by Patrick Doyle
After three decades of haphazard, build-as-many-condos-as-we-can-fit-at-the-base-of-the-mountain construction, developers are returning to one of the original attractions of mountain towns: the town itself. New urbanism, the idea of designing walkable communities with restaurants, bars, stores, playgrounds, and libraries—in other words, neighborhoods—has moved from the cities into the mountains.
Consider the host of new urbanism communities popping up across the West: In Colorado, there is The Wellington Neighborhood in Breckenridge, South Main in Buena Vista, and Three Springs in Durango; in Oregon, Crescent Village sits just outside Eugene, NorthWest Crossing is in Bend; and in Utah, Daybreak and Overlake are being built on the edges of Salt Lake City. All of these places are modeled on traditional towns (think: Aspen, Colorado and Jackson, Wyoming), as opposed to the faux villages often constructed by ski resorts.
Building actual neighborhoods seems like such an obvious plan, but it's one that builders and developers abandoned as they bought land and slapped up houses and condos helter-skelter. Hopping in the car to make a grocery run seemed logical—it's how much of America is designed—but it turns out that people don't want to replicate the suburbs in the mountains. People like being able to walk to the grocery store and the bar.
"I think what people really want is to get away from the traffic and to have access to the great outdoors—and their community," says Jed Selby, the founder of South Main, a 41-acre new urbanism development on the banks of the Arkansas River in Buena Vista, Colorado. Selby and his sister, Katie—both former pro kayakers—designed South Main around the Arkansas River. So far they've built six water features on the river for boaters, as well as connecting the community, via bridge, to hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails on Bureau of Land Management land. South Main recently won second place in the Colorado Sustainable Design Awards. And although they've only built out six percent of the expected 327 homes in South Main, Selby's plan is slow, long-term growth that blends the community right into the historic part of downtown Buena Vista.
"When we started planning Daybreak, we asked people questions about how they want to live," says Ty McCutcheon, the vice president of community development for the Utah neighborhood. "And when we interviewed home shoppers, they would always describe the place where they grew up—they never focused on the house." McCutcheon and his colleagues planned a neighborhood that emphasized front porches, so, as he says, "people would be able to flow out of their houses and into the community."
Today, Daybreak is the sixth fastest growing community in the country in part because 20 percent of its 5,000 acres is dedicated to parks and open space, and the neighborhood is centered around Oquirrh Lake, which boasts sailing and bass fishing, and is only a couple miles from the Wasatch. Life in Daybreak, like South Main, is centered around walking: After work, residents can amble over to a sushi restaurant, Mexican restaurant, salon, gelato shop, and dry cleaner. Seventy percent of the schoolchildren walk or bike to school, saving the school district money on busing while improving kids' health.
So why haven't we been building like this for the past 50 years? "The car allowed us to pursue a different development path after World War II," says McCutcheon. Christopher Leinberger, a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of Michigan specializing in development and real estate, agrees: "Never in the history of urban civilization had people had the chance to live where they want to live and at low density." Because of the car, he says, low-density living became the de-facto development model. But there was an unseen cost: all the money we spend on automobiles—about 18 percent of our household income—and all that time spent sitting in traffic. "The suburbs became the victims of their own success," says McCutcheon. "As more people moved there, people got stuck in traffic and became frustrated."
Which brings us to new urbanism. By building around a town center, with shopping, schools, and services, people can easily walk and limit their automobile expenses. Both McCutcheon and Selby credit historic neighborhoods as their inspiration; Daybreak was modeled after Salt Lake's popular Avenues and Harvard Yale neighborhoods, while South Main looked to small towns like Durango, Crested Butte, and Salida. South Main has even eschewed the "mountain lodge" aesthetic that's so popular in many mountain towns, opting for modern interpretations of historic Colorado styles, like Victorian and Craftsman. In a sense, we're returning to the type of neighborhoods that our often car-less grand-parents and great-grandparents built and lived in.
"Living in a town isn't the first thing that comes to mind [when moving to the mountains]," says Selby. "But to not have to get into the car to go hiking or grab a beer is great," he says. "It's a lifestyle that very few people have experienced."
From the Summer 2010 issue