One of the charming aspects of life in Colorado Springs is our tendency to memorialize, in equal measure, politicians, promoters and bureaucrats.
Drive around town; you'll see what I mean. The Robert M. Isaac Municipal Court Building, the Leon Young Service Center, The Ray Nixon Power Plant, and downtown on the Pikes Peak Avenue median, statues of Spencer Penrose and W.S. Stratton.
Strangely enough, the politicians and bureaucrats get buildings named after them while the promoters and developers get bronze statues. It's been a while since any of our local power people were so memorialized, but I've got a suggestion:
You've probably never heard of Ralph, a lawyer/developer/power person who's been quietly and effectively advancing the interests of the development community for the last couple of decades. Amiable, reasonable and coldly intelligent, Ralph understands local government as well as anyone in the city. If you're an elected official, he can be either a fierce adversary or a formidable ally, depending on the issue at hand. He's a player -- out there in the tall grass with the big dogs.
Last week, he moved up the food chain. Ralph Braden is now the Alpha Wolf.
Why so? He wrote, and shepherded through City Council -- on a unanimous vote -- the single most outrageous piece of legislation that elected body has even considered, let alone passed, in the last 25 years. And moreover, he did it as invisibly as a Stealth bomber going after Saddam. The day after the vote, the Gazette ran a garbled and buried little news brief about the ordinance. In fact, if you tried to read it, you'd think that the developers were actually giving something to the city, instead of cutting themselves the fat hog of all fat hogs.
In reality, as reporter Terje Langeland pointed out last week in this newspaper, the ordinance was actually written and proposed not by city staff, but by Ralph Braden hisself. To quote the story, the ordinance "enables the city and developers to enter into contracts called 'development agreements' for certain large parcels that may still not be developed for many years to come." Such contracts could run for as long as 20 years!
In other words, if you're a player, you can take any random tract of antelope pasture, and with the city's acquiescence, create an irrevocable development right without spending a dime on any actual development. All you have to do is promise the city that you'll put in roads, and give up land for schools/parks/fire and police stations.
Once you've done that, your antelope pasture moves from being desolate prairie to future development, and you've just increased its value by an order of magnitude. Moreover, absent citywide catastrophe, the city can't back out of the deal -- they're locked in. Today's notions of appropriate development (aka sprawl) will be carved in stone for the next generation.
But doesn't this create an obligation for developers to do more in the way of infrastructure/land dedication than would otherwise be the case? Probably not. Prior to the ordinance, private planners came to the city for approval shortly before beginning development. That created a certain sense of urgency, not to mention a little competitive fizz between rival developers. Advantage: the city.
But under the so-called "development agreements" the developer can always renegotiate the deal when ready to actually break ground. He/she can plead a bad economy, or increased costs, or different social conditions -- whatever.
Which makes us think of 15 years ago, when Frank Aries came to town. That developer spent $200 million, all of it scammed from an Arizona Savings & Loan, to buy, master plan and annex to the city 22,000 acres known as the Banning-Lewis Ranch. He went spectacularly bust, the property went into foreclosure, and it's still empty ranchland. The master plan is long since defunct, so the present owners have little, if any, leverage with the city. That means that today's city administration, and today's City Council, can negotiate future development with a free hand.
But if the new ordinance had been in effect, they'd be at the mercy of the developer. He'd hold most of the cards; the city would just have to make the best of a bad deal.
So congratulations, Ralph! I look forward to seeing you immortalized in bronze -- downtown on the Pikes Peak Avenue median opposite Kimball's Twin Peak Theater. They can put you right next to the newly erected statue that honors our City Council members for being so thoughtful and civic-minded.
You've seen it, haven't you? It's the cutest little bronze donkey ...