Not-so-new urbanism

Andrea Mayer started laughing when I told her that a new development style was taking Durango by storm. She chuckled because New Urbanism is nothing new for this director of planning with G.C. Wallace, a giant Sacramento development corporation. Mayer has been involved in New Urbanism developments for the past 15 years. And while she said the move back to traditional neighborhoods has been positive for northern California, it has had its pitfalls.

First, New Urbanism tends to be unpopular. Most people associate dense development with urban blight and loss of lifestyle, and nobody wants a thousand new homes coming into his or her neighborhood. Gaining community acceptance can be difficult, according to Mayer.

Second, pulling off effective New Urbanism projects poses a daunting challenge for developers. Contrary to popular belief, more units do not mean more profit. Developers frequently struggle with providing amenities and infrastructure and then balancing the bottom line. Consequently, corners are frequently cut, and projects can become shabby, according to Mayer.

“There are very few developers who can make it work,” she said.

Ironically, shabby development was one of the reasons I moved to Durango. Most of the years of my life have been spent watching second homes and inflated prices replace classic, mountain towns. I’ve tried fighting the good fight and closing the door on growth, both in the town where I grew up and the nearest replica I could find. Sadly, the good fight was eclipsed by dollars in both communities. Those who didn’t buy in early were either squeezed out or spent the rest of their lives renting. Old homes were either fixed up or scrapped, and as the old neighbors moved down valley, senior VPs from pharmaceutical companies and defense contractors took their places. The lights were usually out for all but a month in summer.

Viewing this nightmare twice in 20 years was more than disheartening. I was hellbent on not repeating the experience as we started our search for a new home.

Having been in and out of Durango since the late ’70s, I’d seen it weather changes both good and bad. I knew that Durango had already made missteps, and I thought the town was already sufficiently devloped. There would be no heartbreak here. The damage had been done, so to speak

Then the Grandview proposal showed up with its 2,500 units, River Trails Ranch arrived with its planned 800 units and Ewing Mesa is waiting in the wings with as many as 2,000 units. All of these projects, and a host of smaller ones, are waving the banner of New Urbanism. Under the pull of rhetoric like “walkable,” “community” and “Main Street,” the impact of these numbers seems to be going unnoticed. Caught up in the mystique of anti-suburbia, people have largely overlooked a possible doubling of Durango; a possible doubling of the number of cars, amount of pollution and the number of people looking for jobs.

Experience tells me that large-tract, estate homes are the most destructive types of development. Experience also says that some variation of New Urbanism is appropriate here. Closing the door on growth hasn’t worked elsewhere and it won’t work here. However, New Urbanism has become a virtual craze in Durango lately. In the past six months, I’ve heard it applied to everything from the gas station at Sky Ridge to the ambitious effort to build a functional city in Grandview. Meanwhile, Mayer’s words have been echoing in my head. “There are very few developers who can make it work.”

Durango already has more than a few developers pushing New Urbanism projects, and making all of these projects work will take some talent on the part of planners and developers. It may be time to take New Urbanism out of the limelight and settle into some hard hours. Durango already has enough shabby development.

-Will Sands




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