Walking from the Business Journal’s office on Platte Avenue to meet my geezer homies for coffee last week, I thought about Jane Jacobs.
The author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs was the first urbanist, as we’ve come to understand the term. Written during 1961, the book is a devastating critique of the planning policies that, implemented nationwide, almost destroyed cities large and small – including, unhappily, our own.
Jacobs’ favorite target was Robert Moses, who leveled entire neighborhoods in New York City to create a network of freeways that benefited commuters from outlying areas. She also railed against the then-modern notions of separating uses and establishing different zones for commercial, industrial and residential.
Tired of fighting losing battles in New York, Jacobs moved to Toronto during 1968, where she is given much of the credit for the preservation of that city’s downtown and near-downtown residential neighborhoods.
In her book, Jacobs analyzed what makes an urban neighborhood safe, livable and attractive. In an age where architects and city planners embraced an urban aesthetic that consisted of sterile glass towers set back from the street, Jacobs championed a traditional cityscape of low-rise buildings, storefronts, bars, restaurants and the continuous life of the street. Not for her were the windswept “plazas” peopled only by brutalist sculptures.
Consider our own downtown.
Walk south on Tejon Street from Boulder Street to Pikes Peak Avenue. It’s diverse, lively and interesting – until you reach what used to be the heart of downtown, at Pikes Peak and Tejon. Along Pikes Peak, many of the low-rise buildings that once graced the street have been demolished, leaving only vacant lots.
Some of the lots are of recent vintage, such as the half-block across the street from the post office. Other properties have been vacant for nearly half a century, such as the half-block bounded by Pikes Peak, Cascade Avenue and Colorado Avenue.
Why does this make sense? Why use a prime downtown location as a parking lot?
The reason’s simple: because the ideas and philosophies of 1950s-era urban renewal schemes are embedded in ill-conceived downtown zoning.
For decades, most of downtown’s core has been zoned to permit high-rise buildings. If you own a big chunk of downtown property, it doesn’t make sense to erect a row of modest, four- to six-story buildings with a few apartments in the upper floors and stores on the street.
Instead, wait for the big score – the national hotel chain, a 20-story office building, or just something big enough to justify the inflated price that you paid for your particular chunk of dirt.
Downtown advocates, city planners and even downtown property owners have been aware of these destructive anomalies for years and are finally doing something about it. They’re creating a new zoning code for downtown, which City Council is expected to approve within the next month.
The city is introducing form-based zoning to downtown, which is described by the form-based code institute as “a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form.”
The new code will be specific, detailed and regulatory. That means that a developer doesn’t have to comply with the vague, subjective prescriptions of the present code which, for example, calls for new buildings to be “harmonious and compatible” with the existing built environment.
Instead, the code is specific about fenestration, about setback and even about parking lots. Flat parking will no longer be a “principal permitted use” in downtown, although existing lots will be grandfathered.
If it works as planned, we’ll see downtown projects like Dan Robertson’s four-story building on the east side of Tejon just north of Kiowa Street. It’s a nicely designed structure of three storefronts and nine residential lofts, perfectly harmonious with the streetscape and respectful of its neighbors. It’s a specifically urban building, not something you’d find out on the wilds of Powers Boulevard.
The new code will be a vast improvement over what presently exists, but it doesn’t go far enough. High-rise construction is still permitted in much of downtown’s core – but, since the downtown market has historically absorbed one high-rise structure every 15 years, most of us will be dead before the last of the mega-parking lots are replaced by buildings.
It’s as if your information technology guys found a bunch of viruses in your laptop and got rid of most of them – but left the nastiest one intact.
Solving this problem is easy – just take a trip into the past.
Buy a 1981 DeLorean (about $21,000 for a good one), equip it with a flux capacitor ($899 on eBay) and a plutonium-fueled reactor to feed the capacitor 1.2 gigawatts of power (maybe they have one lying around at NORAD). Set the date to April 17, 1956, cram in all nine members of City Council, start at Tejon and Boulder, hit 88 mph at Pikes Peak … and they’re back to the past!
Let council learn from the ideal form-based small city – 1950s Colorado Springs.
Of course, it’ll be hard to find a parking place – all those pesky buildings and no parking lots!