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The Sprawful Truth

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

But the quest for balance hasn't been easy. Acquiring the land for the shopping center deprived the original town of Superior of several houses and a badly needed buffer from the rising tide of traffic and sprawl. The scale of the proposed commercial development has some Rock Creek residents up in arms, too, conjuring up images of the suburban strip-mall-and-parking-lot blight they thought they'd left behind. In exurbia, seniority in the grousing order can be a matter of months, not years; while old-timers try to keep the subdivision from consuming the town, recent arrivals in Rock Creek watch the later phases of development unfold with equal alarm.

At the same time, the entire town finds itself at the epicenter of a growth explosion along the turnpike that it's helped to fuel. Just a few miles away, the Interlocken business park and Flatiron Crossing, a regional mall on the scale of Park Meadows, are racing to completion; add to that the expansion of Ball Aerospace and Storage Technology and several new office parks and industrial centers in neighboring Broomfield, and the current congestion on U.S. 36 begins to look like a trickle compared to the flood of high-tech commuters, shoppers and new residents that will soon be surging up and down the highway.

"The problem that is only beginning to dawn on folks in the corridor is that the amount of commercial and industrial development is such that U.S. 36 will be gridlocked," says Boulder County Commissioner Paul Danish, one of the pioneers of the county's low-growth plan. "Interlocken is obviously the big enchilada in this, but it's not even half of what's coming. When you consider what it is that brings people to Colorado, you have to wonder if this isn't the revolution devouring its own children."

Thirty years ago, Joan Didion described the sprawl of Southern California as "the trail of an intention gone haywire." Rock Creek is by no means the worst of the metro area's new exurbs, but it has become a graphic example of the unintended consequences of even so-called smart growth. Residents and officials there are now grappling with those consequences, trying to figure out what their community will look like in a few years.

In Superior, the word community gets quite a workout. Rock Creek is a "master planned community," the local public recreation facility is referred to as the "community center," and a map of the subdivision is a "community directory," supplied by all those "community managers" peddling houses. But the substance of the word remains elusive. As the building frenzy intensifies around them, the people of the golden land watch and wonder: What does it take to make a master plan a home?

Ye Olde Strip Mall
When Marcel and Cynda Arsenault first tried to buy a house in Superior, the bank turned them down. The year was 1976, and few loan officers had even heard of Superior, a former mining town tucked away amid towering cottonwoods. The place had only a couple dozen residents--not counting the cats, dogs, chickens, goats and junked automobiles. But the tiny, rustic settlement was exactly what the Arsenaults were looking for.

"We were denied financing for three reasons," Cynda Arsenault recalls. "One, the streets weren't paved. Two, there was no shopping nearby. Three, we had water in the basement. My response was, 'We don't want paved streets and a shopping center, and the water has been there a hundred years.'"

The couple found another lender and moved to Superior in 1980, joining the retired miners, Boulder commuters and fixer-uppers who considered the quiet burg one of the best-kept secrets on the Front Range. Many of them viewed the stirrings of development along the highway uneasily. Some--including Cynda, who soon compiled a folk history of the area--were opposed to any changes in town that might attract more people.

"I thought that paving the streets would be the beginning of our undoing," she says. "My thing was, if we built junkyards all around the town, then nobody would want to come."

For many years, Superior was the non-aggressor among the would-be empire builders along the turnpike. While Louisville and Broomfield pursued one annexation scheme after another, trying to outflank the county's low-growth plan, Superior remained practically invisible. Some towns are born to grow, but Superior had growth thrust upon it. When the original developers of Rock Creek Ranch came calling, the choice was simple: Join exurbia or die.

"It was a Faustian bargain," says county commissioner Danish. "I understand why they did it. These weren't people who had dazzling views of great growth and wealth. They had a very specific problem."

The problem was water. By the mid-1980s, a third of the surface wells that supplied Superior's drinking water had been contaminated by proliferating septic tanks, forcing residents to have water trucked in. With an annual operating budget of only $12,000 and little hope of assistance from rival municipalities along the corridor, the town was, as the saying goes, up shit creek. Then a white knight named Scott Carlson came on the scene.

Carlson, a Northglenn developer, made Superior an offer it couldn't refuse. His company, Carlson Associates, had big plans for a housing development south of town called Rock Creek Ranch, but the proposed density of the project--up to 20,000 people on 1,600 acres--was far beyond what Boulder County officials would allow on unincorporated land. In return for a Superior annexation of Rock Creek, Carlson pledged to develop a water system for the town, to provide a tax base worth millions, and to assume various costs associated not only with the development but with Superior's existing sewer debts and future needs.

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