Mention Boulder to a resident of Colorado Springs, and you’re likely to be told that Boulder is an absurdly expensive, anti-business, elitist community where Republicans are less welcome than Hell’s Angels.
Asked, for example, what he thought of Boulder’s economic development policy, Springs developer Bruce Shepard responded, only partially tongue-in-cheek, “I didn’t know they had a policy.”
Mention Colorado Springs in Boulder, and you may hear that wild-eyed preachers harass the unchurched, while ruthless developers, unchecked by any sense of community, defile the landscape with shoddily built cookie-cutter developments.
As one Boulder resident, talking to a reporter, commented “I can’t believe you live in Colorado Springs — you seem so nice!”
Colorado Springs and Boulder, both incorporated in 1871, remained remarkably similar for nearly 100 years.
However, 40 years ago the two cities diverged radically, as their residents and city governments chose very different ways of dealing with change and development.
Today, the results are in. The consequences of the actions that redefined each municipality are plain to see — so, to echo a line from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which chose wisely?
Whether you live in Boulder or the Springs, the answers may surprise you.
As the 19th century drew to a close, both Colorado Springs and Boulder were small cities with a shared sense of gentility, a belief that their residents were more cultured, more refined and somehow better than folks who lived elsewhere.
Quiet, shady streets lined with elegant houses merged seamlessly into thriving downtowns, where banks, retailers, attorneys, doctors and small merchants conducted business from substantial buildings of brick and stone.
In Colorado College and Colorado University, the cities had the two finest institutions of higher education in the state. And neither city was interested in attracting industry; the smoke and racket would just make life unpleasant, and be bad for tourism.
Colorado Springs, after all, had been founded as a resort, not as a place of business.
The city’s founder, William Jackson Palmer, envisioned it as a healthful oasis, where a cultivated citizenry could live in peace and tranquility. Let the vulgar hustlers and grifters go elsewhere — to the saloons, stockyards and steel mills of Denver and Pueblo.
Those cities were built specifically for the rough and tumble of commerce and industry, while Colorado Springs had a higher destiny. Indeed, by placing deed restrictions on every property sold in Colorado Springs, which forbade the sale or manufacture of alcohol, Palmer hoped to create a city in his own image; upright, abstemious and God-fearing.
Ninety miles to the north, Boulder’s growth and development paralleled that of the Springs. Tourism, fueled by the Boulder Chautauqua, was the mainstay of the economy, and the city was also the commercial center of the surrounding farm and ranchland.
In the 1890s, Colorado Springs experienced an unprecedented boom, as Cripple Creek’s gold mines yielded their bounty.
For a few years, the Colorado Springs Stock Exchange rivaled the long-established exchanges in New York and Chicago, while thousands of houses were built to accommodate the surging population.
The mines were soon exhausted, and by 1905, Colorado Springs, like Boulder, was a quiet, unhurried place that scarcely grew for the next 35 years.
Colorado Springs and Boulder differed in one significant respect as they sought to grow and prosper.
The Springs has always benefited from the generosity of its wealthiest citizens. Palmer created an extensive parks system as part of the city’s patrimony. Charles Perkins gave us the Garden of the Gods, and Spencer Penrose, whose fortune endowed the El Pomar Foundation, gave us the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Absent millionaire benefactors, Boulder chose to act collectively.
Private philanthropists endowed Colorado College, but Colorado University only came to Boulder because the residents offered the state legislature 45 acres of land and $15,000 as an inducement.
In Colorado Springs, Palmer built the Antlers Hotel. In Boulder, the Boulderado was funded through resident subscription.
And while the Springs had acquired a superb parks system without spending a penny in public funds, Boulder paid cash.
In 1898, city residents approved a bond issue to acquire the Batchelder Ranch (now Chautauqua Park). That purchase was followed by another, when the city acquired an additional 1,200 acres of foothills land for $1.25 an acre.
After World War II, both cities prospered.
NORAD, Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy boosted Colorado Springs, while Boulder’s growth was jump-started by the National Bureau of Standards, CU and the Boulder Turnpike.
Populations soared. Between 1950 and 1970, Boulder grew from 20,000 to 72,000, while Colorado Springs went from 74, 500 to 135,000.
But the boom came with costs. As both cities evolved from sleepy little towns to bustling mini-metropolises, they experienced similar disruptions. Historic buildings fell to the wrecker’s ball, suburban development replaced farmland and rapid change became the norm.
The cities dealt with change in very different ways, responding to two dissimilar events which, for each city, forever altered the future.
Beginning in the 1950s, Boulder residents grew concerned about development on the city’s mountain backdrop. City ordinances had been enacted which checked, but didn’t prevent, such development.
But in 1964, when a developer announced plans to build a luxury hotel on Enchanted Mesa, an elevated parcel of meadows and pines overlooking the city from the west, outraged residents forced City Council to condemn the land.
The city had no money to buy it — so the community pitched in and raised the money bit by bit.
That aborted development, coupled with the loss of several significant historic downtown buildings, led to the passage of two laws that define Boulder to this day.
Council passed one of the first, and toughest, historic preservation ordinances in the country, effectively prohibiting any demolition of historic structures. Even more importantly, in 1967 Boulder voters approved a four-tenths of a cent sales tax — later increased to seven-tenths of a cent — to purchase open space.
In Colorado Springs, residents also were concerned about the consequences of rapid growth.
Major historic buildings like the Antlers Hotel and the Burns Opera House were razed, and several square blocks of downtown Victorian commercial buildings were demolished as part of an urban renewal project.
East of town, new suburbs strained the capacity of the city to provide services from an inadequate revenue base. A comparatively liberal, activist City Council wanted to do something — but what?
In 1974, Colorado Springs Utilities announced that it couldn’t guarantee that there would be enough natural gas to supply new gas hookups, because of a lack of “peaking capacity.” Developers were skeptical, characterizing it as an overly cautious position that need not be taken seriously.
But council chose to act, announcing that no further gas taps would be available — the so-called “gas moratorium.”
Just as the threat of inappropriate development had galvanized Boulder, so did the threat of no development galvanize Colorado Springs.
Overnight, development came to a halt, and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depended upon new home construction fought back. Ousted from office, Mayor Andy Marshall was replaced by businessman Larry Ochs, and council took on a decidedly conservative, pro-business tint.
Builder/developer Shepard remembers those days vividly.
“I was chairman of the planning commission then, and when Andy Marshall resigned, I was appointed to council,” he said. “I never thought the problem [of a gas shortage] was that big — and you know, the development industry actually financed a propane-fueled peaking facility out on Marksheffel (Road), which utilities never have used to this day. It was an anti-growth issue, it really was.”
In Boulder, a moderately liberal city became the poster child for municipal liberalism; while in Colorado Springs, a moderately conservative city became a right-wing bastion.
With the enthusiastic support of the voters, Boulder acquired vast stretches of undeveloped land, ringing the city with a de-facto green belt that today includes more than 43,000 acres of open space.
Multiple ordinances restricted growth within Boulder, creating an artificial imbalance between supply and demand. The price of housing soared. Today, the median price of a single-family house in Boulder is twice that of Colorado Springs.
In Colorado Springs, the open space that once surrounded the city disappeared, as developers created suburban communities around the city’s eastern periphery. Far from empowering city government to create the kind of amenities demanded by Boulder voters, Springs residents did the opposite — voting to slash taxes and limit government.
Elected officials vowed allegiance to “meat and potatoes” government — one which funded roads and public safety, and not much else.
Recently retired long-time city employee Dave Nickerson remembers those days.
In an era when every city was building trails networks “we had to persuade, beg and try to educate council — they just didn’t want to hear about anything new or different.”
The differences between conservative and liberal beliefs could hardly have been more sharply defined.
Boulder’s history had taught its residents the virtue of collective action — of joining with their city government to achieve worthwhile ends. Such action had brought success, so it made sense to use city government to shape, preserve and enhance the city.
In Colorado Springs, civic amenities that Boulder voters had happily paid for had been free of charge, thanks to the largesse of successful businessmen.
Businessmen like Joe Reich and H. Chase Stone had brought the Air Force Academy to Colorado Springs, and businessmen had built the city’s safe, quiet suburbs.
Until the mid-1990s, Boulder and Colo-rado Springs continued on their divergent paths, apparently polar opposites.
But then, without ever quite admitting it, the cities began to adapt features of each other’s development models.
In Colorado Springs, voters approved a 1/10 of a cent sales tax for parks, trails and open space in 1997 — just 30 years after the passage of Boulder’s ordinance. And in the same election, moderates elected a mayor and a majority of the City Council, leading to renewed emphasis on so-called “quality of life” issues.
Downtown revived, thanks in part to major infrastructure upgrades, and the city constructed a major new park in the blighted “SoDo” neighborhood.
Meanwhile, in Boulder, the developers whose activities had been so curtailed never left — they just moved a few miles away. Outlying communities such as Broomfield, Lafayette and Westminster boomed, thanks to looser regulations, proximity to Denver, and Boulder’s easily accessible amenities.
Far from being a city preserved in a time capsule, Boulder had become, in the new urbanist phrase, a “festival downtown,” with fun, quirky attractors. Young professionals thronged Pearl Street, rode their bikes along Boulder Creek, went tubing — and scarcely spent any money.
The bars and restaurants thrived, but retail dollars went increasingly to nearby jurisdictions, particularly Broomfield’s Flatirons Crossing, an upscale mall rivaling Denver’s Cherry Creek.
Boulder didn’t want Colorado Springs’ sprawl, but Colorado Springs’ tax base looked pretty attractive.
Quietly abandoning the regulatory philosophy which had long defined the city, Boulder began to ease the way for the redevelopment of the city’s core. Developers responded enthusiastically, creating a vigorous, revitalized downtown.
Once defined by the Pearl Street Mall, downtown Boulder now boasts a five-star hotel (the St. Julien), many square blocks of new retail, office and residential buildings, and dozens of upscale retailers.
A few blocks east, the 29th Street Project is nearing completion on the site of the former Crossroads Mall. Covering 62 acres (more than 10 square blocks), its developers describe it with justifiable hyperbole:
“This lifestyle district consists of three distinct yet synergistic neighborhoods that create one shopping destination as unique as the Boulder community itself. Connecting these neighborhoods is a series of streets, walkways, terraces, plazas and other outdoor community gathering spaces.”
Liz Hansom, employed by the City of Boulder as its “business liaison,” is proud of the partnership between Wescorp, the developer and the city.
“They brought the first plans to us in early 2004, and we committed that we’d move as fast as they did, and we performed. [It’s an enormous project] but we had final approval on July 8th and everything is on schedule. We’re absolutely committed to working cooperatively with the business community.”
But doesn’t Boulder have a reputation for being over-regulated and essentially anti-business?
Hansom pauses, choosing her words carefully. “That’s maybe based on a former Boulder, but things are very different today,” she said. “Our city manager, Frank Bruno, comes from an economic development background, and we realize how important business is. We’re very active in recruitment, in retention, in trying to remove obstacles that aren’t relevant.”
Asked about Boulder’s downtown rebirth, Beth Kosley of the Downtown Partnership is by turns skeptical, defensive and admiring.
“Boulder and Colorado Springs are incredibly dissimilar in geography, politics and culture,” she said. “They [Boulder] have been notorious for promoting — forcing — density, which [benefits development] in the urban core. Boulder is a wealthier town. I really don’t think that we can learn much from them.”
But if you could wave a magic wand and have Boulder’s downtown, would you?
“Well, of course. But we’re headed in the same direction”, Kosley claims, rattling off a half a dozen schemes and dreams that downtown promoters have floated during the last few years.
So we’re relying on the free market, rather than planned, directed development to recreate downtown?
“No, that’s why we’re so excited about the (proposed) Downtown Development Authority — we’ll use a lot of different tools to achieve the same level of density [that exists in Boulder’s downtown] and do it in a few years, not 20.”
So in several years downtown Colorado Springs might look a lot like downtown Boulder?
“Well, it’ll be Colorado Springs, not Boulder — but yes, it will.”