A “Train Wreck” in Southwest Littleton…Coming Soon?

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By Don Bruns

Many have long puzzled over how things became so disjointed in the world of planning, especially for land use, management and master plans. A main reason why is that the real world is not at all so disjointed. Biologists have a handy metaphor for walled-off compartmentalization of the real world, the “territorial imperative.” In human society, it’s commonly called “turf.” People like to stake out territory, protect and defend it.

Pros and Cons of Walled-Off Turf
Among many reasons for territorialism, not all are bad. No one can be equally knowledgeable about all subjects across the board. So administrators commonly create departments to help staffs address various bite-sized components of the real world that lies beyond their office walls.

Yet real world complexity and interconnectedness is seldom reflected in the ways that inter- and intra-office planning and staffing is structured and functionally integrated. While it’s much easier for a single entity to plan independent from outside influencers and affecting providers, consideration of their actions through collaborative engagement is critically important to ensure success. Especially if success is measured in terms of maintaining desirable conditions and delivering satisfying end-results to those being served.

Other “turf” results from each organizational unit’s sense of mission, including its administratively conveyed sense of empowerment. Among local governments in particular, this is where planning particularly gets messy. When special interests walk on stage from outside organizations bringing funding with them to achieve their own ends. Another, less conspicuous but even more troubling, is when special interests find their way to sit at the table by masquerading as public officials.

Among Littleton’s city departments are separate organizational units for Community Development, Economic Development, Public Works, Human Resources, and Communications among others. Conspicuous by their absence are any units responsible for Community Stewardship and Natural Resource Management. The short answer seems to have been that South Suburban Parks and Recreation (SSPR) does that natural resource piece. For all the good SSPR does, its scope of influence is nonetheless limited. There appears to be no department or departments charged with responsibility for maintenance of neighborhood community character and the stewardship of natural/open space resources. This however is critical for balancing the well-orchestrated efforts of community and economic development departments. This deficiency is particularly problematic in the world of planning—in all of its phases: comprehensive, land use and master plans.

Needed: More Broadly Focused Plans & Key Affecting Provider Engagement
Several of these problems are manifested in the city’s current approach to plans underway for both South Platte Park (SPP) and the Mineral Light Rail Station. In the case of SPP, significant offsite challenges have surfaced in the park’s management plan update process that lie well beyond the scope of SPP managers, its planning process, and the purview of SSPR as well. This leaves SPP managers caught between the proverbial “rock and hard spot.”

In the case of the Mineral Station plan, the city is in control of what that effort does to SPP. However this plan’s scope of work was evidently not designed to ensure that whatever happens at that site—including new trails being considered as “low hanging fruit” to SPP across the RTD site and its environs (although favored by many)—would not introduce further crowding on Park trails, reduce visitor safety and adversely impact park experiences and resources.

Until and unless the city engages other significant affecting providers and influencers within both planning efforts, it is extremely unlikely that either plan will optimize benefits and avoid adverse impacts generated off-site. And these could well be substantial and irretrievable.

Mineral Station Plan Threatens to Adversely Impact South Platte Park
More specifically, the Mineral Light Rail Station planning effort appears to have been structured without regard to the pressing need to address its sizeable adverse impacts. It is now clear that these include direct impacts from the kinds of commercial and retail development favored by the city, RTD and DRCOG to SPP environs, to its visitors and to affected neighborhoods in particular. Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—this planning effort’s focus—and any new two and three-story structures would further obstruct highly valued views to this unique floodplain park. Looking at things from the inside out, park aesthetics and experiences would be compromised from the urbanization’s impact on natural countryside. Value-wise, planned developments risk exchanging public resource integrity for privately owned visual park access from the new developments.

Inadequate Planning Frameworks and Approaches
For the Mineral Light Rail Station planning effort, it is evident that development interests funded by RTD and DRCOG helped set the stage. Initially billed as a master plan, its scope falls far short of what is required for such plans. The planning contract focuses narrowly on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and limits the areal scope to one-quarter mile of the RTD site. That pre-decisional determination, made even before any planning was done and any public input was sought, is unwise. Primary issues facing this effort—confirmed by public feedback and Planning Commission dialogue—are the enormous threat that urbanization of this site holds for SPP and affected neighborhoods. Also is a failure to address what publics have identified as even greater challenges: inadequate on-site parking and yet unresolved Mineral-Santa Fe traffic congestion.

Most significant challenges to South Platte Park’s public service delivery system and its stewardship appear to originate off-site. Besides planned urbanization of Mineral Station, there is the challenge of how to manage public use originating beyond the City of Littleton. Of course these challenges lie beyond the purview of SPP and SSP&R, but not that of Littleton’s City Council and its Planning Commission. It is therefore unthinkable that the critical need for an expanded planning framework that collaboratively engages other municipalities to address their effects on the Park and its users could have been overlooked. Even greater geographic and socio-political on- and off-site challenges face the Mineral Station planning effort, especially traffic and parking.

Because both plans are being done by Littleton, independent the involvement of other affecting providers, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that they are insufficiently comprehensive for adequately addressing all critically important key influencers and their effects.

Community Engaged but the Window for Corrective Action is Closing
It is heartening to have seen several citizens bring key issues before the City, but definitive action is urgently needed to avoid that proverbial “train wreck.” Citizens appreciate that the Acting City Manager in particular and some staff as well have begun to wrestle with this situation. But City Council itself must not remain disengaged.

Absent significant changes to both planning efforts, adverse, irreversible and irretrievable impacts to South Platte Park and those it serves seem certain. Yet none of them are being adequately addressed. Neither are adverse impacts to Santa Fe-Mineral traffic, affected neighborhood character, and even Aspen Grove. The most imminent threat is the out-of-character development being envisioned for Mineral Station. Out of character with the Park and affected communities and out of touch with supply-demand realities of light rail commuter travel. Even area retail business enterprise and values held dear by Littleton’s citizens are sure to be adversely impacted unless the conceptual framework for this plan is significantly altered.

There is far too much at risk to imagine that current plans and conceptual planning frameworks will somehow avoid these impacts. Citizens can only hope that City Council will act expeditiously.