City works to prevent blandscape
Draft design guidelines will guide future commercial growth

Scenes like this one, along North Main, could get a facelift under new commercial corridor design guidelines being proposed by the city./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

As Durango surges ahead into a new era of growth, city planners are attempting to walk the fine line between blight and bloom.

The Durango Planning Department is in the process of compiling commercial corridor design guidelines that will apply to some of the city’s most traveled thoroughfares. The guidelines will provide a vision for how the city would like to see new commercial development and urban renewal occur.

The city has designated six distinct areas of concern: U.S. Highway 550/160, from Camino del Rio to Farmington Hill; Highway 550 from Farmington Hill to Elmore’s Corner; Highway 160, from Camino del Rio to the city’s western limits; Highway 3; College Drive and Eighth Avenue; and North Main Avenue, from the Main Street Bridge to the northern city limits.

“What we are trying to do is envision, 15, 20, 30 years from now, what we want these corridors to look like,” said Keith Walzak, the Planning Department’s special projects manager. “It’s about creating better quality; that’s what the purpose is.”

He also said the purpose is to clean up a lot of haphazard development that took place 20 to 30 years ago, before any codes were in place.

“There’s a lot of ’70s and ’80s stuff, and we didn’t know what we were doing back then,” he said.

The commercial corridor guidelines came about as the result of similar guidelines that were put in place downtown in the early ’80s. “People think that it’s really worked well for downtown,” he said.

The latest version of the guidelines is the second draft. The first one was done by Winter and Co., the firm that also did the downtown plan in the ’80s. The commercial corridor guidelines were based upon comments from public meetings, interest groups and focus groups as well as Design Review Board work sessions.

Walzak said the guidelines will come into play when developers in one of the six areas come in front of the city’s Design Review Board for approval. However, he noted there will be no hard and fast rules. The guidelines will merely suggest a framework.

“Really, the design guidelines are to help architects, builders and designers understand what we’re trying to achieve,” Walzak said.

While each sector has its own characteristics, overall the city is trying to mimic the “livable” qualities found within its historic core. These include pedestrian and bicycle friendly developments; buildings that incorporate local materials, such as stone and brick; common design elements that tie neighboring buildings together; buildings that emphasize accessibility and are of a “human scale”; and plans that are not dominated by parking.

“Typically, what you see a lot of right now is a building on the back of a lot with parking in front,” said Walzak. “But we might want to advocate parking in the back with the building out front. That’s the kind of stuff we’re trying to emphasize.”

The city also will be developing guidelines with an eye toward the natural environment. Such design elements will strive for connections to trails and paths; native vegetation buffers between sidewalks and traffic; street medians; and buildings that blend with the landscape.

Another area where the city would like to make improvements is with signage, particularly along the North Main corridor.

“Signage seems to be getting a lot of attention,” Walzak said. “We would like to see some reduction in the visual clutter by finding the right balance.”

Specifically, he pointed to some fast food restaurants that, in essence, use their entire building as an advertisement, including corporate logo colors.

“Basically, the entire architecture is a sign,” he said. “We’re trying to eliminate that.”

However, Walzak pointed out this does not mean all color will be done away with.

“If everything’s a muted tone, it looks boring after a while,” he said. In fact, he said a recent trip to San Diego proved that color can give an area character.

“We’ll need to talk about the impacts of color,” he said.

Likewise, he noted that the goal of the guidelines is not to create a bland monoscape of identical structures.

“The more interesting towns are the ones with some funky touches,” he said. “We don’t want the plastic, fake mountain town that looks like every other mountain town.”

Walzak expects the final version of the guidelines to be ready in late March, at which time they will go in front of the Durango Planning Commission and then the City Council. He expects final approval some time in April, at which time the guidelines will go into effect.

And while this is good news for undeveloped corridors, it will have little immediate effect on areas that are already heavily developed, such as North Main and Camino del Rio. He said he expects existing businesses to be grandfathered in, thus granted immunity from the new guidelines. However, each new business that goes in will be expected to comply. He admits things won’t change overnight, but eventually they will take place.

“It’s a tough challenge,” he said. “But that’s the goal: to get cool things going. It’ll happen, slowly but surely.”







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