Growing Better, or Just Bigger?

Many people think Boulder, Colorado forebodes the future of Fort Collins. If we make the planning process too onerous and the zoning restrictions too tight, we'll increase the property values for existing owners, chase new people to the hinterlands of the county, and increase the traffic in town. But these don't necessarily follow one after the other. It happened in Boulder for a variety of reasons which include a community's need for open public space and the tightness of property in Boulder due to its small size, closeness to the mountains, and the amount of land owned by the University.

I think Colorado Springs shows more of the future of Fort Collins. It is sprawled all over the mesas and looks ugly, but that is mostly due to geology. There are lots of hillsides which display the boxes of ticky tacky to the drivers speeding down the arterials. In our two-dimensional prairie, the sprawl isn't so obvious, although the effect on the wildlife and air is still detrimental. We can preserve some open wild space and also build skyscrapers to make downtown more dynamic and densely populated enough to make public transportation cost-effective.

When the kids were out of school during Spring Break, we went down to Colorado Springs for a minivacation and spent one morning at Michael Garman's Magic Town. He's a sculptor who forms clay and wax into dioramas of seedy downtown areas. You can buy a dingy cafe complete with a waitress with a Marlboro dangling out of the side of her mouth and a short order cook wearing a stained apron, or purchase a poolroom full of down and out men smoking Kools and drinking whatever's on tap. For some reason, people pay big bucks for these sculptures. Even famous people such as John Elway and Jimmy Carter. There is a list so you too can spend your money and join this elite crowd.

Magic Town itself is a collection of these sculptures along with holograms of actors performing the same scene over and over and over. In a large, dark room, there is row upon row of brick buildings with faded paintings of advertisements for Coca-Cola. Feet covered by socks with holes stick out apartment windows. The streets have garbage cans full of liquor bottles and newspapers blown into corners. In the alleys, kids in torn clothes play with stray cats while winos drink liquor and tuck their shirts back in. And you can look in many of the windows and see daily life as it is squandered in a rundown downtown. Using lights and mirrors, Garman makes the alleys longer and more claustrophobic and he changes the scenes inside the apartments such as from a lady cooking dinner to a man reading the paper.

Magic Town in Old Colorado City provides another vision of the future: wonderfully architected buildings that decayed as businesses left because they couldn't compete with the incentives offered to lure new businesses to the bustling outskirts of the growing city.

None of these three scenarios, Boulder, Colorado Springs, or Magic Town, is necessarily in our future, but any of them could be. Growth is happening. Colorado is a gorgeous place to live. We can't dissuade people from moving here unless we turn it into a place we don't wish to live ourselves. But we don't need to get in a bidding war with other municipalities to try to lure businesses here. Free agents don't become part of the community. They are willing to leave as soon as more money is offered. If we don't let the extremists of either environmentalism or capitalism make city government too intrusive, we can focus on building an enjoyable place to live, a community we can all be proud of, and one that will attract the sort of businesses and employees we want as neighbors.