Shaping the future of downtown
Vision plan criticized as going beyond ‘Aspenization of Durango’
The Downtown Vision and Strategic Plan will, among other things, attempt to make downtown Durango, from East Second Avenue to Camino del Rio, more pedestrian friendly and safe, acccording to the plan’s project manager, Keith Walzak./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

In 1975, Durango's civic leaders came up with the "Heritage for Tomorrow Plan," a growth strategy for the future of downtown. Now, almost 30 years later, it's more than the plan's name that seems a little outdated. With tourism, business and population booming, likely beyond their forefather's wildest dreams, city planners once again are headed to the drawing board to devise a comprehensive vision for downtown Durango's core - but it is not without criticism.

The "Downtown Vision and Strategic Plan," as it has recently been tagged, will, among other things, seek to define future market trends and ways to revitalize downtown as well as come up with a design framework and timeline in which to do it.

"If you don't have a vision or plan for downtown, you're never going to move forward," said Keith Walzak, the plan's project manager. "Basically, right now, there is no plan for the core, and if there's no plan, then you're not taking care of business."

Walzak, a former city planner who now works for the real estate arm of the Southern Ute Tribe's Growth Fund, said an idea for a new downtown plan actually was put forth in the city's 1997 Comprehensive Plan. However, because of city planning staff shortages, work on the plan was not undertaken until last summer. Walzak said he approached City Planner Greg Hoch about starting work and agreed to spearhead the effort.

With a budget of $100,000, the city hired on the Denver consulting firm of Civitas Inc., to get the ball rolling. However, in the months prior to this, the Downtown Durango Partnership, made up of various downtown stakeholders, had held several meetings to isolate the main issues. From there, focus groups were formed, concentrating on the topics of accessibility, circulation, urban design, Camino del Rio, the riverfront, and infill. In late August, Civitas kicked off its campaign and was handed findings from the focus groups, a move that saved the city tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Since then, two charettes, or intensive public meetings, have been held, with a third and final one planned for Feb. 2 at the Durango Arts Center.

Walzak said the preliminary downtown plan will be revealed at that time, with a chance for more public input before it goes to the City Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council for final consideration next April.

Walzak, who has been devoting about a third of his time with the tribe to work on the downtown plan, said although the agenda is tight, time is of the essence.

"It's been a pretty aggressive schedule," he said. "But this is something we need to do."

However, at least one local group, Friends of the Animas Valley, would beg to differ. The group's president, Renee Parsons, said there are more than a few red flags that have gone up since reviewing a video and minutes from the most recent design charette, Nov. 18.

"What seems like a fairly innocuous remodeling of downtown is really significantly more than that," she said. "It really is doing a whole new image for downtown and changing the whole sense of what downtown represents."

While Parsons said her group has only begun familiarizing itself with the plan, a few things immediately jump out: talk of building heights of 70 feet; $50 million worth of underpasses and ramps on Camino del Rio; zoning for a commercial/condominium infill project on the north end of downtown; and talk of relocating the Fire Department and River City Hall offices.

"We're concerned about development along that river corridor," she said. "We'd really like to see that as a green belt."

Meant to beautify downtown on the surface, Parsons charges that the proposed alterations will have far-reaching consequences.

"It's about upscaling Durango beyond Aspenization," she said. "It's transforming the whole face and character of our downtown."

At the heart of the argument, Parsons said, is the city's projected growth number of 40,000 - a number Parsons and FOAV are not at all comfortable with.

"It's all in preparation for the growth boom, for that 40,000," she said. "It makes the city more sophisticated, more urbanized, and I think that those are the things that will bring in the folks they want to attract."

All this sophistication, however, could come at the price of the average resident, she said.

"We're not talking about affordable housing here," she said. "What role does affordable housing play? Probably nil."

Already, Parsons said the average citizen has been left out of the planning process. She said the charettes have been mostly attended by developers and the like.

Pedestrians make their way along a downtown sidewalk beside the new Stillwell building earlier this week. The City of Durango, in conjunction with the La Plata Economic Action Development Partnership, Downtown Durango Partnership and other entities, is in the process of gathering input for the Downtown Vision and Strategic Plan, which among other things will set design guidelines for downtown./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Already, Parsons said the average citizen has been left out of the planning process. She said the charettes have been mostly attended by developers and the like.

"The city holds these meetings and who shows up? It's a lot of the growth industry, but the general public isn't there," she said.

Most regular, hard-working people don't have time to participate on such a level, she said. "People have work, family, survival commitments. They can't drop everything to go to a meeting."

Unfortunately, Parsons said this lack of participation is misconstrued by the city as a lack of interest.

"If you don't show up, 'too bad,' and it's assumed you don't care," she said.

To remedy this situation, Parsons said FOAV would like to see the city send out a survey to city residents.

"We're at the point of gathering information and eventually asking the city to consider doing some kind of survey to see what we want and asking ourselves, 'Do we really want to do this?'" she said.

While not opposed to a survey, Walzak said they do have drawbacks - namely high costs and small returns that are not necessarily indicative of the population as a whole.

"If you get 10 percent back, you're really doing well," he said. "A survey is a great tool, but they can be expensive. We have to weigh that with the net gain. Are we really benefiting? I'm not sure we would."

Furthermore, Walzak said that Civitas has been conducting surveys of its own. In addition to the input from the charettes and focus groups, the firm has conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Durango residents, who were carefully chosen by the city to represent a broad range on interests.

Walzak also said that he felt the public-input system of meetings was adequate to gauge sentiment.

"We have tried really hard to let people know that the consultants were listening to the people," he said. "We've been doing so much to make sure we've opened the doors of communication."

For example, Walzak said meetings have been held at various times of the day to meet a range of schedules and a complete overview of the planning process, meeting minutes and contact information for steering committee members is posted online at

And as far as the images of 70-foot buildings, underpasses, overpasses and condos go, Walzak said these are all merely ideas that have been thrown out during the charettes, and nothing has been set in stone.

"During the charettes, all sorts of crazy ideas have been brought up, from light rail to rerouting Camino del Rio to Roosa Avenue," he said. "It's all part of the visionary process. We're not dismissing anybody's ideas at this time."

Despite their differences, there is one thing Walzak and Parsons seem to agree on: public input is vital.

"I would really encourage people to be more involved," Walzak said. "Everybody's trying to do a good thing here."

Parsons also expressed the need for more public involvement.

"Most people don't know these issues, and it's a huge thing," she said. "We need to ask ourselves, 'Do we want downtown to look like downtown Colorado Springs? Is that why we live here in the first place?'"

The next charette for the Downtown Vision and Strategic Plan is planned for Feb. 2, 2005, at the Durango Arts Center. For more information on the plan, visit






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