By redesigning our world for cars, we have damaged the walkability and bikeability of our communities. Before the introduction of the automobile, cities and towns were naturally built on a human scale. It simply wasn’t feasible to do otherwise. But as cars grew in popularity, urban planners chose to wipe away entire neighborhoods of historic homes and shops in order to make way for interstates, parking lots, and large scale developments.
This clean-slate mentality was called “Urban Renewal” and it led to the displacement of minorities, the poor, and small business owners while benefitting the White middle- and upperclass, as well as big-box stores and chains. It eradicated pedestrian and bicycle friendly neighborhoods and shopping areas in the interests of those who could afford to drive a car.
During the time of greatest development and change (around the 1950s and ’60s), bicycles were relegated to use by children, the poor, and competitive cyclists. But the vast majority of people no longer considered them to be a viable option for transportation. Thus began a downward spiral for bicycle use. Even recreational and competitive cyclists began to separate themselves from those who bicycled for transportation, referring to themselves as “avid cyclists” or “hard core cyclists” as a means of emphasizing that they weren’t simply general users.
As families bought their first car, then a second, they were increasingly able to haul more goods at a time. Small corner store grocers that residents used to visit as they walked home from work or from the streetcar line fell by the wayside as large grocery chains were plopped down along arterial streets with vast parking lots to serve residents who drove from miles away. The larger the parking lots got, the less walkable or bikeable those parts of town became.
At the same time, in order to insert the car into downtown areas that had originally been designed for people, buildings were torn down and replaced… often with parking lots. Some of Fort Collins’ grandest buildings were replaced with pavement. The C. R. Welch mansion, the Fred Stover mansion, the Abner Loomis house, the C. F. Keyes residence, the Remington School and the Franklin school were all torn down and replaced with new development surrounded by massive parking lots.
With the new found freedom of being able to drive anywhere at any time, no longer bound by the distance one could pedal or the schedule of the streetcar, people began to live further and further away from the city center. There was no thought given to making these new neighborhoods walkable or bikeable because, of course!, everyone would be driving in and out. The Sheely Neighborhood just south of CSU is an excellent example of this. It was deliberately built without sidewalks. Who needs them?! Streets are for cars, not people.
Fort Collins experienced unprecedented growth from the 1950s through the 1970s. A city of 14,937 people in 1950 had expanded to 65,092 by 1980, an increase of 335%! The city grew physically as well. Between 1948 and 1961, it expanded from 1,900 acres to 4,068 acres. (In other words, growing from just under 3 square miles to over 6 square miles in only 13 years — more than doubling in size.) Sprawl became the norm. Even today, some of our least dense neighborhoods were those built during this time period.
The farther out people lived, the more they relied upon driving. And the more they drove, the faster they wanted to travel. Residents passing through town were able to zoom along College avenue… until they hit downtown. There the old fashioned pattern of development, with many smaller commercial buildings pushed right up against the sidewalks and pedestrians crossing not only at intersections, but also from their cars in center parking to the shops, meant that motorists had to slow way down. … And they didn’t like that.
So in the 1970s, a grand solution was conceived. For those driving through downtown, without any need to stop, a bypass would be built. Remington Street would be turned into a four-lane highway meant for thru traffic. This would skirt the slower traffic zone on College between Magnolia and Laporte.
The only problem with that plan was that Remington ended at Mountain Avenue. In order to truly bypass the slowest segments of College Ave., it would need to continue on up to Walnut street. And in order for that to happen, a few buildings would need to be removed. As one resident wrote in a letter to the editor,
It shocked me to learn from your editorial in the May 5 Issue of the Triangle Review that the construction of the Remington bypass would entail changing the street to an expressway, and destroying some beautiful old buildings along it. … Any beautification of the city’s center or any other part of Fort Collins cannot be taken seriously without some restrictions on the use of the automobile by providing an enlarged and convenient mass transit system. – Philip Miller of 716 W. Laurel [in the May 12, 1976 Triangle Review].
There was a tremendous backlash against the downtown redevelopment plan, particularly against the idea of the Remington bypass. Residents wrote letters to the editor and 188 downtown business owners signed a petition against the program. The plan also called for the addition of 300 parking spaces in the form of a parking structure. And several beautification recommendations were made as well (such as awnings added to every building in order to provide a unifying theme and to add color to the street). If the bypass was approved, the project manager explained, then College would be turned into a “pedestrian oriented mall” (according to a March 31, 1976 Triangle Review article) or a “beautified parking lot” (as stated in a May 5th article in the same paper).
The redevelopment plan was eventually approved, but in a greatly pared down version that responded to many of the requests that business owners had made. Rather that demolishing multiple historic buildings to create a bypass, Mason street was converted to run north-bound only and Howes became a south-bound only street. It was expected that traffic trying to avoid the congested downtown area would detour to one of those two options. West Oak street was also blocked off at College in order to create Oak Street Plaza as part of the beautification project.
All across America, many communities lost large sections of their downtowns to redevelopment in the name of “progress” and “urban renewal.” With the introduction of zoning regulations, residential development was often pushed to the fringes of towns, and neighborhoods were razed in order to build large scale office buildings. Many of the poor were concentrated into warehouse-like buildings with very little in the way of nearby amenities such as grocery stores. Small shop owners were forced out along with the original neighborhood residents as larger corporations, with large buildings surrounded by large parking lots, moved in.
Fort Collins did experience some effects of this movement. Where the Key Bank and 1st National towers stand today, there used to be a variety of housing (both single family and multi-family homes) as well as a church. Where the Parklane towers are now, there were neighborhood houses (a few of which remain — such as the house where Lucile’s Creole Cafe is located). And where DMA Plaza now stands was once Remington School. Each of these towers include vast parking lots.
But the historic commercial district, when threatened, was steadfastly defended by the property owners and the community at large. Bonds were passed to improve the area and tax increment financing was put into effect, but the most disruptive scheme to “renew” downtown was effectively thwarted. And in an effort to lock down that win and block any future attacks against the city’s historic core, the property owners created a historic district for the area. In 1978, the Old Town Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1979, City Council created Fort Collins first locally recognized historic district.
Residents that lived on the east side of town between downtown and the old Fort Collins High School also created a historic district after realizing that a part of their neighborhood just barely escaped having a highway plunked down through it and after losing several of their most beautiful mansions to redevelopment projects. Thus was born the Laurel School Historic District. (The west side of town also considered creating a historic district, but that idea was derailed as residents fought over the reintroduction of the trolley line, which many feared would make their property values plummet.)
Creating a local historic district is one of the most powerful tools that residents can use to secure personal property and neighborhood character. It also opens the doors for substantial State and National tax credits as well as additional grant funding (as in the case of the renovation of the Northern Hotel, which provides low cost housing for seniors on a fixed income, as well as the Avery block and others). Since the creation of the Old Town Historic District in 1979, property values within the district have gone up 629.1% compared to similar buildings just outside the district which have jumped in value by 279.3%.
The historic district, paired with Gene Mitchell’s vision for shutting down a section of Linden street to create Old Town Square, resulted in the vibrant, pedestrianized downtown core that we know and love today. A decaying, stagnant, nearly empty downtown is now the epicenter of economic activity within Fort Collins. It is also one of the most walkable and bikeable parts of the city with a walk score of 83 and a bike score of 100.
There were early critics of the urban renewal movement, such as Jane Jacobs and François Spoerry, who recognized the destructive power of cleaving neighborhoods in two, demolishing large sections of low income housing, elevating the importance of the automobile; razing historic buildings; and sanitizing, or walling off, pedestrian zones in a manner that made them uncomfortable and unfriendly.
Later, several urban planners and architects joined forces to develop what is now known as New Urbanism. This reactionary philosophy eschews the methods and sterile results of the urban renewal movement in favor of development that seeks to enhance pedestrian zones, include multi-use buildings; increase density; and severely reduce, or even eliminate, parking requirements. They didn’t pull these ideas out of thin air. It was in comparing neighborhoods that had undergone urban renewal to those built prior to World War II and the rise in dominance of the automobile that they gleaned these principals — principals honed over millennia of human development.
Bicyclists like to point to the fact that paved roads exist today largely due to the advocacy and hard work of wheelmen (bicyclists) in the late 1900s. Preservationists, with similar pride and appreciation, should likewise remind bicyclists how ardently they rallied for much of the second half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty first for the preservation of pedestrian and bicycle friendly neighborhoods. In fact, many of the communities that have spawned strong bicycling movements today grew out of historic neighborhoods where bicycling was easy, fun, and practical.
Sources for this article:
Population numbers came from the local history website run by the Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.
Information on the physical growth of the city during the 1950s came from “Fort Collins E-X-P-A-N-D-S” The City’s Postwar Development 1945-1969, by Historitecture. June 2011.
Information on the square miles covered by Fort Collins in 2015 came from the City’s Fort Collins Facts web page.
A letter to the editor by Philip Shaw in the May 19, 1976 Triangle Review included information regarding the petition signed by 188 business people against the redevelopment project. I accessed the Triangle Review through the microfilm on file at the Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.
Property value information for the Old Town Historic District came from Preservation for a Changing Colorado: The benefits of historic preservation, 2017 Edition, a study overseen by Colorado Preservation, Inc. and the History Colorado State Historical Preservation Fund.
Walk Score information for downtown Fort Collins came from WalkScore.com.
All comics, quotes, and references to the Triangle Review were from research conducted at the Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery which has most of Fort Collins old newspapers on microfilm. The Archive is free and open to the public and a wonderful resource within our community.