The Sprawful Truth

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

In 1986 the town voted for the annexation by a five-to-one margin. "It wasn't just about needing the water," recalls Suzanne Sawyer-Ratliff, who moved to Superior around the time of the crucial vote. "There was annexing going on all around us. If we hadn't made the step, someone else would have."

"I kind of felt like we had to sell our souls," says Cynda Arsenault. "But had Superior not annexed Rock Creek, then Broomfield might have. Or Louisville. It was going to happen anyway."

After the deal was struck, Richmond Homes became the principal developer of Rock Creek, and the project was scaled back considerably--partly because of Richmond's desire to accommodate a more upscale residential mix, and partly because county officials regarded the development as a poke in the eye to regional planning and spent freely to buy up thousands of acres to the west and north of town for open space. "Whenever we wanted to annex something, the county would run over and offer them money," says Superior town manager Williams. "They had $70 million, so we couldn't compete."

"I'm incredibly thankful that the county bought all that property," says town trustee Andrew Muckle. "I think it's the best thing that's happened to Superior. They saved us from ourselves."

At one point, planners were projecting 8,000 homes and multi-family units in Rock Creek. The current development represents only about half that amount, separated from Old Town by McCaslin Boulevard and a steep hillside. But the project has still had an enormous impact on the original town, from the steady buzz of cars on McCaslin to the boarded-up town hall, which is undergoing renovation and expansion to keep up with the increasing demands of commerce and government in exurbia. (Currently, Williams and other town employees operate out of a set of trailers on the edge of town, reinforcing the impression that the place is one big construction zone.)

Rock Creek has also triggered other development in and around Superior, some of it too close for comfort. The most acrimonious battle to date unfolded over the past year, as town officials set about finalizing a deal with Elcor, a Phoenix-based developer, to build a multiplex-theater-and-shopping complex that would address the town's growing need for a commercial tax base. The proposed 91-acre site next to the turnpike had been designated for commercial development decades ago, but several of the parcels involved were owned by longtime residents who refused to sell. So the Superior Urban Renewal Authority (SURA) invoked its condemnation powers to dislodge the landowners and raze their homes--sacrificing a chunk of Old Town to build the New Strip Mall.

Elcor's project, at one time called the Superior Towne Center but now known as the Superior Marketplace, pitted an array of Rock Creek and Old Town residents against a developer-friendly board of trustees. "We always knew there was no keeping it out," says Suzanne Sawyer-Ratliff. "When the developers are six months ahead of you, when the board thinks that the answer to everything is to load up with as much tax money as you can, there isn't a lot you can do."

But as Sawyer-Ratliff walked the streets of Rock Creek, trying to gather signatures on petitions opposing the shopping complex, she finally had a chance to meet some of her 6,000 new neighbors. "I was delighted to discover the number of people who were concerned about the preservation of the original town," she says. "Personally, you couldn't pay me to live in Rock Creek. And a lot of people in Rock Creek may not want to live in Original Superior, but they want to preserve it. It's almost like something they can hold on to from a calmer, quieter time."

At public meetings, new and old residents alike questioned the need for a "power center" complex as big as the one Elcor wanted, anchored by a 136,000-square-foot Costco warehouse. They worried that a big strip mall would become identified as Superior's "town center"--or worse, its towne center. (An affection for antique spellings runs rampant in the golden land, as if an extra "e" can provide a protective coating of nostalgia; an office complex rising across McCaslin from Rock Creek is called Superior Pointe.) The town board's response was to hold numerous executive sessions and to stage a hurried ceremonial groundbreaking at the site--on April Fool's Day, no less--long before many details of the project had been finalized.

Days after the ceremony, the town elected a new board that included only two carryovers from the old regime: Mayor Susan Spence and a recent board appointee, Mark Hamilton. The new board went ahead and approved the Elcor development, which several of the trustees had campaigned against but now decided was "too far along" to oppose. In the end, the citizens' coalition won several minor concessions--a donation of nine acres of land as a buffer between the complex and Old Town; the increased use of a pre-cast concrete that's supposed to look just like real Colorado flagstone; the creation of a citizens' committee that will review future development plans; and so on--but lost the war.

"It's a big L-shaped strip mall with lots of parking," sighs Rock Creek resident Rita Dozal. "We all raised concerns about the design, but nobody did anything about it. The impression I get is that the management of the city feels that if we don't bow down to the developers, they're going to walk away."

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