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The old urbanism is the new thing in Gunnison

Column by George Sibley

Development – May 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE ARE NEW SITES for us mountain folk making our spring trek to see how the other 99% live. The “New Urbanism” [Colorado Central, April, p. 9] has claimed two of Denver’s old meccas. Cinderella City and Villa Italia, “regional malls” of the Sixties and Seventies, are both being supplanted by “New Urbanism” developments.

Villa Italia, according to the Denver Post, will be replaced with an “old-style downtown … anchored by a main street with street-level shops, artist studios, a town square and a marquee theater.” A similar erection is underway where Cinderella City used to be.

So what about the “Old Urbanism” that celebrated the automobile as the apex of human creativity and wish fulfillment? Fear not: it is alive and well in Gunnison. We already have, and have always had, an “old-style” downtown; we even have a main street named “Main Street.”

But the peculiar logic of Colorado has us moving with four-lane momentum to do everything we can to move our “New Urbanism” old-fashioned downtown to our “Old Urbanism” malls outside of town.

Don’t get me wrong; we are all good Coloradans in Gunnison: we hate “unplanned growth” and “sprawl.” But our “growths” are all well planned, according to the logic laid down by the Gallagher Amendment, and the economic wisdom that size and volume are the big factors in competitiveness. (And, of course, we are prey to that all too human weakness for things that are new and shiny.)

It began when the Big Box came to Wilson’s bull pasture on the north edge of town. Before too long the old J.C. Penney downtown closed. When the Big Box put in its pharmacy, one of the downtown drugstores closed (in part because the Big Box hired away its druggist). Then a little strip mall went up on the southeast side of the Big Box parking lot and a few of the usual franchises came in to compete with downtown businesses.

Then one of the town’s two grocery stores left the downtown area and built a bigger more modern store in that mall — adding another drugstore, and bigger flower, movie-rental and photo services. The valley’s fourth bank also joined the new shopping complex.

Then the strip mall developer built a new set of little boxes around the south edge of the parking lot, and a couple of small downtown businesses moved out there and sent back reports of increased traffic.

“I had to go to the grocery store anyway, and while I was there….”

A hardware store moved out there from a poor downtown location; two banks put up new buildings on nearby lots; another developer put in a franchise motel. Now, Gunnison’s Main Street is getting that gap-toothed look.

I’ve maintained a sullen boycott against the big new beautiful grocery store, and go to the other grocery which is still downtown, although I have to cross the swift river of U.S. 50 to get to it. But we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop here.

Now a big new “golf course community” is proposed for the hay meadows just east of Gunnison. It wants annexation to the city, and economic logic decrees that it have a retail sector since, thanks to the Gallagher Amendment, the city can only collect a certain percentage of its total property tax from residential property.

MEANWHILE NOTHING OFFICIAL has been said, but the whole town knows that the downtown grocery (which has been in the same building since the mid-1960s) may someday soon decide to move — in order to expand, or modernize, or just to compete more effectively. And if (or perhaps when) that happens, it will put another magnet on the fringes of town creating another suck on the downtown area.

Well, we all know that competition is a good thing. But all of this relocating makes our old-style downtown compete with an arm tied behind its back. If that grocery moves, nothing really “anchors” our downtown any more — except for the desire of tourists to get out of their cars and walk up and down the kinds of streets that are nostalgic centerpieces of the New Urbanism.

But why will tourists come all the way to Gunnison if all of their old urban malls are replaced with charming old-style downtowns?

And since those new downtowns are “planned” developments, will they eventually look more “authentic” than our old willy-nilly evolved Main Street?

Meanwhile, here in Gunnison, as the current trend moves toward building old-fashioned, walker-friendly downtowns, we’ll have to get in our cars to go out to our new malls.

So maybe we need a larger vision. Suppose we were to come up with a plan to raze our old-style downtown, roof over the whole area and put in the West’s answer to Minnesota’s “Mall of America”?

We could make it a veritable museum to the “Old Urbanism” — which ought to be coming back in style just about the time we finish building our new super-sized shopping center.

And imagine: a mall that I could walk to. That’s so retro it’s cool.

George Sibley teaches, writes and shops along the wide streets of Gunnison.