Perhaps a plan that Salida can live with

Essay by Martha Quillen

Salida politics – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

ANOTHER DAY. Another dollar. Another plan. On September 1, Salida presented its second comprehensive plan to its citizens.

My impression this second time around was that — with some judicious modifications — this new plan could be made both acceptable and beneficial to most Salidans. But right now, I wouldn’t want to predict what will actually come of this plan.

It seems odd that comprehensive planning got so popular in the ’90s, because this certainly has not been an era of genial cooperation. If once upon a time the American metaphor was a melting pot, it would seem that we have gone from the soup (in which all of the ingredients blended into a hearty broth), to the salad (in which all of the ingredients contributed to the flavor while retaining their separate identities), to finally realizing that we don’t want to be broiled, minced, chopped, or eaten.

These days it seems like everybody’s gotten tired of being told what to do, what to think, what to say, and how to say it. But we still haven’t gotten over our habit of imposing our views on others. On the contrary, if anything, we seem to have gotten more vociferous about controlling our neighbors.

Maybe, however, that’s because — be we environmentalists or ranchers, young or old, men or women, goths or jocks — we’re all a little afraid of being crushed by one another. As I see it, the ’90s are an era of distrust. And I suspect, it’s also an era when, at times, we all worry that we’re going to end up living in a place like the newly reformed Yugoslavia.

Yet in spite of hate crimes and school shootings, I’m not sure how bad things really are. Our perceptions may be largely due to the media. After all, TV news shows have gained in popularity, disasters are a ratings sensation, and scandal is hot.

Since speculating on presidential vices used to be a journalistic taboo, it’s difficult to know if Clinton was worse than Kennedy, or if Kennedy was worse than Harding, or even if presidents always lied — to us and to congress.

But when it comes to parental negligence — which has developed into a major topic of discussion since the Columbine shootings — I know you’ve only got to read pioneer diaries to find out that an appalling number of children used to fall into wells and wander off from wagon trains.

In our era of car seats and safety-tested toys, a child’s life expectancy is eight years higher than it was in the 1950s, and fatal accidents are far fewer. So perhaps the actual truth of our era is that we expect more of ourselves — and of our neighbors.

But whether we’re actually less virtuous these days or not, we definitely push and pull at each other more. That’s a given. We put more people in prison; we demand harsher punishments, and we make crimes out of things that used to be considered accidents.

All in all, we trust each other less, and we trust our government even less than we trust each other. Which makes this one heck of a strange time to try to usher in a comprehensive plan. For if there’s one thing a plan requires, it’s that the citizens believe that the new regulations will be administered fairly and that the resultant costs will be both affordable and fair.

When it comes to fairness, however, Salidans don’t have much faith, and they probably shouldn’t have much faith — since everything Salida’s done in this decade seems to have taken longer and cost more than was initially predicted.

What can you say? It’s the times; it’s the era; it’s millennial madness at it’s peak.

Whatever you want to call it, though, it doesn’t make it easy to compromise on a plan.

Yet, as I see it, this second plan is far better than the first plan. For one thing, it’s in English.

Like most modern comprehensive plans, Salida’s new plan does suggest that we improve our fair city with amenities, qualities, and gateways, and that we take a “proactive” approach, and that we “improve the attractiveness of Salida” by adopting attractive signage, attractive landscaping, attractive materials, attractive parking areas and just plain old attractiveness.

So as a work of art, I’d have to label it derivative and clichéd. But as a plan it’s not too bad. Primarily, that’s because Salida’s new plan makes it amply clear how the consultants think we can do such things.

Salida’s first comprehensive plan — which was prepared, presented and dismissed two years ago — didn’t make anything clear. Instead, it offered a jumble of zoning proposals which haphazardly relegated existing homes and ranches into areas designated as open space and parks. Then, when asked what would constitute open space, the planners refused to define open space, but instead insisted that it could be whatever Salidans wanted it to be.

IN A SERIES of proposals and action statements, the first plan offered a full array of options that more or less concluded that Salida could do this or that or maybe some other thing. And even though that comprehensive plan was promoted as a tool to help Salida deal with developers, it didn’t make it clear what rules and regulations the city would have to adopt to do so.

But even worse, when citizens objected to changes in zoning and to errors in the first plan’s maps, the presenters told the public that the plan was merely a guide and that it needn’t actually be implemented. (Except according to our city representatives at the time, the county had already agreed to adopt Salida’s zoning suggestions to help facilitate implementation of the comprehensive plan — which made the situation very confusing.)

What the purpose was in a comprehensive plan that had inaccurate maps and conflicting options, that didn’t have to be followed, that was unclear from start to finish, and that was promoted primarily on the merit that it needn’t change anything, I don’t know.

In short, the old plan was about as useful as a partial set of instructions for constructing an ocean.

This new plan, however, offers some constructive advice on handling new development, encouraging commerce, and protecting historical and environmental assets.

And furthermore, it steps on far fewer toes than the last plan. It doesn’t randomly impose zoning changes. It doesn’t introduce nearly as many thorny conundrums regarding the rights of property owners versus the needs of the community. And it doesn’t descend into absolute fantasy and sheer wishful thinking by proposing numerous new schools, extensive annexations, and a large college campus — as did the old plan (even though ordinarily such things would be decided upon only if and when the need or opportunity emerged).

But even better, at their first public meeting the representatives from Balloffet and Associates were diplomatic, courteous, and they even seemed receptive to both suggestions and criticism.

But there were, of course, objections to this plan, and I definitely sympathized with some of them.

When a women protested the tree-lined medium strips proposed for Highway 50, I could see her point. As a business owner, she felt that trees could conceal store fronts and thereby hurt businesses reliant on highway traffic. She was also worried that the project would prove too costly for merchants, and might drive some out of business.

I wasn’t sure whether the improvement costs could drive anyone out of business or not, but I could certainly see why the auto dealers, service garages, and fast food stores that currently ply their trade on Highway 50 might not want to pay to be cloaked behind tree-lined boulevards.

And even if the costs wouldn’t drive anyone out of business, I suspect wide, tree-lined medians could eventually force many kinds of businesses out of town.

Such a residential-style street just doesn’t seem appropriate for many kinds of businesses (like auto dealers and car washes). Yet I don’t see that Salida has anywhere else to put such businesses.

Besides, though trees could be lovely, they might also impede visibility and thereby increase the hazards of traffic merging from side streets and parking lots.

More to the point, however, I wondered whether this rather over-the-top proposal of establishing landscaped median strips down both sides of Highway 50 might delay the far more important goal of improving safety and establishing some kind of pedestrian/bike trail along the highway.

Because personally, I don’t care whether the path is beautiful (or straight, or whether it curves around existing structures) as long as it establishes a place for people — especially half-grown people — to walk that keeps them several feet away from traffic.

Others, however, probably do care. So I expect that if Salida wants this plan to work, some kind of compromise will have to be reached. Maybe there could be grass along the path — with some fully landscaped rest stops and benches placed at intervals along the way.

At the plan’s first public meeting, the Highway 50 discussion slid into a disagreement about whether the downtown improvement project actually drove people out of business or not. At which point someone pointed out that whether it did or not, the downtown was better now.

And I wholeheartedly agree, but I’m not sure the situation is analogous. The downtown merchants paid for most of the downtown improvements, but the purpose was essentially revitalization — to fix it up, spruce it up, and lift it up. And it worked; assessments on downtown buildings have skyrocketed (although I’m not quite sure that’s what the owners had in mind).

THE HIGHWAY, however, is already alive — and carrying more traffic than it can reasonably handle on many summer weekends. Thus, highway merchants may not see such a dynamic return on improvement costs. Besides, we all need Highway 50 improvements — for our safety, our children, and to help the paint stay on our cars.

Whereas downtown Salida was always reasonably safe and pleasant (even when it wasn’t booming), Highway 50 can be terrifying — especially when people are standing in the middle of it trying to get across. And therefore I think it might be better if we all share the costs, or at least if we all contribute to them. (Although I, for one, certainly hope Salida can find some creative funding, because I suspect any meaningful improvements are going to be expensive.)

But if there was one thing I really liked about this plan, it was that it might energize our efforts to improve Highway 50. It contained some promising ideas — things like combining parking lots to reduce the number of existing curb cuts.

And I guess we can always hope that — with a plan and a full-out effort — we can finally convince CDOT that they’re endangering our school children, dividing our town in half, and terrorizing our tourists with their crummy, yellow light. (For it’s sure hard to figure out how they could possibly think that blinking thing makes the highway easier to cross — or improves much of anything at all.)

But the new plan had a few other sticking points, too. For example, a proposed bypass was none too popular.

And at this point no one seemed too sure about what Salida should do with the railroad right-of-way (although saving it for some kind of recreational purpose seemed more popular than zoning it for business or industry).

Also, there were complaints of omission. One woman felt the area along Oak Street was an eyesore; and a man objected to the neighborhood east of the new junior high, saying it could at least have sidewalks. But that’s problematical.

Sidewalks are traditionally paid for by the resident — as are building improvements. So perhaps if someone had suggested that all homes in Salida without sidewalks install them, the idea might fly. But it seems an undue burden to require such an improvement only in a poorer neighborhood.

At some point, demanding that homes in specific neighborhoods meet aesthetic standards not required of all homeowners seems an infringement of rights. But on the other hand, the city may have the right to put more trees alongside Oak Street if people really think there’s a need.

ON THE WHOLE, though, the tendency to air complaints about certain buildings and certain homes during the planning process makes me queasy. For not only does it touch upon that gray area encompassed by private property rights, it also demands greater financial investments from citizens less able to afford them.

Thus, maybe — if people really want to improve their neighbors lot — we should just ask the planners to include a new minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. Denver tried that — since many believed it could greatly improve their city. But it didn’t pass. And I’m sure it wouldn’t pass here.

The recommendation could sure heat things up, though. Hell, it might make all those other obstacles clear as fast as a summer shower.

Which brings me to another complaint. One man felt that the plan didn’t do enough to address the lack of employment opportunities and lucrative jobs in Salida. And that is certainly true. But I doubt there are any planners who know the solution to a problem that has plagued small rural towns for decades (especially small rural tourist towns that offer a lot of seasonal work).

So now we have it:

An improvement plan in need of improvement.

And personally, although I don’t expect it to be easy — and I don’t even know if it should be easy — I hope we can work something out this time. For even though they say the third time’s the charm, I really don’t like planning meetings enough to start all over again.

–Martha Quillen