Colorado’s Community Builders-Revisited
Colorado’s Community Builders-Revisited
By Craig Karn, Principal, Consilium Design
How times have changed since I wrote the original article below in 2003. Far from being the brunt of ongoing accusations about driving sprawl and unfettered growth, the development and home building industry is now struggling to survive the greatest economic downturn of our generation. It is more important than ever to remind Coloradoans of the contribution that our community builders have made and will continue to make to the quality of life we all enjoy.
Colorado’s Community Builders-A Heritage of Commitment to Our Quality of Life
The community building tradition in America can be traced back to emerging profession of landscape architecture over 130 years ago. In 1869 Frederick Law Olmsted designed Riverside, considered to be the first residential master planned community in America. Following Riverside was Olmsted’s involvement in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. More important than its predicated role as an exhibit of art and architecture, the Fair inspired the City Beautiful movement. Real estate development projects across America were driven by the concept. The Country Club District in Kansas City, Forest Hills in Long Island, and Radburn in New Jersey, are just a few.
Colorado’s early history of community building paralleled that of the nation. As early as the 1870’s, the state was publicized as “The Switzerland of America”. Even then the beauty of the environment we enjoy today was seen as something to be celebrated. Our dry, sunny climate was also seen as a cure for the ailments of many eastern city dwellers, particularly those suffering for the epidemic of tuberculosis.
A young man from Pennsylvania came to Colorado for that very reason. Robert W. Speer arrived in Denver in 1878. Most Coloradans remember him as Mayor Speer. Few know that his career began in real estate development. He joined Frederick R. Ross in developing a small, upscale subdivision on the outskirts of town, known today as The Country Club neighborhood.
While Speer was busy with real estate, ex-governor John Evans traveled to the Chicago Worlds Fair. Speer would turn the inspiration of Evans’ trip into reality.
As Mayor, Speer established the city forester’s office and gave away over 110,000 trees to residents. Denver changed from desert to an oasis of green. He also implemented Denver’s City Beautiful Plan, establishing a framework for our city that is the backbone of the great urban lifestyle we enjoy today. Our tree lined parkway system, Civic Center Park, Washington Park, City Park, and historic Alamo Placita Park, are just a few parts of that plan.
Others made early contributions to the civic qualities of Colorado. Real estate developer Humphrey Chamberlin not only platted Observatory Park, he donated an observatory to the University of Denver in 1888. One of the largest telescopes of the era, the Chamberlin Observatory remains a prominent cultural and historic landmark, an icon of one of the most valuable neighborhoods in Denver and the commitment of a developer to the education of the citizenry.
Many great neighborhoods developed since that time. The Wellshire golf course and country club neighborhood began in 1926 and endured through the Great Depression. The Belcaro/Bonnie Brae neighborhood began before World War II and became home to many returning veterans. Today it’s home to some of the highest per-square-foot home values in all of Denver.
The post war era in Denver, like much of the country, brought about big changes in the patterns of community development and home design. Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style architecture revolutionized the American home. Bow Mar, with its sweeping streets and ranch homes is a classic reflection of that style that endured for years in places like University Hills and elsewhere.
Homebuilders like Denver native George, “Geoie” Writer, founder of Writer Homes, set the standard for quality throughout much of this era. People bought 10,000 Writer homes since 1965 and they still buy the lasting value of Writer communities like South Park today.
The 1960’s signaled the beginning of the ecology movement in the United States. In 1969 Ian McHarg published Design with Nature, challenging the assumption that development must be imposed upon the landscape. Colorado’s community builders responded to this fundamental shift by creating master planned communities like Ken Caryl Ranch and Genesse. Accessible open space, outdoor recreation, and preservation on the native landscape, now hallmarks of the Colorado lifestyle, endowed the look and live of these communities.
The boom of the 90’s triggered a return to the city. It’s a good thing developer Dana Crawford and her colleagues were looking out for us over thirty years ago when they founded Historic Denver, Inc. Where would the renaissance in downtown living be if there was no Lodo? We’ve learned that we don’t have to just grow bigger and newer-we can grow better.
The new millennium is taking community building in Colorado through yet another wave of change. Stapleton, under the direction of Forest City Enterprises, Inc., with the support of many Colorado homebuilders, contractors, and design professionals, is yet another new example of renewed commitment to quality and civic design. Receiving the international Stockholm Partnerships for Sustainable Cities Award illustrates that commitment.
Community building in the new millennium isn’t just about urban redevelopment like Stapleton. Community builders like Village Homes of Colorado continue the commitment to civic design throughout Colorado. Inspired by Chamberlin, a working observatory is the centerpiece of Observatory Village in Fort Collins. At the Village of Five Parks in Arvada, “The Depot” community center with first floor retail and residences above, day care, events amphitheater, and public art, all create a focus of community activity.
Colorado’s community builders know that creating communities is more than replicating pictures in a book. It’s about creating places that are connected to the land, forming a meaningful backdrop for everyday life. The ideal of place is more than a predetermined pattern of streets or the skin of buildings. It emanates from the patterns of life and how the places we build influence our memories and experience. The form and detail of those places should vary as much as the people that live there. Celebrating the context of the site. Preserving the environmental qualities and views that make the land unique. Honoring the public realm. All of these things in concert are what create the ideal of place.
The Colorado development and home building industry continues today the heritage of commitment to the places we live that goes back over a 130 years.
Newton, Norman T., Design on the Land, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press