This past Wednesday, I drove to Denver in about 30 minutes, and then it took me an hour and a half to get from the edge of Denver to downtown.
As I was cursing my windshield in the gridlock, one question kept repeating itself in my head: How does Colorado Springs avoid becoming Denver?
By 2050, Colorado Springs will pull ahead of Denver as the state’s biggest city, according to Cindy DeGroen, the state’s projections demographer. So, it’s really not too early to worry now about how to avoid the congestion Denver suffers. Denver grew so fast that some transportation experts I’ve talked to say Denver is about 10 to 20 years behind in building the necessary infrastructure to handle the traffic it has right now.
The good news is that Colorado Springs and Denver are very different cities in significant ways that will probably benefit the livability of Colorado Springs in the years to come.
For one, the city of Denver is a fixed geographical area hemmed in by cities such as Aurora and Thornton and Westminster, so when demographers say Colorado Springs will be bigger than Denver, they mean just the city, not the metro area. The metro area of Denver is 3 million, and no one is predicting that Colorado Springs will exceed that in the next 30 years. (Of course, anything is possible.)
The fact that Denver is hemmed in by other cities makes it harder for Denver to solve its growth woes. It has to coordinate and collaborate with other cities on its borders, and those politics can be complicated and conflicting.
Any annexation that Denver wanted to do in the past to increase its size and tax base had to be approved by the areas being annexed, so it didn’t happen. Colorado Springs, on the other hand, continues to annex land around it and increase in square miles and tax base, so that the city very much controls its fate.
Some people worry that Colorado Springs’ ability to sprawl has been a bad thing, leaving behind areas within the city that need attention and redevelopment such as the southeast while the city gobbles up land on the edges for new cookie-cutter housing developments.
But the mayor, for one, thinks that ability to sprawl is actually a good thing for Colorado Springs and will mean that Colorado Springs won’t have the traffic problems Denver has.
“As we examine ways that Colorado Springs can avoid the extreme traffic congestion that plagues Denver at rush hour from people entering and exiting the downtown area, it’s important to recognize that the disbursement of our major employers, both military and civilian, on the periphery of the city core could prove to be beneficial as long as we ensure there is adequate transportation infrastructure to meet the growth patterns of the city,” the mayor told me last week.
Unlike Denver, Colorado Springs is growing out, not up, spawning edge communities such as Briargate that direct traffic from the core city. That means traffic patterns are more peripheral, from Briargate to Peterson Air Force Base for example, than one giant rush hour in and out of downtown.
These self-contained communities developing on the edges of the city are one of the reasons the mayor calls Colorado Springs the biggest small town in America. Though the Springs is the 40th biggest city in the country, its core still feels like a city of about 70,000 people.
But, anyone who’s driven the Powers corridor at rush hour recently knows that Colorado Springs is fast facing infrastructure challenges for those “peripheral” commuters, even if the commute in and out of downtown isn’t that bad.
A story the Gazette published recently about anti-growth initiatives gaining popularity in Western states surprised me by drawing hundreds of comments on Facebook from people here worried about growth.
Reader Ben Peterson wrote: “It would be wise to slow large new development by passing on the actual burden of infrastructure while incentivizing infill development and reinvestment in existing neighborhoods. We’ve built ourselves a situation where the geographic center of our city (roughly Maizeland and Academy) is crumbling while development is focused far north, east, and south (downtown). Meanwhile, storefronts in the central part of the city are vacant, housing is being neglected and our (formerly) largest school district is suffering because investment is moving to new areas. Whether you agree or not, it’s madness to have existing, underutilized schools, fire stations, and other infrastructure go to waste while we’re pushing ever further out with no resources to finish the new infrastructure that’s needed.”
Another reader, Stephen Pete Peterson, said: “There’s no easy answer for sure, but Colorado Springs is not doing a good job with measured growth. They continue to approve conditional use permits for areas that were not meant for residential homes. What you end up with is row housing block after block after block ... with little concern for open space, commercial, parks, etc. Furthermore, our current road system cannot keep up with demand.”
Neil Talbott said this: “I can certainly understand why there may be a trend toward anti-growth. If you have ever lived in places like Dallas-Forth Worth, or Austin-San Antonio, or even Phoenix, you see massive sprawl that makes travel absolutely miserable.”
Shemeka Elliott put it pretty succinctly: “This is so sad. Alexa, call Thanos.”
These worries bubbling up right now make me hope our community leaders take time to look and plan far ahead of their own four-year terms of office.
I’d like to see a strategic, citywide plan put forth for 2050, when Colorado Springs will be the biggest city in Colorado. The time to plan for that moment is right now, so that we manage our growth smarter than Denver has.
The Iroquois, the oldest living democracy on the planet, have always abided by something called the The Seventh Generation Principle: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
In Colorado Springs, I’d settle for some planning that considers even one generation ahead, namely my kids.