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?

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