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
“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
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.