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.

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Traffic in Littleton–A Conversation with our Acting City Manager

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Mark Relph began the evening by providing a brief history of his experience.  He is a Professional Engineer and has been in city administration for the past 20 years.   He was a Community Development Director in Delta, CO and that’s when he decided he preferred Public Works.  He has worked in California and Washington.  Coming to Littleton was coming home.

He talked about the state requirements for growth management in Washington and although it sounded like a bad idea when he first heard about it he has decided that it really was good.  Having the state mandate forced the conversation about growth in the community and they had to document how they were going to handle the projected growth.  The state reviewed the plans.

The biggest issue in the near term for Littleton is traffic and the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure.  This is not just a Littleton problem but also a problem across the nation.  Currently we have been moving the excess General Fund dollars to the Capital Fund at the end of each year.  In three or four years there will not be enough dollars in the Capital Fund to manage the pavement maintenance that will be needed.   He said they couldn’t talk about new funding options until they look internally for solutions.

Some examples of concerns expressed by Relph:

  • Signal Systems – cant’ get parts anymore for some – they are just old.
  • Broadway – can link through the signal progression but difficult to do with the traffic controllers we have.
  • Best Management Practices – the signal poles should be inspected every five years for failure (based on wind and load factors). This has never been done in Littleton and they can fail.
  • We are way behind on a signal system for Littleton
  • Transportation Master Plan – it has never been done
  • Complan – it is thin at best. We have never taken the plan and tested the transportation network – that should be a standard practice – it has never been modeled.  Within five years we should have a transportation master plan.  We are in a bad place to manage growth and development.
  • Level of Service (LOS) – A grading system for traffic flow with A being free moving and F being standing still. If we had a standard developers would have to meet the standard or mitigate the problems.
  • Santa Fe – that requires a conversation with CDOT and Arapahoe County
  • Sterling Ranch- a lot of traffic will be generated by Sterling Ranch
  • Ensor Property – there’s a developer pursuing the north thirty acres (they have an option on the property and they are looking at what they can do). They can’t do much unless the city takes on that intersection and CDOT won’t step up.  $120,000,000.00 will be needed.
  • Relph said he would be proposing to council that they begin the Federal process – the PEL – Preliminary Engineering and he forgot what the L stands for. This would be the environmental work that needs to be done first before a fix for that intersection is built.
  • Impact Fees – they are inadequate. He would like the code to state that the LOS can’t be degraded on Mineral and Santa Fe.
  • Need to partner with Arapahoe County and CDOT – they know that Santa Fe is a problem.
  • We need to put money into the Capital Fund for 2018.

Polo Ridge and Platte Canyon

Relph and the city traffic engineer (first one on staff in ten years) have come up with a few solutions to the traffic problems on Mineral between Santa Fe and Platte Canyon.  He admitted that there was some bad planning involved contributing to the problem.  They have offered a three-phase plan to help.

1st Phase – restripe the lanes making the three lanes into two lanes for movement and the outside lanes for turn lanes.  They will create a wider median in the middle of Mineral that will help those turning to enter traffic.  There will be deflector posts to visually protect the left turn lane.

2nd Phase – A double left hand turn on Platte Canyon – that will improve the LOS.

3rd Phase – move the bike trails away from Mineral and deeper into the neighborhood and provide a raised pedestrian crossing.

Relph told us that traffic signals could lead to higher traffic accidents.  There are a series of tests to determine if a traffic signal is warranted.  (The series of tests determine if a signal is “warranted” – the tests are called warrants.)

He thought you had to have the citizens help to define the problems.

At this point the audience asked questions and raised concerns.

  • The bike lane on Mineral just east of Jack Ass Hill is only about 300 feet long. Can it be extended in order to get those that want to go north on Jack Ass Hill out of the Mineral traffic?  He said he would look into.
  • Citizen mentioned that a “chunk” of concrete feel down from the RR overpass onto Mineral tying up traffic for over 90 minutes. This person was unable to get to the Mineral Station Plan meeting as a result.
  • South Park residents asked for speed bumps to discourage traffic on Mineral from cutting through their neighborhood. Many of those drivers are speeding.  Relph said there are several different ways to calm traffic.  You can do that by narrowing the street, speed bumps (which can be noisy and how many is too many).  In his previous experience they would put in speed bumps for 6 months after a petition demonstrated a 70% approval from the neighbors.  After the 6 months another petition was circulated and if 70% approval were still present the bumps would be come permanent.   He said the city has a brochure on different calming techniques and encourage the citizens to look into them.
  • It was suggested to reduce the bike lanes on the north side of Mineral – there are trails off the street that the bikes could use.
  • The traffic circle on Elati north of Runyon has a citizen concerned about the safety of the kids. She did not like the traffic circle there – Relph said he did not like the way they are done in Littleton.
  • Angelo’s Road – There will be a right in and right out of Angelo’s from Santa Fe Drive.
  • Broadway and Dry Creek – the lines on the road have been changed due to the construction and it is not clear which lines are the right ones as the old blends in with the new when it’s raining at night.
  • Bowles and Santa Fe – Relph said that is an easier problem to solve than Santa Fe and Mineral. But an environmental study was required.
  • Windermere Dead-End by the Highline Canal – Relph called it poor planning. A solution might require the purchase of property.  Could allow local traffic during the day and closed during rush hours.
  • Last mile of County Line near Phillips – Relph said it would take the city, county and Centennial to widen the remainder of County Line and there is no funding. There was a request for a traffic signal at Phillips and County Line and Relph said it does not “warrant” a traffic signal.
  • The flashing left turn light at County Line by the Harley Davidson – a request was made for a turn light instead of the flashing light. Someone else thought there was a dedicated turn light in addition to the flashing light.