a downtown successful?

Along the way, we did indeed put up our library, at 9696 Ridgeline. On opening day, two summers ago, over 5,000 people came to celebrate with us. The thirst for community was and is real. And I believe that we've set some good standards for what civic architecture should look like.

As a participant in the process, I can attest that Shea Homes has done a lot of serious research. Close to half-a-hundred plans have been drawn up to show how the new downtown would work. All of them have been dissected and frankly evaluated by the work group.

Shea's latest plan is the one it has submitted for action. I would characterize it as follows: a main street married to a strip mall.

Next week, I'll write about what (in my opinion) the plan got right, and not just what it got wrong, but why.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

January 15, 2003 - Phone Book Listings for Library

The new phone books are out AND ... the listings for the library are wrong.

Well, not completely. But despite our best efforts, year after year, we have yet to get it all to come out the way we've asked for.

Yes, we do give Qwest the exact information we want to be displayed. But somehow, by the time it hits the four phone books that serve the county (Denver, Highlands Ranch, South Jeffco and Castle Rock/Parker), that information has morphed in four different directions.

Here's what we were shooting for. In the business white pages our listing should refer to the government section. Under "government county," the Douglas Public Library District should be listed with all the phone number of our branches. We also requested that our listing under the "government city" section, which is where the special
districts are normally listed, be replaced with a referral to the county section.

A bit of background here. The Douglas Public Library District is in fact an independent entity. We broke off from the county in 1990. For the past dozen years we have been publicizing our name through countless columns, ads, fliers, bookmarks, posters, and brochures – not to mention
the tens of thousands of library cards floating around the county.

Nonetheless, the plain truth is that hardly anybody knows our right name. They look for us under Douglas County.

OK, so got that? Our name is the Douglas Public Library District. We put a listing under Douglas County to help people find us based on the way we know they look for us.

Here's how things came out: the Highlands Ranch and South Jeffco business white page and government county listings are fine. These two phone books also have a detailed listing under the government city section.

In the Castle Rock/Parker phone book, the business white pages refer to the government section. However, they also, inexplicably, list the Literacy Hotline and the Parker Library. Under the government county section, Literacy Hotline and Parker are missing. The other branches are
there – but listed in a peculiar order. (Librarians HATE it when people don't alphabetize.)

In the Denver phone book, the business white pages refer to the government section, with the government county section also failing to list Literacy Hotline and Parker. But then they do show up with a partial listing of numbers under the government CITY section!

In both the Castle Rock/Parker and Denver phone books' business white pages our maintenance facility is showing up as "Douglas Public." This number shouldn't have been listed at all, as it's for purely internal use. But we're used to that. Last year, the Administration number was the only one that showed up in somebody's book. I used to get, and still
get on occasion, calls from people asking me to renew their books. (I just renew them – it's easier than explaining.)

In the yellow pages I believe all the phone books display our ad correctly under "Libraries," except for Highlands Ranch, which fails to include the telephone renewal/hold number.

Oh, and as a consequence of listing the district under Douglas County, we just found out that the caller ID for the library is now identified as the county. This is, of course, very misleading to patrons. We have been assured that this can and will be fixed.

It would be easy to get discouraged, but I'm an optimist. I have confidence that all will be made right. For instance, I just know that the bill for our phone book listing will go to Douglas County. Or possibly Parker.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

January 8, 2003 - Literary Hoaxes

The story will break your heart.

Told in his own words, the tale of Tony Godby Johnson is appalling. He was beaten and starved by his parents. When he was very young, his parents loaned him to a gay adult who "had his way with him sexually."

By the age of 11, Tony was at the end of his rope. He called a suicide prevention hotline.

Then, his luck finally turned. The hotline referred him to a counselor. She checked him into a hospital. There the woman counselor fell in love with the hotline counselor, who came to visit. The two counselors married, then adopted Tony. Meanwhile, his real parents were brought up on child abuse charges -- and jailed.

Just when the warm family life Tony had always wanted was at last coming together, he suffered another blow. He had AIDS.

The book about all this, written when Tony was 14, was published in 1993. It's called, "A Rock and a Hard Place." The story so moved people that it even featured a glowing foreword by author Paul Monette, and an afterword by Mr. Fred Rogers of TV fame. All praised Tony's astonishing
optimism and courage.

HBO showed interested in doing a special on his life. ABC mentioned him in a documentary sponsored by Oprah Winfrey. Tony's website flourished -- where there were many testaments to him by famous people.

But here's the kicker. There was no Tony.

The whole thing was a fraud, the elaborate hoax, according to writer Terry Anderson, of one Vicki Fraginals Zackheim, the "Vicki Johnson" who supposedly adopted Tony.

Things started to unravel when Newsweek (in 1993), and the New Yorker (in 2001) started checking up on the facts. For one thing, nobody had ever seen Tony. He was just a voice on a phone, an email. And his voice, according to one audio expert, was identical to "Vicki's."

There is no record of such a child abuse case hitting the courts. Criminal records of this type are not sealed.

Most recently, Armisted Maupin -- who also had an intimate telephone relationship with "Tony" -- came out with his own fictionalized version of the story, called "The Night Listener." You'll find it at the library.

You'll also find "A Rock and a Hard Place." But we cataloged it the way it came to us -- the non-fiction biography of Anthony Godby Johnson. Who doesn’t exist.

This isn't the first time such things have happened. We also have "The Education of Little Tree," the acclaimed story of a Native American boy, hailed as so true, so authentic, it has been used as a text in university cultural anthropology classes. Until it, too, was exposed as
a hoax.

You have to wonder why people go to the trouble. You can make quite as much money from an outright lie as from the truth. You just call it a novel.

On the other hand, there's a weird psychology to all this. Many of have known at least one person who took us in. Told us stories about their often bizarre troubles. Relied on us for friendship. Lived for the terrible drama of the moment. And along the way, seemed to have lost track of the dividing line between what was real, and what was made up.
I remember a most compelling woman back in college who faked a heart attack in the middle of a literature class. I believed her. And it did liven up the lecture.

Vicki still maintains that Tony is real, by the way. And still alive, despite tuberculosis, an amputated leg, and a perpetual fever, not to mention the AIDS diagnosed 10 years ago. Vicki is still the only one who has seen him.

At any rate, if you were wondering what the library does when we’re confronted with strong evidence that our books are wholly imaginary, here’s the skinny: we’ll be recataloging "Rock and A Hard Place" under "fiction." It's quite a story.

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

January 1, 2003 - New Castle Rock Library Construction Questions

Lately, everywhere I go in Castle Rock, people ask me the same two questions.

The first one is, “What's holding up the roof on the new library?”

The new library, a former Safeway building on Castle Rock's Wilcox Street, is indeed startling from the street. The building used to be a large, dark box – the classic big box construction, where "classic" here means "tilt up concrete."

Over the past several weeks, the Cambria Construction company has been doing just what the plans tell them to do. And at this point, that means they are removing most of the concrete panels on the west side of the building.

How come? Because we need to let some light into that space. By the time we're finished (October-November of this year!), we'll have a lot of glass on the west side. We'll also have a large glass tower on the northeast corner of the building, and at least one large glass panel on the north. The rest of the light will come from windows cut in the walls, as opposed to replacing the panels altogether.

Of course, the removal of all that structural support is what leads to that first question. And here's the answer: the scaffolding. We have structural steel braced under the exposed western roof. It stays until we get the replacement walls up.

The second question people ask me is, “Wouldn't it have been cheaper to scrape it all down and start over?” The answer to that one is, No. We figure we've saved about $50 per square foot by using existing floors, walls, roof, utility connections, and more. Multiply $50 by the approximately 40,000 square feet we're re-using, and that's $2 million. Renovation, generally, is cheaper than new construction. It is unquestionably the case that using the old building lets us build a much better library than we could have afforded otherwise.

A few folks have also asked me a third question: was there any asbestos in the old building? The answer to that one is, Yes, on the back of some of the floor tiles.

We had hoped to disturb so little of it that we could just encapsulate it. Finally, however, we decided to have it all removed – a three day operation involving a sort of Zamboni machine, except instead of grooming the ice, it scraped up the tiles. This was all done under the most careful circumstances, at a cost of $50,000.

But the good news there is that it's all gone. We won't have to worry about it in the future, if we should ever need to cut through the slab.

A fourth and final question that people (mostly old-timers) have posed to me is "Isn't the soil under that building 'funny?'" And the answer to that one is also a Yes. Particularly under the north side, there is very dank, peaty earth that goes to some depth. Because of that, the engineer who designed the expansion to the building some years ago used an innovative under-floor system. Beneath the concrete are 5 foot-deep blocks of styrofoam.

At first, I was worried that this couldn't possibly be strong enough to support the weight of all of our books. Library floors need to stand up to some 125-150 pounds of pressure per square foot. However, to my astonishment, the styrofoam system supports twice that – and has the added advantage of just “floating” over the soil, as opposed to sinking.

What's the bottom line? Older buildings have different problems than newer ones. But we're confident that when we're done with this one, it will be considerably better than it is now. In fact, it will be beautiful.