Thinking Outside The Big Box

Tucson Officials Could Learn A Few Lessons In Fort Collins, Colorado.

TED SHEPARD, CHIEF city planner of Fort Collins, Colorado, has an opinion on the big box plot to assault neighborhoods in the heart of Tucson.

"It sounds pretty brutal," he said by telephone last week.

Shepard has heard all about the Home Depot plan to squeeze a 108,000-square-foot store at El Con right next to the historic Montevideo neighborhood and the suspected Wal-Mart plot to plop a 200,000-square-foot building on the other side, a stone's throw from the El Encanto and Miramonte neighborhoods. The tale has made the papers in Fort Collins, which four years ago fought Wal-Mart and won. And Tucson city planners, reporters and activists have been calling Fort Collins for copies of its politely named Design Standards and Guidelines for Large Retail Establishments. Don't be fooled by the document's polite name -- its tough regs force out-of-town superstore corporations to knuckle down and do what's good for the community.

The fact that Tucson might actually borrow from the Fort Collins rulebook is one of the most promising pieces of news I've heard about the Old Pueblo in a long time. I was in Fort Collins a year ago, and it's a city that's gotten a lot of things right.

My first glimpse of the place was auspicious. It was in June, in the middle of the week, after nine at night, when my husband and kids and I rolled into town off the interstate. My sister lives within walking distance of downtown, so we cruised the main street to get to her bungalow. We were astonished at what we saw. Cafés and restaurants with streetside seating were crowded and convivial. Cars were parked on the diagonal, giving the revelers a buffer from traffic, and the tree-shaded streets ran by 19th-century red sandstone buildings immaculately restored. An independent bookstore was all lit up and swarming with people; music tinkled out from clubs.

In the next couple of days we saw much more to admire. A network of parks weaves a cool greenbelt through the city. A fine bus system is free to kids and teens, the better to train them to use public transportation as adults. And at the inevitable car-oriented shopping centers outside of the compact downtown, there were trees, pedestrian walkways, and even stores of some architectural interest.

How is it that Fort Collins has taken such a different path from Tucson? After all, the two cities have much in common. Both nestle in flatlands near soaring mountains and gorgeous wilderness. Just south of Wyoming, Fort Collins is the northernmost of the Colorado cities tucked between the dry rolling prairie to the east and the Rockies to the west. Both towns grew out of military forts -- Fort Collins was established during the Civil War -- and their railroad histories left tracks inconveniently slicing past their downtowns. Nowadays, both cities are growing quickly, making the list of top 20 fastest-growing cities every year, and both see tourism and high-tech as the answer to their economic prayers. And like Tucson, Fort Collins has a big state university, Colorado State.

But there are some crucial differences. Fort Collins has just 110,000 people, about a fourth of Tucson's contentious mob. Its university abuts its downtown, filling up the businesses with students at all hours. (Picture Tucson's downtown situated along University Boulevard and you get the idea.) Fort Collins' historic "Old Town," built of red sandstone quarried just west of the city, fortunately escaped the urban renewal wrecking ball that leveled much of Tucson's adobe past.

And in the late 20th century, when cities all over America are being swallowed up by sprawl and mega-mall, Fort Collins, unlike Tucson, has made a commitment to sensible urban planning. The city leaders have tried to value the pedestrian above the automobile. That's the reason my sister Kathleen and her husband Leigh moved there in the first place, heading out from Philadelphia after their wedding in 1990. Both are legally blind, and they wanted to live in a place whose physical layout maximizes their independence. They can walk downtown from their house, in a modest neighborhood originally inhabited by workers who built the local dam. They can stroll over to a generous local park, which not only houses farm animals and children's play equipment, but a hiking and running trail that extends for miles along the Poudre River. They can get most places farther afield on the city bus.

Thanks to the superstore regs, when Kathleen and Leigh and their two little girls ride the bus out to the big stores beyond downtown, they have some guarantees that they won't be mowed down in the parking lot. Fort Collins' rules, Shepard explained, require "an 8-foot sidewalk all around the shopping center." In the middle of the lot, raised sidewalks take pedestrians safely to the store's front door, incidentally creating speed humps that cars must drive over slowly. And to discourage cut-through traffic, the "street" that runs by the store entrance may not connect with the public street.

The rules also break up the vast parking lots that build up heat and obliterate the traditional streetscape.

"There may be no more than 50 percent of the parking between the front door and the street," Shepard said. At least half the parking spaces must be at the side and rear.

If private houses are nearby, buffers are required. At least 35 feet must intervene between store and house -- which actually isn't much -- but developers have to screen the store by erecting a 6-foot berm and planting it thickly with evergreen trees. Strict standards in the Land Use Code govern the amounts of light and noise the stores can generate. Visual rules ban prefabricated steel panels and insist on "high quality" exterior building materials instead, on the lines of brick, wood, sandstone or other native stone. Roof lines must be varied, and recesses and projections must alleviate the long monotonous line of the typical big box.

But neighborhoods get the most protection from the rule that governs where in town the superstores can be built. The big-box stores -- defined as buildings of 25,000 square feet or more, way smaller than the behemoths that want to go in at El Con Mall -- must lie along two arterials. That means, Shepard explained, two major roads with two lanes in each direction, traffic lights and a left-turn lane. If the roads are not there, no big box.

"These things generate a lot of traffic," Shepard said in an understatement. "We have to be very careful about sending cars through the neighborhoods." The Fort Collins traffic rule all by itself would ban the big boxes from El Con, which simply doesn't have the roads to carry the cars the superstores attract.

In its 1995 battle with Wal-Mart, Fort Collins had the advantage over Tucson. Here Home Depot quickly filed its plans before Tucson could draw up a superstore ordinance, a legal maneuver that gives the lie to its stated intention to act the good neighbor. By contrast, Fort Collins still had time to act when it got wind of Wal-Mart's plans to go in along the Harmony Highway, a major road that the city considers the gateway to town. City leaders moved quickly.

"The City Council adopted an emergency ordinance, and put a moratorium on retail (superstore applications) for six months," Shepard said. Before the half year was up, the city had adopted the new guidelines, which ruled out a Wal-Mart on Harmony. Wal-Mart proposed a store elsewhere, but fought the rule governing broken-up parking lots tooth and nail. Ultimately the corporation redesigned the lots, but its proposal was shot down anyway on the grounds of traffic impact.

The big-box laws haven't doomed Fort Collins to economic extinction. Since their enactment, a gargantuan 307,000-square-foot "power center" was built. Housing a Home Depot, PetSmart and supermarket, the place follows all the design rules, including awnings, downtown-style facades and broken-up parking lots.

The lesson?

Shepard believes that the big corporations ultimately comply with local rules only if they think they have to. They'll resist as much as they can before they spend money on the kinds of things that help people like Kathleen and Leigh, anybody else who ever gets out of a car, and everybody who wants an attractive, livable city.

"But they'll test you," Shepard warned. "They will push you and push and push you to see if you have a backbone. You have to show that you have political backup. But if they want the store they'll do it."

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