Stone: Scrawled in crayon, doused in ketchup
November 6, 2013
There's an old saying that goes, "Doctors bury their mistakes. Chefs cover theirs in ketchup."
But planners enshrine their mistakes in steel and concrete, and it takes more than mere ketchup to set things right.
Consider some of the planning mistakes — large and small — that we have to wrestle with every day.
It can be hard to believe that plans for some of our local disasters weren't scribbled on placemats with crayons by bored kids waiting for their Chuck E. Cheese pizza and then grabbed by developers with big bucks for building but none for design.
I mean, how else can you explain — to pick a midvalley example — the layout of the streets in the Willits commercial development?
Assuming you survive the trip off Highway 82 and through the roundabout (the Colorado Department of Transportation clearly has its own staff of bored kids with crayons), your journey through Willits to the Whole Foods parking lot is fraught with peril: narrow, curving streets with diagonal parking that forces people to back blindly into traffic, always on the lookout for overcaffeinated pedestrians scurrying out of Starbucks.
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It's a traffic design that might work very well if it weren't for, you know, all the cars.
There must have been planners involved, but, after looking at the results, a responsible adult should take away their crayons before someone gets badly hurt.
But my real complaint is not with mere ham-handed design at Willits.
Willits is what it is: a commercial center, neither inspired nor inspiring. Over the years its success will likely be hampered by too much traffic on those badly planned roads, but so what? Fenders will be crumpled. Tempers will be frayed. Hopefully no one will be crippled.
Willits' failures are trivial. Wildly annoying, but trivial.
The real planning disasters can be found in Aspen, the mighty economic engine of this Valley of the Roaring Forked Tongue.
Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."
In the Aspen version, hubris climbs onto the shoulders of cowardice and incompetence, and then greed clambers to the top to lift obscenity to impressive heights.
For the moment, at least, those heights are the third-floor luxury condominiums that have been popping up all over downtown Aspen like pimples on a prom queen.
And this plague of pustules was loosed upon the town by a City Council led astray, sold a bill of goods by a planner.
No — not just a planner. A consultant! Spawn of the devil. (Consider Dante's Nine Circles of Hell — clearly the work of a consultant.)
A few years ago, that consultant convinced the council that Aspen needed to grow taller, that higher buildings in the center of town were the solution to — to — well, the solution to something.
He declared that people didn't need to actually see the mountains. His point, as I recall, was that everybody already knew we were in the mountains, so what was the purpose of actually being able to look at them?
So this consultant decreed — and the council agreed — that it would be a nifty idea to allow a third story on buildings in the heart of town under the code name "infill."
A later council came to its civic senses and crammed the cork back in that bottle, but the genie was already loose on the land.
And so we are stuck with this plague of super-luxe penthouse condos and the accompanying WATBs (sorry, I can't spell it out in this family newspaper; Google it if you dare) who file noise complaints, abuse their less wealthy neighbors and all the rest.
And it's not just condos. Out on East Hyman, we have a rising row of extra-tall new buildings that block the sun and the view (no need to go into details today) — again all thanks to "infill."
Ketchup will not cover these mistakes.
What can be done? Well, let's consider San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway.
The Embarcadero is San Francisco's waterfront, a superb spot where the wonderful city meets its glorious bay.
Today, it is a vibrant and vital area, centered around the renovated Ferry Building, home to shops and restaurants and an extraordinary weekly farmers market.
But many decades ago, in a planner's frenzied fever dream, it was decided that what San Francisco really needed right there was an elevated freeway plowing along the edge of the water for a mile or so, cutting off the city from the Bay.
As Aspen's Prophet of Infill might have said, "They know they're on the water. They don't need to see it!"
Big chunks of that freeway were built, and the old, battered Ferry Building was left to huddle, shivering in the shadows of the elevated roadway.
Some brave politicians and residents protested and even tried to get the freeway torn down — but money spoke very loudly and the concrete remained.
And then — as if there was no other way to get the job done — in 1989 the earth itself shook, like a dog getting rid of fleas, and the freeway crumbled.
Let me not, for even an instant, be seen as suggesting that the Loma Prieta quake was a good thing. It was a tragedy. Lives were lost. The cost was in the billions.
But one good thing — the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway — came out of the disaster.
I'm not suggesting that we need to wait for (or pray for) a cleansing earthquake here.
In fact, Seattle, stuck with a similar planner's waterfront disaster of a freeway, is finally finding the civic will to tear it down.
But we need to know that such mistakes can be erased, whether by political courage or an act of God.
And, more importantly, we should learn that when they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (which certainly should have been kept in mind before the infill ordinance was approved), there's a corollary: If it ain't fixable, don't break it.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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