The Sprawful Truth
Buy Now, Pay Later
You can feel the urgency in the Rock Creek Ranch sales offices of Richmond American Homes. You can see it in the eyes of the young couples who arrive there in weather foul and fair, brochures in hand and toddlers in tow, their nerves jangled from dueling with the tailgaters on the Boulder-Denver turnpike. You can hear it in their voices as they state their requirements, ask directions and trudge toward the model homes to pick the abode of their dreams.
The time to buy is now, says the smiling sales agent, whose shiny embossed card identifies him as a "community manager." In a few weeks, he explains, the price of every house in the Hillcrest at Rock Creek Classic Collection--the Chardonnay, the Burgundy, the Cabernet, the Zinfandel, even the lowly Merlot--will increase by $10,000. Buy now and save.
Buy now, because just look at this map. See all these houses here, in what we call Phase One? Sold. The last one was snapped up months ago. See these, in Phase Two? Most of them are still under construction, but look at how many are already under contract. Sold. Sold. Sold. Available. Sold.
The couples clutch their maps and head for the dwindling pool of available lots like sooners striking out for the territories, desperate to stake their claim. Better buy now, they tell each other, or else.
Buy now, because interest rates are lower than Aunt Emma's arches, and that means more house for the dough. Use Richmond's mortgage company and save another $8,500.
Buy now, because this is the golden land. This is the land of good schools, rising property values and convenient (or at least tolerable) commutes. This is the land of vaulted ceilings, curved staircases and vinyl casement windows, with stunning views of the Flatirons and a sea of $300,000 houses just like yours. This is the land of genuine wood privacy fences and gas fireplaces and General Electric self-cleaning ovens and polished brass coach lights on the three-car garages.
Buy now, because with the right kind of financing, you, too, could slip into a four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath Glenwood Model #4, sticker price $402,995 (add $2,000 for Exterior C), featuring Arched Entryways; a Center Food Preparation Island in the Gourmet Kitchen; a Family Room with Dramatic Window and Media Center; a Jack 'n' Jill Bath for the kiddies; and a Luxurious Master Suite that isn't so much a bedroom as a Master Retreat, with Optional Coffee Bar and 3-way Fireplace and Large Walk-in Closet the size of some people's condos.
Buy now, because in the golden land, there is no urban decay, no traffic-snarled strip malls, no street people or crack houses or bad neighbors--just lane after winding lane of brand-new Glenwoods and Cabernets, occupied by families with 2.2 kids and ruled by a fat book of restrictive covenants that keep everybody in line.
Buy now, because they aren't making any more land, and soon all of this will be snapped up, used up, screwed up.
An Intention Gone Haywire
Driving north toward Boulder on U.S. 36, you come across the southern edge of Rock Creek Ranch abruptly, at the crest of a hill a mile south of the Superior exit. If you haven't kept up with the rapacious pace of development in the metropolitan area over the past few years, the encounter can be unsettling, one of those my-god-what-have-they-done epiphanies.
Colorado is full of such nasty surprises, of course, but there's something about that first glimpse of Rock Creek that affronts the eye even more than, say, the sprawl of Louisville on the other side of the road. The master-planned uniformity of the thing--row after row of identical apartments ("exceptional move-in specials") and townhomes ("semi-custom from the $160s"), flanked by hundreds of homogeneous, characterless single-family houses, all vomited across what was once one of the most dramatic scenes of mountain and meadow to be found along the Front Range--suggests something unnatural, alien, thoroughly Californian.
The view from inside Rock Creek, though, is quite different. To understand the allure of the place, you need to take McCaslin Boulevard past the modest enclave of Superior, referred to as "Old Town" or "Original Superior" by the hordes of newcomers. Then begin the descent down the development's main drag, Rock Creek Parkway, a wide expanse studded with parks, ponds and open space. Although the houses tend to be huddled together, most are quite large, without a hint of claustrophobia. It's possible to locate a few "starter" homes priced under $200,000--and a few monsters, too, valued up to $700,000--but most of the development features units in the $250,000-to-$400,000 range, with anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 square feet, making Rock Creek one of the better housing bargains in pricey Boulder County.
Rock Creek has benefited from the same forces driving exurban development all along the Front Range: an influx of upscale refugees from California and elsewhere, white flight from the inner city, baby boomers in search of better schools for their kids, a restless hunger for something fresher and less congested than the suburbs of twenty years ago. But it's also a product of the peculiar real-estate dynamics of Boulder County, where low-growth policies in the city proper and a burgeoning job market have sent home prices soaring--and buyers scurrying for affordable alternatives. In fact, a survey done a couple of years ago by Superior officials indicates that many Rock Creek residents aren't newcomers at all; 30 percent of them came from the city of Boulder, and another 20 percent from elsewhere in the county.
"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."
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.
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."
Clearing the site for the Superior Marketplace involved removing an entire prairie-dog colony, which reportedly now resides somewhere near Dacono. Mindful of the fate of their neighbors who fought condemnation proceedings, other residents of Old Town have expressed fears that SURA could go after more land and ship them to Dacono, too. But Bruce Williams says their fears are unfounded.
"I don't blame people for being nervous about their property, but there's never been an intention to do that," the town manager says. "There are really two different lifestyles in Superior, and we don't want to lose the ambience of the original town."
Sawyer-Ratliff says the new town board has proven to be much more responsive to locals' concerns about runaway growth. The fact that they now have a "cash cow" in Superior Marketplace, she suggests, has given them more leverage to say no to other developers. But town officials may have found their backbone at a very late stage of the game. Old Town now finds itself squeezed by development on three sides: Rock Creek to the south, the Superior Marketplace to the east, and an 180-unit residential project being erected by Kaufman & Broad to the north.
The real question now, Sawyer-Ratliff says, is not how to head off more development--there's little private land left around Superior that could be annexed--but how to preserve what's left of the placid community that existed before Rock Creek came along. The new tax revenues could be directed to any number of "improvements" in Old Town, but residents aren't sure how much more change they can stand.
"What we don't want," she says, "is for this community to be turned into Rock Creek."
Sprawl Is the Next Guy
Paul and Karen Imbierowicz moved to Colorado from rural Vermont a little more than a year ago. Their housing requirements were simple: a place big enough for them and their two small children, with good schools, not too far from Paul's high-technology job in Westminster.
"We chose Boulder County because we didn't want to get stuck with a house we couldn't sell," says Karen, "and we understood that it had one of the best school systems. But most of the places--we were shocked at how small the lots were. You looked right into someone's kitchen from your back window. We looked everywhere in the county except Rock Creek, and then we found out we could get a nice house here."
The Imbierowiczes found a lot to like in Rock Creek. Behind their property was a pond and grasslands visited by hawks, bald eagles and prairie dogs. The bike trails winding through the development connected to other trails on county open-space lands. Thanks to the lack of retail business, the streets as well as the trails were practically deserted during weekdays, when most adults were at work or volunteering at Superior Elementary School.
"I walk four or five miles during the day, and I don't see anyone," says Karen. "It is nice in a way. People want that experience of a quiet place to live, and it seems safe for kids."
True, Rock Creek wasn't perfect. The lack of any street life--on a weekday afternoon, the place resembles a test site for neutron bombs--may have encouraged a rash of daytime house burglaries last fall. If there was anything like a community gathering spot, it was the well-appointed elementary school, built on land donated by Richmond, which opened two years ago and quickly became so overcrowded that dozens of students are now bused to another school in Boulder. (A second elementary school and a middle school are planned for the southern part of the subdivision.)
But Rock Creek wasn't rural Vermont, either, and that was the point. When Karen Imbierowicz did meet other parents on her walks, they tended to be software designers or management consultants or engineers who worked in Boulder and helped to send unmanned probes to Mars. "I get to hang out with rocket-scientist stay-at-home moms instead of farmers' wives," she says.
Still, it wasn't long before Imbierowicz began to take a closer look at the properties designated for "proposed commercial development" in Rock Creek's master plan. The undeveloped land behind her house was one of the areas slated for a possible office park, and she didn't think town officials were being tough enough in negotiations with developers to preserve wildlife habitat and create buffer zones between new projects and the existing housing stock.
Richmond executives and town officials alike boast of all the open space in Rock Creek, but the claim can be interpreted a number of ways. Much of the undeveloped land within the subdivision consists of ditches and other topographical features that aren't easily developed, and the natural areas left at its borders are largely a product of the county's lock-them-in strategy. When officials trot out the maps and start delineating the town's "greenbelt," they tend to describe it in terms that suggest a well-engineered but dispensable amenity, like a fancy bus stop or park bench.
"We love all the open space," insists town manager Williams, tracing the green splotches on the map in his office. "Our requirement out here is 25 percent open space, but we approach 40 percent. Most of it is usable, and down here, where a lot of it is unusable, we're going to leave this natural. We're going to have a nature trail through here, be able to do animal life and plant life and a soft trail. We're going to make the best of it."
Last spring Imbierowicz and a few of her neighbors organized a group called Superior Citizens for Responsible Development, in an effort to mitigate the development of three parcels of grassland at the northern border of Rock Creek, including the one behind Imbierowicz's house. Predictably, the group met stiff opposition from those pushing for development, who regarded them as self-serving and hypocritical. Now that these newcomers have got theirs, the deal brokers lamented, they're concerned about their view and their open space?
"These people who are telling us what we can and can't do with our own land--that kind of talk belongs in the barnyard," said one of the landowners seeking annexation at a public meeting last March. "You've got to remember, when they built Rock Creek here, they ruined that land, too."
Imbierowicz didn't think her newcomer status deprived her of the right to take an interest in what was happening in her backyard. And the town board wasn't entirely unsympathetic to the group's position. In their haste to attract development outside Rock Creek, they'd made some mistakes early on that everyone now had to live with, including a ghastly cluster of townhomes on a windy ridge above the town. ("Today we'd be hard-pressed to do that," concedes Williams. "But if the property is zoned for development, you're in a legal position of approving things that, under other circumstances, you might not.")
The Superior Citizens for Responsible Development consulted with wildlife officials and environmental groups. They presented the town board with evidence that the land in question provided key winter habitat for ferruginous hawks, and they argued that it could be a crucial buffer between Rock Creek and other developments. Ultimately, they managed to obtain vital concessions in the annexation agreement, including a requirement that the developer of the 77-acre site would leave up to 25 acres untouched, including the existing ponds, trees and wetlands.
"It's something to start with," Imbierowicz says. She considers the victory, along with the election of the new town board, as a sign of growing concern about environmental issues in Superior, even though her group remains a small one.
"Most of the people who live in this community are working and have children," she notes. "They're more concerned with the schools than issues like open space. They can't spend the energy."
Yet even Imbierowicz admits to some ambivalence about the evils of further development. On the one hand, she doesn't want to see the surrounding countryside swallowed in office parks, shopettes and more houses; on the other, the hot real-estate market in southern Boulder County means that when she and her husband recently refinanced their house, they had no trouble getting the property appraised at a much higher value than what they paid for it a year ago.
"It's fascinating what's happening here," she says. "Original Superior is much like the farming community we lived in in Vermont. If this happened there, it would be terrifying to those farmers. So I can relate to their concerns. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that our property is gaining value."
The SChlock of the New
While the Superior Town Hall is being renovated, the town board has moved its twice-monthly public meetings to the cafeteria in the elementary school in Rock Creek. The benefits of the setting are twofold.
First, as a result of last spring's elections, the six-member board now consists entirely of Rock Creek residents. Meeting at the school means they have a shorter distance to travel to hear from their constituents, whose driving time is also reduced. Judging from the number of SUVs crowding the school parking lot, this should result in substantial savings for the nation's fuel reserves.
Second, all in attendance are greeted by a sign on the wall that is supposed to guide the lunchtime behavior of schoolchildren but could also serve as a short list of the rules of good government:
2. Talk quietly at table
3. Use good manners
4. Clean up after yourself
Since taking office, the new board has had its manners and its clean-up abilities severely tested. The trustees are feeling rising pressure from various quarters for more of everything--more retail, more offices, more open space, more roads, more houses. At the same time, the board is facing tough decisions about how best to cope with the existing development, how to meet the demand for bigger schools and more recycling facilities and better traffic control.
Charting the future of the golden land can be a murky business, but once in a great while the choices slip into clear focus. At tonight's meeting, the trustees are presented with two radically different proposals for development that offer a glimpse at the gulf between the town's two cultures--Rock Creek and Old Town--as well as divergent visions of what Superior's future might be.
The first pitch comes from a Denver developer who has an option on two-thirds of a parcel on the fringe of Rock Creek, one that's been designated for a mix of commercial and residential use. The developer is interested only in the residential part. Spiffy diagrams show how a 106-acre stretch of rolling hills could be divided into three neighborhoods boasting a total of 178 single-family homes, all priced in the $350,000 to $500,000 range. (The high price is largely a function of density; originally, the plan had been to develop triple the number of homes in the same area.) The project would involve two major intersections that don't exist yet, plenty of cul-de-sacs and, of course, lots of open space, most of it consisting of the drainage areas between the hillsides.
The board's response is polite but hardly enthusiastic. "This town already has a lot of rooftops and very little commercial," observes trustee Jonathan Oster, an attorney who recently moved to Superior from Florida.
James MacInnis, an electrician who was the only trustee to vote against the Superior Marketplace, is even less taken with the design. "You have long expanses of unbroken houses," he notes. "There's virtually no open space in neighborhood number two. Also, there's no effort made to create a child-friendly, tot-lot kind of thing, where the moms and dads can get their kids to play together. It helps to create a sense of community."
"I'd like to avoid the prominence of garages," adds Andrew Muckle, a physician who works in Denver.
"We need more usable open space," asserts Mark Hamilton, a software engineer who's serving as mayor pro tem in the absence of Mayor Spence.
The developer's planners thank the board for the suggestions, then pack their tents and slip away into the night. Doubtless they will be back, with more sharp-looking drawings, having learned a thing or two about the Superior town board. Watching one soulless housing tract after another spread across the landscape has made the trustees skeptical of even the toniest half-million-dollar "addition" to their lopsidedly residential mix. Last July the board even stood up to Richmond Homes, denying a rezoning request that would have allowed Colorado's largest homebuilder to squeeze 55 homes into a parcel designated for commercial use.
The refusal represented a turning point in Superior's dealings with the developer. "To understand Superior, you have to understand that Richmond controlled everything for so long," says Rita Dozal. "I don't think the people managing the town would agree with that, but I've watched it for five years. We had a board that was controlled by Richmond, and all Richmond cared about was building more houses. There really wasn't town leadership until recently."
But learning to say no is only half the equation. The board is desperate for what its members like to call "community-based projects," and tonight it has a striking opportunity to consider something quite different from a 178-unit upscale retreat. Next up on the agenda is Cynda Arsenault, who finds herself in the unlikely position of proposing a major new development in Old Town rather than arguing against it.
"It feels real strange to be here with the shoe on the other foot," she says. "I don't like change."
Arsenault and her husband are planning to purchase property across the street from their home in order to create a five-unit cooperative housing project centered on their nineteen-year-old daughter, Erin, who has cerebral palsy. Erin and her caregivers would occupy one house, while friends and supporters would occupy other houses on the same property and share common areas. The project would involve renovating one large house on the lot and replacing three existing structures with four new houses while preserving 45 out of 47 mature trees, including a century-old apple tree from the original homestead.
The board is clearly captivated, for obvious reasons. The Arsenaults want to build four homes, not four hundred--each with their own "small-town feeling," Cynda says. The prospective buyers are already known to the couple, rather than being faceless transplants shopping for the best price-per-square-foot they can find. And all those trees, the likes of which Rock Creek won't see for decades, if ever. Even more astonishing, the plan Arsenault presents doesn't include a single garage.
Boardmember Muckle can't believe it. Are they sure, he asks, they can get by without any garage space?
"Most of the houses in Old Town don't have garages," Arsenault replies.
There are still many details to be settled regarding what Arsenault calls the Erin Project, including questions about the property's position in the floodplain. Still, several trustees say they're encouraged that someone wants to build something with "character" in their beleaguered town. The fact that the proposal comes from people who already live there makes it that much sweeter.
There is a hunger for character of one kind or another in Superior; you can find traces of the yearning even in Rock Creek. Two years ago residents there managed to persuade their homeowners' association to back off some of the most tyrannical aspects of the covenants that dictated, for example, whether you could hang anything from your back deck or keep a snooping inspector from entering your house at will.
"The covenants are restrictive," admits Rita Dozal, "but many of us moved here because we didn't want to live in a neighborhood where there were pickup trucks and motor homes parked on the street and big satellite dishes and weird buildings that house animals or whatever."
At the same time, Dozal adds, residents want some flexibility to stray from the standard Richmond home. "After you've been in five or six of them," she notes, "you see the same curved staircase, the same oak floor, the same white cupboards. Everything is identical to what your neighbor has. Maybe they flipped the floor plan or made a slight change, but it all looks pretty much the same."
Dozal, who lived in Broomfield and Boulder previously, decided she would one day live in Rock Creek after seeing the project's original showcase models at the 1991 Parade of Homes. Two years later she and her husband moved back to Colorado from Arizona, and Dozal realized that it would be easier to commute from Rock Creek to her job in downtown Denver than from the southeast or southwest suburbs. They moved into the Waterford neighborhood, one of the oldest and most spacious within Rock Creek, with several custom homes built by companies other than Richmond.
With five years' residency under her belt, Dozal is essentially a denizen of the subdivision's version of Old Town, buffeted by the growth that followed it. She's seen Phase One reach buildout and Phase Two spring up further down the hill, the houses shrinking and getting closer together as developers try to wring a few more dollars out of the land. She watched as the promised community park turned out to be much smaller than an earlier proposal that was supposed to be located where rows of apartments now stand. She took note whenever the supposedly ironclad covenants were bent to suit the convenience of the developers--say, in order to install a satellite dish for prospective apartment dwellers.
"Originally, Rock Creek looked like a community people were building for the future," she says. "But now I see it being built faster, with less care and less thought. Most of the builders, they're here to build as quickly as possible and make what profit they can. They're not thinking how it's going to look twenty years from now."
Tired of living by the developer's rules, Dozal sold her first home in Rock Creek and bought a lot from Richmond down the block, upon which she proceeded to build her own home, serving as her own general contractor. She became active in a group revising the local architectural codes and joined in the battle against Superior Marketplace. As she sees it, the squabbles over covenants pale beside pressing questions about how to make the best use of the remaining land, how to attract responsible retail development, how to preserve Old Town and what's left of the natural setting that attracted her to the area seven years ago.
"For Rock Creek, the issues aren't really about the color of your home," she says. "They're about the way we continue to develop it. There's a feeling that if we don't do it, we're falling behind. That's true, I suppose, but that doesn't mean we should make stupid decisions."
Waiting for the Trees
All of the model homes at Rock Creek have been lavishly furnished by top decorators. The intent seems to be not just to stimulate the stunted imagination of the prospective buyer--see, dummy, you can put your widescreen TV right here--but to soften the hot-off-the-assembly-line newness of the place, to achieve a cozy, lived-in atmosphere by providing a wealth of personal touches.
It works, up to a point. The cowboy hat resting on the desk in the faux-oak-paneled den suggests that the neighborhood cattle baron has just stepped out for a moment to survey his herd. The numerous photos on the walls of the family room, featuring Old World great-grandmas and weddings and baptisms, evoke an unbroken family history of propagation and triumph. The framed certificate of achievement in what is obviously a boy's bedroom promises that Junior will thrive in his new home, regardless of how he might have struggled somewhere else.
But after you visit three or four show homes, the effect can be disturbing. Whose great-grandma is that in the picture, anyway? Whose wedding? Whose certificate? It's all fake history, an appeal to a tradition that doesn't exist, designed to take your mind off the fact that what you're really buying is an empty shell like hundreds of others, with an unfinished basement and a pile of dirt out back for a yard. There is no past in the golden land, and little inclination to learn from the past mistakes of others.
But the golden land does have a future, one that's already being written by regional planners and developers responding to the accelerating pace of activity along the turnpike. It's being kneaded and shaped by Interlocken, which will bring a golf course, a spa, a luxury hotel and thousands of high-tech jobs to Superior's back door; by Flatirons Crossing, a mega-mall that will bring another 3,000 jobs and an estimated 20,000 car trips a day to the turnpike; by a dozen other major business parks, retail plazas and housing complexes rushing to fill the empty spots on the map. The result, planners say, will be that traffic volume and peak travel time on U.S. 36 will nearly double in the next two decades, hiking demands for a northwestern toll road linking 36 to E-470. That, in turn, would stimulate further development in its wake, swamping the current exurbia in an even more far-flung morass of strip malls and power centers, big-box olde townes and office campuses.
Some people don't see a future so bleak. The software engineers from Interlocken's Level 3 and Sun Microsystems office campuses could, after all, choose to live in Rock Creek, and thanks to the extensive bike trails in the area, they may not even have to drive to work. Superior town manager Williams says that he expects Rock Creek to turn into a "bike-to-work kind of place."
But that scenario has its skeptics, too. "The potential of walking or biking to work isn't terribly high in Americans' minds when they buy their homes," observes Paul Danish.
The county commissioner views the estimated growth figures for the Denver-Boulder corridor with a mixture of wonder and chagrin. A few years ago planners were projecting 39,000 jobs in the corridor by 2020; more recent data predicts 75,000 jobs by 2006.
"People are beginning to have what I would call booster remorse," Danish says. "They're having second thoughts about properties that have been annexed and zoned for development. I guess it's better late than never, but it's going to be quite expensive to undo some of this. Generally, the mischief is done by the time the lesson is learned. That's part of the tragedy of growth control in Colorado--nobody wants to do it until it's too late. We're finding that out statewide the hard way."
Some officials have argued that developments such as Rock Creek are a direct result of the county's anti-growth policies, which drove folks priced out of Boulder to seek solace in exurbia. But Danish rejects that argument.
"What would have happened if those policies hadn't been in place?" he asks. "I would say: the same thing--only worse. You would have county subdivisions, and you would have had a hard time providing them with services."
The county's feud with Superior ended a couple of years ago, Danish notes, when the two sides signed an intergovernmental agreement that delineated both the town's growth boundaries and the areas the county could pursue as open space.
"My own conclusion is that regional planning as a solution to growth has been a vastly overblown palliative," he says. "Regional planning is the United Nations approach, and it's about as effective. What has been more profitable is intergovernmental agreements, because they have some teeth in them. They address very specific things, but at least they're doable."
Superior's Williams acknowledges that local officials still have a lot to accomplish before they reach their goal of making his town "the finest place to live in the whole Denver metro area." But the key is making wise choices about the development they encourage, he says, not slamming the door on more growth.
"In order to be a well-rounded community, we need churches, doctors' offices, veterinarians, hardware shops, grocery stores and so on," he says. "It would be nice not to have to drive everywhere."
Rock Creek resident Chuck Sharp, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last spring, sees the town maturing along with its greenery. "As we get more of the things that make it a whole town, maybe it will become more connected," he says. "Right now it's more of a bedroom community. And, of course, it does look fairly uniform up and down the street. But I think the years will tend to solve that problem, as people repaint their homes and put more trees and bushes in their yards."
Cynda Arsenault is working on hiking every trail in Boulder County, a journey of hundreds of miles that takes her from pristine wilderness areas to narrow peninsulas of open space weaving through housing projects of different vintages, the creep of sprawl from one era to another.
"I used to get so aggravated at all the growth," she says. "But as I go through the housing areas, one of the things I'm seeing is that there's about ten years' difference between an ugly subdivision and an individual home. After a while, they add on to their porches and decks, and you see that there are people living there."
Arsenault is still wary of change, still adjusting to the wave of new neighbors in Superior. But the notion that even a subdivision can acquire character over time offers some consolation.
"For me, that makes it a little easier," she says. "I don't think there's much we can do about it, so we might as well try to learn how to live with it."
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