New Urbanism and neotraditional planning offers to bring the best of traditional town planning to new development. I generally like the idea, in large part because the “new” that I’ve lived out in the suburban sprawl hasn’t stood up well. Yet living in smaller communities that haven’t tried the idea, I can’t say how well it holds up out in the “real world”.
On a recent jaunt to Fort Collins, I took a few minutes to check out a prime example before my customary stop in Old Town. Old Town Fort Collins is prime, old-fashioned downtown development done well. It is a mixture of walkable streets, diagonal parking, restaurants, galleries, bookshops patronized by a mixture of professional office workers, millennial college students and tourists. The full measure of success…after many, many years of hard work by man, many people.
On the growing south side of the city, the Harmony Road corridor has been the focus of suburban development for 20+ years. When the real estate market tanked about 10 years ago, the corridor was already in full swing with the typical power centers and office parks. There are two interesting developments on the north side of Harmony, between Timberline Rd and Ziegler Rd that were built after I left the Choice City in 2004. One is shoe-horned into a narrow parcel between a mobile home park and the busy road. I thought for certain the mobile home park would fall to redevelopment, but it stays providing much-needed affordable housing in this fast-growing community. (By the way, check out Shelby Sommer’s nice summary on retaining mobile/manufactured housing communities, in this month‘s Western Planner if you can.)
The other, larger project is called Front Range Village. Bayer Properties claims credit for this development as a “Hybrid Power Center”, which opened in 2008. There are a SuperTarget and Lowes anchoring the rear of the 735,000 square foot shopping center, which takes up a good part of a quarter section of land.
In addition to an unrelated (as far as I know) office building on the corner, there are a couple medium-sized big box stores (could be anchor stores in a more usual-sized project) on the west side, against the mobile home park. It’s the middle of the sea of parking where the “hybrid” comes in.
Bayer dropped a roundabout in the middle of the usual sea of parking, off of which runs a short neo-traditional street of diagonal parking flanked by two-story retail with office above. There’s even a regional library tucked in back. I visited just before noon on a hot summer’s day. Even at 90* there were plenty of people walking and dining outside, although I and most others I saw stuck more on the shady side of the street.
Overall, I liked the concept. The faux Main Street may look a bit cheesy in plan-view, but it works on the ground. All of the diagonal parking spaces were full…but there is also the usual sea of parking just around back. One thing I did notice is that the designers made use of all 4 sides of their buildings as much as possible. Service entrances doubled as outdoor dining doors. In the photo above, what could have been a dank alley was spread a bit wider to provide a veranda and park-like covered dining. Later, in Old Town Fort Collins, I noticed the same idea, where alleys have been adapted and retrofitted to be welcoming, funky spaces rather than leftover utilitarian pavement. A few degrees cooler and I doubt a seat in this space would stay open long.
Is this new town in the suburbs the answer to sprawl? Well, sprawl is still sprawl. Zoom out on a google map, and you can still see it’s not terribly inviting to walk to this place from anybody’s cul-de-sac home. And why in the world did they drop a Dog Park in the middle of it all? To paraphrase one of my college adjuncts, dogs don’t buy Slurpies. It doesn’t add a sense of vitality to the place.
It could be worse, but it could be better. The fact is, these developers tried, and I give them a lot of credit for that.