Here's how the Urban Land Institute's ponderous report on downtown Colorado Springs ends: "Downtown's brand must be on the lips and in the thoughts of every business owner and resident in the city. The culture of Colorado Springs must identify with downtown."
Brave words, indeed — but the authors paid little attention to local geography. Given that they visited between June 24 and June 29, when much of the city was obscured by smoke, perhaps their ignorance is understandable.
Colorado Springs is a sprawling, polycentric city, its people too diverse, too separated by time and distance, and perhaps too fond of their geographic clusters to identify with downtown. As of 2010, the city had a population of 416,427, a land area of 194.1 square miles, and population density of 2,242 per square mile. By comparison, New York City had a population of 8,175,233, a land area of 302.6 square miles, and a density of 27,243 per square mile.
We're two-thirds the physical size of New York, with 5 percent of the people. And unlike New York, our city has no obvious center — no dramatic cluster of tall buildings, no vast natural harbor with miles of deepwater docks, no blocks of brownstone townhouses. We're just a big, featureless bite of a bigger prairie, bounded on the west by Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, and bounded on the east by ... nothing.
That's not to say that our built environment lacks character. We love our micro-neighborhoods (in my case, the 2100 block of West Bijou Street) and our macro-neighborhoods. I live a couple of miles from downtown, work downtown and shop downtown ... but my heart is in the west side. I'm glad to see downtown do well, but I'm engaged with the west side.
I suspect that we're all engaged with our subareas. Folks in the North End may consider downtown the center of their universe, but folks in the northeast may never go there. Indeed, they may see downtown revitalization as directly contrary to their interests.
For example, the ULI report recommends that the city tap unused bonding capacity to fund downtown improvements. But if you borrow money you have to pay it back, so why should people 20 miles away have to pay taxes to fund something of no direct benefit? And suppose some of that borrowed money is used, as the report says, to build a downtown ballpark?
There's already a perfectly nice stadium in the northeast, home of the Sky Sox. My guess is that northeast residents would be just as enchanted with the prospect of the Sky Sox abandoning Security Service Field as were Brooklynites when the Dodgers abandoned Ebbets Field.
Rather than trying to force our unruly city to be something it clearly doesn't want to be, maybe we should embrace and celebrate our own quirky diversity. So let's re-imagine our own political geography.
The New York we know today didn't come into being until 1898, when Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens were consolidated into a single city. Brooklynites or Staten Islanders might love to be independent once more, but that's not in the cards — just ask Mayor Michael Bloomberg!
We never consolidated — city growth was driven by developer decisions. So why not divide the city into five independent boroughs, each with its own taxing authority? The boroughs would share certain essential functions (roads, utilities, public safety), but they'd be on their own otherwise.
And here are the boroughs.
Democratia: the west side and Manitou.
Republicania: northeast and northwest.
Militaria: east and southeast.
Richlandia: Broadmoor and the urban-wildlands interface.
Downtownia: downtown, Patty Jewett, Shooks Run and the North End.
And what about the county? Just merge its functions into the boroughs.
Then we could get to work, but not as a community. We'd be five quarrelsome boroughs headed by an exasperated Mayor Steve Bach, cutting deals, creating alliances, building cool stuff, or just refusing to get involved. If Downtownia wanted to borrow $100 million and build a baseball park, fine. Republicania might not like it, but that'd be their problem.
And the bridge that ULI wants to build over the railway tracks from downtown to America the Beautiful Park? No problem. We'll get everyone together and call it the Five-Borough Bridge...