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 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.

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