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Mountain town mistakes

Bob Berwyn

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 to be 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, said well-known consultant Ford Frick. It’s important to remember, Frick said, that towns didn’t always have the resources for planning or the regulatory mechanisms in place to address growth and development the way they do now, 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 said, 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 1970s-era condos. “You know the ones with shag carpeting,” Frick said. “The market was saying, ‘we want a cheap hotel room, a cheap place to crash and go skiing.'”Frick said dysfunctional examples dot the High Country. In Steamboat, he said, the portal to the mountain can’t efficiently handle peak crowds, and the interface with the commercial area is awkward.”You could point to Telluride Mountain Village,” he continued. “Maybe they dedicated too much space to commercial.”Finding the right balance between commercial and residential, and timing the developments so they support each other is key – but not all towns have pulled it off.

Frick also singled 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 said, but, again, explains that the style was in demand 30 years ago.Frick also said Snowmass Village 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 said.”It meant none of them could really work,” he said. “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 said. A new base village, which recently received preliminary approval from the Town Council (but has also been sent to a voter referendum through a signature petition), is meant to fix that.

The perfect townIdentifying mistakes implies that there is some “ideal ski town” that could be created. It’s hard to find agreement on what that is, but 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, said 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 said.

Looking at towns across the region, Sather said 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 economic pressure. With two expensive public facilities to run (its recreation center and town pavilion), Silverthorne is in a budgetary 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 said. Now, Dillon’s core is sometimes characterized as a ghost town, with limited commercial activity. In hindsight, Sather said, the town might have been better served by a pedestrian-commercial link with its waterfront area as the 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 suggested.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 predict huge increases in traffic have led to serious quality-of-life problems for today’s Vail residents, for example, while 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 bottlenecks, gridlock and a lack of parking. This also holds true on a “macro” scale that affects the entire I-70 corridor. Had officials seriously considered and planned for the today’s demand, there might already be some infrastructure for an alternative mass-transit system.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 513-9204 or berwyn@mountainmax.com


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