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The Sprawful Truth

Overwhelmed by growth, the town of Superior struggles to transform a subdivision into a community.

"Half of the people moving in were already here," says Superior town manager Bruce Williams. "People were selling modest homes in Boulder for enough of a profit to get a larger home out here."

The economics made perfect sense to real-estate agent Chuck Sharp, who made the move from Boulder to Rock Creek four years ago. "Being in real estate, I could pretty much live anywhere in Boulder County," explains Sharp, a former member of Superior's town board of trustees. "This is much handier for my wife, who works in downtown Denver, and it's just fine with me. Look at what you get for your money compared to Boulder. I sold a 952-square-foot ranch for $180,000, and we ended up with 3,600 square feet, four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a three-car garage and a walkout onto a bike path--for $227,000."

Traditional urbanites may have some aesthetic resistance to Rock Creek at first, but the location is a quick hop to Boulder and Denver's northern suburbs. It's also bounded by county open-space lands to the north and west--an ironic asset, certainly, since county officials have worked furiously to hem in the development by purchasing as much land as possible around it, but an asset just the same.

"A lot of people are surprised that they like it so much," says Karen Bernardi, who operates one of the largest real-estate agencies in Boulder. "From the highway, it doesn't look so pleasant. But three of the people who work at my company live out there. It's also a great area for our relocation accounts."

The appeal of more house for the money has made Rock Creek one of the hottest sellers in the metro area's torrid housing market. The town of Superior issued 429 residential building permits in 1997, 539 in just the first seven months of 1998, a total exceeded in the county only by the much-larger cities of Longmont and Broomfield (now a county unto itself, thanks to last fall's election). Since its fateful annexation of Rock Creek more than a decade ago, Superior has grown from a funky bedroom community of 250 people to an exurb of 6,500, with a projected population of 12,000 to 15,000 when the development reaches buildout in a few more years. The project has also fattened coffers at Richmond, which reported $950 million in total revenues in fiscal 1997 and a record-busting 2,742 home orders in 1998 in Colorado alone.

Yet the same qualities that draw people to Rock Creek are also part of what critics say is wrong with the place. Affordability requires a certain density of development, not to mention a stupefying sameness of design, and exurbia ends up generating more of the congestion that its residents are trying to escape. The "master plan" guiding the project extends to basic services such as roads and sewers within the subdivision itself, but it doesn't begin to address the amenities one expects from a real town or even a suburb, or the impact that 2,600 new homes and 1,530 multi-family units will have on the surrounding area.

At present there are no grocery stores in Superior, no restaurants, no churches, no retail outlets other than a couple of gas stations. Locals looking for a hammer or a quick burger must drive across U.S. 36 to the big-box stores and chain eateries of Louisville or head further down the busy turnpike. It's no accident that the most prominent feature of the typical Rock Creek house is the cavernous three-car garage, which faces the street and dominates the design. (The front entranceway, with its tiny stoop, token patch of grass and spindly little tree, seems entirely superfluous, since almost everyone arrives by car.) This is the empire of the auto, and the SUV is king.

"When you put in a housing district like Rock Creek, separated by several miles from all facilities, what you have is design dysfunction--emotionally, economically, environmentally," says Jim Starry, a Boulder environmental design engineer. Starry, who has his own court battle going with local officials over housing issues, blames overly restrictive county zoning policies for helping to create outlying, auto-dependent exurbs like Rock Creek. "Rock Creek will be filled up by people who can't afford Boulder," he says, "but they'll drive 22 miles round trip each day, or 60 miles round trip to Denver. The regulations are forcing us to drive to stay alive."

Many Superior residents say they wouldn't mind having a few local businesses on their side of the turnpike. Over the past two years, town officials have tried to find the missing pieces of Richmond's master plan, seeking to woo office parks and retail centers to those few areas on the edges of the subdivision left for commercial development. A Safeway is slated for one prominent intersection, as well as a $70 million shopping center on a 91-acre site close to the turnpike. Fittingly, one of the first businesses to announce plans for a beachhead in Rock Creek was a Land Rover dealership, complete with a display of "Land Rover Gear" and other "adventure accessories."

Town manager Williams says Superior is looking to achieve a "balance" of commercial and residential use. "Right now Superior's budget is 75 percent based on use taxes from new construction," he notes. "The revenue from those new homes is essentially supporting the town. The challenge has been to create the retail and commercial tax base so that in two or three years, when the homebuilding stops--the way the building cycle is going, it's actually accelerated at this point--the sales-tax revenues would be in place to replace the money we're losing from use taxes."

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