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Unconventional wisdom on urban sprawl 

Conventional wisdom, circa 1970: There's nothing the matter with urban sprawl. People need a place to live, and why not give 'em what they want -- nice new single-family houses on big lots in nice new neighborhoods with nice new schools and nice hardworking, God-fearing neighbors who'll raise nice kids for their equally nice kids to play with?

And if older parts of the city deteriorate, and businesses flee to the suburbs, and crime increases and property values go down ... well, that's the price of progress. Besides, poor people have to live somewhere, don't they? Might as well let 'em move into those ratty old houses on the West Side or Manitou, or Shooks Run.

Conventional wisdom, circa 2003: Sprawl is bad, sez the new urbanism! Sprawl means traffic jams, higher taxes, deteriorating infrastructure, long commutes and the end of a sense of community. It creates impersonal, soulless neighborhoods, defined only by shopping malls, big-box retailers and megachurches. We need to create a vibrant, densely populated city core, or 20 years from now we'll just be Los Angeles without palm trees, the Pacific Ocean or movie stars. And who would want to live here?

No one, according to Councilmember Richard Skorman (aka "The Lone Liberal"), who voiced his approval of Council's decision to relax zoning ordinances in the city's historic core. Thanks to our elected representatives, those of us who live in these neighborhoods can now build rental cottages in our back yards. By so doing, not only can we make a few bucks, we can also strike a blow against sprawl by creating affordable housing and increasing density in the city core.

There's nothing wrong with alley cottages. There are lots of 'em on the West Side, and I'm glad that Council is sweeping away the bureaucratic obstacles to building more. In fact, I could even build one in my back yard. What concerns me is that Council is buying, at least in part, the New Urbanist view of what's right for historic Colorado Springs.

Summarized, it goes like this: We need to embark on ambitious, publicly subsidized schemes to draw people and businesses to the heart of the city. We need a convention center, a major hotel and a new Skysox Stadium downtown. We need thousands of housing units, scores of new businesses and a downtown that never sleeps. If we want to be a real city, we need a real downtown!

Or do we?

Think for a moment about the consequences of large-scale downtown growth. For starters, traffic will increase dramatically. If you live on Nevada, Colorado, Cascade, Uintah, Wahsatch, Weber, 21st (where I live), Walnut, Mesa or a dozen other city streets, you can expect traffic volumes to double or triple. Every neighborhood will see increased light, air and noise pollution. Mixed business/residential neighborhoods will experience accelerated conversion to business use, just as West Colorado Avenue is today. In sum, life in our historic neighborhoods will become measurably less pleasant; we'll lose, to use that wonderful real-estate term, the "quiet enjoyment" of our property.

As one who was born and raised in the North End 60-odd years ago, it seems miraculous that the quiet neighborhoods of my childhood have endured, almost unchanged, into the 21st century. And maybe they've been protected and nurtured not only by caring property owners, but also by sprawl itself.

Thanks to an abundant supply of cheap land, not to mention municipal policies that encouraged suburbanization, the city grew out, not up. There was little incentive to assemble blocks of decrepit houses on the West Side, tear 'em down, and build condos/apartments. True, we lost much of downtown's historic core in the '60s and '70s, but not because of sprawl. Chalk it up to simple stupidity, mainly by the city bureaucrats who devised an urban renewal plan that leveled scores of perfectly good Victorian commercial buildings. And why was such a plan created? To fight sprawl and revitalize downtown, of course!

The so-called edge communities created by sprawl not only reduce redevelopment pressures on the historic core, but also direct traffic away from the core. That's because much commuting is not radial (from Briargate, say, to downtown), but peripheral (from Briargate to, say, Schriever AFB). Thanks to the largely self-contained communities created by sprawl, life goes on in the core as if we were still a town of 70,000 inhabitants.

And that agreeable, slow-paced life will speed up and disappear if the urban busybodies get their way.

So don't expect to see an alley cottage replace the weeds in my back yard ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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