Sorting through boxes of junk in the basement, I came across a copy of the May 4, 2000, issue of the Colorado Springs Independent. Here’s a strangely topical excerpt from my 17-year-old column.
“If you want to know how government works, in its innocent, conniving way, go take a look at the city’s new Comprehensive Plan. This document, which will replace our old, tired, outdated and presumably thoroughly unfashionable Comprehensive Plan, is supposed to make everything all better in our fair city. As if by magic, traffic will be calmed, historic buildings preserved, sprawl mitigated, developers reined in and government made efficient.”
The plan is supposed to be a framework embodying, to a surprising degree of granularity, the city’s policy guidelines, principles and goals. As a document, it has a curious similarity to the works of 18th century thinkers like Descartes or Rousseau.
True to the spirit of the Enlightenment, our city philosophers seek to understand the nature of reality, the structure of human societies, the operation of natural law and the underlying principle of human interactions.
In 2017, it’s déjà vu all over again. The planners, city councilors and power players of 2000 are mostly retired or dead, but the plan lives on. Today’s middle-aged activists, developers, planners and politicians are busy birthing its successor. The plan may appear to change things, but the rules of the game are the same.
The first rule: There has to be a plan. If we don’t have a plan, how can we write ordinances, regulate development, construct capital improvements, levy fees, authorize special improvement districts, get handouts from state and federal governments and prevent the city from descending into unruly chaos?
The second rule: The plan’s unforeseen and unanticipated consequences will be much more significant and lasting than those intended and anticipated.
Let’s look at southwest downtown, where council just authorized master developer Nor’Wood to issue up to $320 million in long-term debt supported by special district property tax levies. If the deal works out, the boarded-up buildings in the area will be replaced by gleaming new bike- and pedestrian-friendly development, featuring high-rise apartment and office buildings, multiple retailers and restaurateurs, all anchored by the Olympic Museum.
Sounds great, but the once-vibrant commercial district has been pretty much deserted and abandoned for 30 years. Why so long?
It’s easy to blame Nor’Wood and the Jenkins family, who worked slowly and patiently to assemble the ground, and are finally moving forward. Why did they bother with the deal? Because they could afford to wait and because they well understood that the city’s regulatory and planning structure disadvantages small-scale developments.
Lacking scale, small developers can’t create tax-advantaged special districts to reduce up-front costs. Myriad regulations and plan mandates further burden the little guy. The structure disincentivizes organic lot-by-lot redevelopment, and encourages long-term speculation.
The gleaming new southwest downtown will be suburban in all but location — conceived, created, controlled and largely owned by a single entity.
Cities aren’t developments. They’re created through the often-disharmonious interactions of thousands of businesses, builders, entrepreneurs, schemers and dreamers. They’re inherently disorderly and constantly evolving, like Denver’s River North and LoDo neighborhoods.
The comprehensive plan encourages scale, uniformity and predictability. Its architects and enforcers are the city’s “Deep State,” uncomfortable with the urban outlawry of the distant past.
Imagine a city without a vast rulebook, one that didn’t effectively advantage the big dogs. Maybe southwest downtown would have seen piecemeal, organic development during the last three decades — or maybe not.
I’m slightly awed by the proposed super-development, but I’ll stay here on the Westside. It’s a five-minute walk to an historic downtown that any small city would envy — low-rise, locally owned, lively and unpretentious. Surrounded by modest middle- and working-class neighborhoods, Old Colorado City was once targeted by a previous generation of city planners who proposed to condemn and demolish its decaying 19th-century brick commercial buildings and use the site for warehouse and factory development.
It didn’t happen, but we Westsiders understand that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
At a recent “celebration” of the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Colorado City by Colorado Springs, an informal re-vote tallied 6,914 for annexation, 17,946 against.
And in keeping with OCC’s outlaw past, all votes were for sale — a penny each — with the proceeds benefitting the Old Colorado City History Museum.
Take that, Deep State!