Mountain town mistakes

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Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk Silverthorne residents Elena Eaton, left, Martyna Glowacka and Nichole Mason met at the Silverthorne Target Monday afternoon. While some towns are inviting big box retailers like Target in with tax incentives, other towns are asking them to stay away. At issue is how the big boxes affect small businesses in towns.

September 16, 2004

Silverthorne is the town without a downtown, Dillon's commercial core is sometimes described as a ghost town and Snowmass Village is finally getting around to building a base village decades after the resort was first conceived.

These three examples show how past planning decisions and market forces have shaped what now are considered unsuccessful results.

Other resorts and towns struggle with finding a balance between residential and commercial development, and many rely almost exclusively on tourism, making them subject to boom-bust cycles.

But 20/20 hindsight is easy. Can planners and leaders pinpoint mistakes or track patterns that led to undesirable situations?

One way of doing that is to identify "dysfunctional elements" of existing communities - places that don't work, says economic consultant Ford Frick.

Frick says it's important to remember that towns didn't always have the resources for planning or the regulatory mechanisms in place to address growth and development issues the way we do know, with high-tech mapping and up-to-date science.

"My first reaction, when you see dysfunctional elements, is to say those are not always the result of 'mistakes,'" Frick says, explaining that existing conditions are the result of past forces in the marketplace that responded to demand.

For example, some communities are considering the future of '70s-era condos.

"You know the ones, with shag carpeting," Frick says. "The market was saying, 'We want a cheap hotel room, a cheap place to crash and go skiing.'"

Frick says plenty of examples of places that don't work dot the High Country.

"You could look at the base area at Steamboat and say there were some mistakes there," he says, explaining that the portal to the mountain can't efficiently handle peak crowds, and that the interface with the commercial area is awkward.

"You could point to Telluride Mountain Village. Maybe they dedicated too much space to commercial," Frick says.

Finding the right balance between commercial and residential and timing the developments so they support each other is key - but it's challenging and not all towns have pulled it off.

Frick also singles out some '70s-era, large, concrete-block developments, including Lionshead at Vail and Snowbird in Utah, as places that don't seem to have much appeal any more.

"It's a good thing we didn't go big with that concrete modernism," he says, but again, explains the style was in demand 30 years ago.

Frick also says Snowmass faces some real challenges as it molds a plan for a new base village. The original plan at the resort's founding, encompassing seven different villages or neighborhoods, may have been dysfunctional to begin with, Frick says.

"It meant none of them could really work," he says. "They built this village on a hill, which is great - really romantic in Tuscany, but it just doesn't work in ski boots."

As a result, Snowmass Village has been saddled with a dysfunctional retail area in the Snowmass Mall, also the main portal to the ski area, Frick says.

A new base village, which just received preliminary approval from the town council, is meant to fix that.

State of grace?

Identifying mistakes implies that there is some ideally perfect town that could be created. Still, it's hard to find agreement on what that is.

On a philosophical level, most people can probably find common ground on the general goals of long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability for communities like Breckenridge, Aspen, Silverthorne or Frisco.

And that's a starting point, says longtime Summit County resident Don Sather, a business owner with significant investments in the community.

Sather is also known for encouraging a sustainable development ethic and leads by example, driving a hybrid car and designing and building a large commercial and retail facility with some of the most up-to-date green technologies.

But agreeing on those broad principles is the easy part. It's much harder to figure out how to get there, considering that at least some communities appear to be split between citizens "who want to see a lot more development, and those who support carefully managed slow growth," Sather says.

Looking at towns across the region, Sather says citizens and decision-makers should consider past boom-bust cycles and avoid falling into that same pattern.

For example, heavy reliance on sales tax revenue in a town like Silverthorne can lead to immense pressure, he says, explaining that, with two expensive public facilities to run (its recreation center and town pavilion), Silverthorne is in an economic vice, almost forced to find ways to boost that income.

Commercial vs. residential?

Sather uses the town of Dillon as an example to illustrate how past market forces can have an effect. When the town was planned and built after construction of the Dillon Dam, the demand was for residential units near the reservoir, Sather says.

Now, Dillon's core is sometimes characterized as a ghost town, with only limited commercial activity.

In hindsight, Sather says, the town might have been better served by creating some sort of pedestrian-commercial link with its waterfront area as the town's prime attraction.

A redevelopment effort could someday include an in-town land or density trade that could bring commercial activity to some of the ground floor spaces in the condo complexes that line the roads along the lake, Sather suggests.

Sather said planners, as well as policy and decision-makers, have not always been able to incorporate long-term transportation and parking plans in land-use decisions, partly because of the complexity of overlapping jurisdictions.

Past failures to envision the scope of traffic increases is resulting in serious quality of life problems for existing residents in Vail, for example, while both residents and tourists often simmer themselves to road rage in the 10-mile parking lot between Frisco and Breckenridge on winter weekends.

Many mountain resort towns face similar challenges in this regard - easy access from a major highway corridor, but restrictive topography at the destination, resulting in traffic bottle-necks, lack of adequate parking and occasional gridlock.

This also holds true on a wider scale that affects the towns collectively, as the Colorado Department of Transportation struggles on a regional level with a plan for the Interstate 70 corridor.

Had officials seriously considered and planned for the demand that currently exists, there might already be some infrastructure for an alternative mass transit system.