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In praise of developers

Ever driven up Highway 24 past Gold Hill Mesa, that vast, eroding pile of mill tailings that has disfigured the West Side for well over 100 years? For at least 50 of them, various speculators, con artists and would-be mining magnates have floated airy, nonsensical plans for the site -- and nothing ever happened.

But that's all changing. The plans are approved, the financing is in place and within a few years the 210-acre site will be transformed. And what will it be? Home to a couple of thousand people, a new urban refuge close to downtown. It's a difficult site, and an expensive one to develop. Bob Willard, who acquired the property six years ago, is one gutsy guy; he's placing a risky bet, which, if successful, will bring him a nice payday and hugely benefit our community. You go, Bob!

Say what you will about developers and development, but they're not afraid of risk. Not one house, not one store, not one street would ever have been built in our fair city without a silver-tongued developer ready to take a risk. Clearly, not all developments are created equal: The same entrepreneurial spirit that will transform Gold Hill has also led to thousands of acres of ill-planned sprawl. But developers are doers -- restless, impatient and quick to sense an opportunity.

Now wouldn't it be nice if that same spirit animated our nonprofit and public sectors? Far from being imaginative and risk-taking, the folks who call the shots are mostly process-oriented and narrowly focused.

Consider, for example, the reaction to a proposal that I made a couple of weeks ago in this space, suggesting that the Fine Arts Center sell its building to Colorado College and use the proceeds to help finance the construction of a soaring new facility at Confluence Park. Lots of folks responded -- and everyone liked the idea except the people who actually make the decisions.

One former FAC board chair said she liked the idea, but also noted, "It seems no one wants to share -- they would rather waste time duplicating efforts, primarily due to territorial ownership." I also received a stern e-mail from CC professor Donna Arnink, who noted that the college's plans for its own, utterly duplicative facility across the street from the FAC had been underway for eight years, that it would cost $30 million, and that it was a done deal: Ground will be broken this summer. In other words, it's too late to change; we can't just throw away eight years of meetings, plans, negotiating with neighbors, etc. It's an understandable position -- one that was best articulated 90 years ago by Germany's Minister of War.

In August of 1914, Germany had already declared war on Russia, France and Great Britain. Mobilization had begun, a precisely choreographed process that had been planned and refined for nearly a decade.

Kaiser Wilhelm, overcome by an attack of common sense, suddenly saw the folly of waging simultaneous wars against all three powers. He ran to the war minister, Alfred von Schlieffen, with a desperate proposal: Stop the mobilization, make a deal with France and England, and concentrate on smashing Russia. Von Schlieffen, visualizing the chaos, confusion and inefficiency that such last-minute changes would create, simply refused. The result? A disastrous war, a humiliating defeat.

You can scarcely equate the Fine Arts Center-Colorado College situation with World War I, but the mindset is just the same. In bureaucratic environments, process trumps outcome. Mildly satisfactory results, or even unsatisfactory ones, are just fine as long as the planning and decision-making process is impeccable. That's why public entities rarely produce great buildings, unless driven to do so by impatient, creative and insistent people.

That's what happened when the late Jennifer Moulton, Denver's visionary planning director, drove the process that will culminate in the 2006 opening of Daniel Libeskind's great new museum building. The brilliant Moulton is gone, so we can't ask her to help, but here's a proposition:

Let's make the developers and bureaucrats trade jobs for a year. That'll mean an explosion of audacious, risky public sector initiatives -- and a radical slowing of the pace of development! And wouldn't that please all of us public-spirited, good government types?

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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