Planning for Growth in Western Cities

Armando Carbonell and Lisa Cloutier, July 1, 2003

As part of the American Planning Association (APA) 2003 national conference held in Denver in March, the Lincoln Institute assembled a group of planning directors from large and small western cities to discuss a set of topics they had previously identified as being important, including infill housing, maintaining the core vs. sprawling at the edge, paying for infrastructure, and transportation and land use. To explore these issues and exchange case histories, the planners met for a weekend retreat organized by Peter Pollock, Boulder’s planning director, before presenting their findings at an APA session titled “Urban Challenges and Opportunities in the Rocky Mountain West.” This report highlights key discussion points raised during both the retreat and the APA panel.

The West remains one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Not surprisingly, the liveliest discussions among western city planners center on issues of infill housing and the need to protect and maintain the viability of the urban core in the face of continued regional growth. As Chris Knight of Las Vegas noted, “protecting the core is important to the health of the entire region.” Louis Zunguze of Salt Lake City emphasized that “the core area has a real responsibility for the pace of sprawl,” adding that there is a practical need “to keep the area attractive from many perspectives.”

Neighborhood Responses to Infill Development

Part of that challenge has to do with neighborhood resistance to change and increased density. In Billings, Montana, for example (metro population approximately 100,000; county population 140,000), sprawl is becoming a significant issue, according to Ramona Mattix. Yet, despite substantial capital support for downtown revitalization and favorable zoning densities, the city faces considerable resistance from its residents, many of whom are attached to their traditional wide-open spaces.

Bill Healy of Colorado Springs (population 368,000) spoke of his earlier experience as a planner in Salem, Oregon (population 137,000), when he addressed the problem of how to “sell density” in older neighborhoods. As in Billings, the greatest opposition to infill housing in Salem, which involved rezoning established neighborhoods to accommodate multifamily housing, came from existing residents who would grow increasingly vocal if growth was slated to occur in their “back yard.” Healy explained, “The way we sold density [in Salem] was to couple it with better design standards.” People there found density much more acceptable if new development was designed compatibly with existing neighborhoods. A further benefit was that the city obtained new design standards. “Public acceptance of infill is like a sine curve,” Healy explained. “In urban areas there is great acceptance. But as you get out to the first-ring suburbs, there is a real fear of density. Way out where populations are sparce it’s not an issue.” In Colorado Springs, Healy noted, there is little economic incentive for infill. “Half our land area is vacant, so that is a disincentive for infill development. It’s an issue from a planning standpoint.”

Not all western city planners cited neighborhood opposition to infill development as a major obstacle to accommodating growth, however. Ellen Ittleson, for example, discussed Denver’s (population 555,000) recent success in “planning around resistance” in the city’s most recent plan, Blueprint Denver. While preparing the plan, the city looked at growth projections over the next 20 years and devised a way to accommodate the addition of 132,000 predicted new residents and 109,000 new jobs to the city and county. The metro area is expected to receive an additional 760,000 new residents over the same period. “Once we accepted the growth,” remarked Ittleson, “the real task became figuring out where to put it, because where the market or zoning would have put it was not acceptable.”

The Blueprint Denver plan identifies two types of infill areas. “Areas of change” are those parts of the city that would benefit from increased population densities, such as areas of economic need where land use change and transportation initiatives could go hand-in-hand with realizing mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented and transit-oriented development. The only strictly residential area of change is Cherry Creek, which is being transformed from a single-family neighborhood to one with single-family and attached housing. “Areas of stability” are represented primarily by traditional residential neighborhoods, but also include small commercial and even industrial districts where the effort will focus on how to protect the character of these areas rather than adding new households or jobs.

“There has been great consensus on where growth should be and where it should not be,” Ittleson remarked. Yet, there remains considerable controversy “at the edge, that is, how to transition from areas of change to areas of stability,” she continued. Another major obstacle facing the city’s housing initiative is land assembly. “We have the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, but it’s a politically supercharged thing to use. It’s expensive and politically complicated,” she added. Another difficulty is Denver’s “archaic legislation,” which offers far less acceptance of inclusionary zoning than in the East.

Salt Lake City (population 182,000; metro population 1 million) also has demonstrated considerable acceptance of the need for more infill and density downtown. Renowned for its abundant natural amenities, the city has a thriving tourist industry and has become a magnet for growth. As a result, land costs are very high to accommodate the new population, and there are serious discussions between the mayor, the city council and the development community on how to make the city more viable in the face of this challenge. Louis Zunguze remarked that the city is keenly aware that “what happens around us has a lot to do with what we do in the core.”

As part of its efforts to contain the pace of sprawl and attract new development to the downtown, Salt Lake City is putting together a major housing initiative and has studied downtown sites suitable for infill. With the ambitious goal of creating 40,000 new housing units in and around the downtown area, amounting to a three-fold increase in density, a considerable challenge will be to “strike a balance” with more traditional neighborhoods. Strategies include block consolidations for small subdivisions and amending the zoning ordinance to allow for more height in certain appropriate areas, “so more density can be accommodated gradually.”

Salt Lake City has considerable assets working in its favor, notably the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church), whose world headquarters is located downtown. “The Church is a significant entity from both a social and financial standpoint,” Zunguze noted. In addition to complementing the city on key housing and economic initiatives, the Church works hard to induce corporations to relocate downtown near the Church’s own headquarters. The Church partners with new development and redevelopment in other ways as well. For example, it has built a new conference center and recently bought the Crossroads Mall located downtown (that is still taxable) and other projects as additions to Church facilities.

Cheyenne (population 53,000; county population 81,000) is the largest community in Wyoming but the smallest city represented on the APA panel and it does not have issues with infill housing. “We’re a landlocked, small community,” notes Mike Abel. “Residential areas are close by, so residential development downtown is not a huge issue right now. We’re more interested in community development issues . . . our infill focus is on commercial redevelopment.”

Regional Planning

According to John Hester, Reno (population 200,000; metro population 550,000) relies heavily on regional planning. The city has a state-mandated regional plan, updated every five years and designed to account for growth and development over a 20-year period. The recently revised plan promotes the objective of directing development to existing areas and infrastructure. It also introduces a new conceptual framework for identifying and prioritizing those districts and transit corridors most suitable for infill and development. On a broad scale the plan presents the idea of Municipal Service Areas designed to capture what has already been built and approved. Urban and suburban land uses are allowed only in these service areas. Then, within these areas, the plan identifies activity centers and auto-dependent transit corridors most suitable for high-intensity land use and development. One specific target for the city, noted Hester, “is to capture 35 percent of all regional metro housing over the next 20 years within the McCarran Ring, a four-mile radius from downtown.”

For David Richert, the cities of Phoenix (population 1.4 million; metro population 3 million) and Reno appear to share similar planning approaches toward managed growth. The Phoenix plan identifies six growth areas as overall targets for development and infill. To alleviate traffic congestion within and among the designated growth areas, the plan also recommends redirecting growth to certain strategic perimeter areas. “They become edge cities within a village system,” he explained. “There are one hundred years worth of growth in the Phoenix plan. We’re putting in infrastructure where we think growth is going to occur.” Richert noted, however, that it was important to keep in mind that “getting the infill requires getting the people who want it, too. . . . Among our goals is to get a fair share of everything that happens in the valley and to set a good example.”

Las Vegas (population 500,000; metro population 1.5 million) has been the nation’s fastest growing region for more than 60 years. But, according to Chris Knight, “the city is still young, with an outward focus and large expanses of vacant land. We tear things down if we don’t like them. If it’s bad, we just blow it up and move elsewhere. Redevelopment is difficult because some of the more prominent redevelopment tools such as eminent domain are taboo.” Downtown Las Vegas is perceived to be in trouble, and its revitalization is at the top of the mayor’s agenda. “One obstacle is that the private owners of downtown properties need to buy in on fixing the problem,” Knight explained. Another problem he noted is that “a number of downtown property owners believe they own the site of ‘the next big casino,’ so land prices are very inflated.”

The mayor of Las Vegas has been a champion of regional planning and recognizes that protecting the core is vital to the health of the region. “The mayor wants to leave the legacy of a new downtown,” Knight added. Part of that legacy would include the introduction of new medical research facilities and 40,000 units of housing to the downtown area. “Big retailers are already coming in,” added Knight, and the city is “looking for tall buildings.” The city is also beginning to investigate transportation-related development to support the existing monorail system, “but our zoning standards may be archaic and will be in the way. We have to figure out how to remove them,” he explains.

Infrastructure and Land Management

Maintaining control of a city’s services and proper fiscal strategies may help in managing growth. Salt Lake City is well endowed with transportation facilities: light rail, bus (local and Greyhound) and train (Amtrak) services, and an airport that is within ten miles of downtown. Moreover, the streets in Salt Lake are so wide that it’s easy to install new rail lines down the center for new transit services. The city also has three large malls within the downtown area, which help keep the city viable. In addition, there is considerable willingness on the part of developers “to look at the barriers in the way of the kind of the development we want downtown (i.e., mixed-use along transit),” Louis Zunguze noted. In Salt Lake, “the city development and finance communities are beginning to come to the table together to discuss what type of housing should be developed and how to finance it. . . .The banks are willing to look at new ways to finance mixed-use developments,” he noted. While work still needs to be done in terms of putting the most viable financing tools together, Zunguze cited land use regulations as the city’s major obstacle to its infill efforts. The city is faced with “contradictions of wanting to do things but the process being very slow. . . . Developers seem to have no problem assembling land, but projects are seriously challenged by the review and permitting processes,” he explained.

Reno has less than half the population of Las Vegas, but as the second largest city in the nation’s fastest growing state, growth management is a high priority. John Hester cited two other factors, in addition to strong regional planning, that have been instrumental in shaping the city’s response to growth. First is the need to work within the limitations imposed by the city’s physical constraints: Reno is landlocked and must also contend with limited water supplies. Second is the city’s concern for fiscal equity and accountability. Taxpayers subsidize growth, and the city, in consultation with outside fiscal consultants, has made concerted efforts to ensure that only those who receive municipal services pay for them, and that taxpayers in one area are not subsidizing the provision of municipal services elsewhere. “A lot of what we try to do is use the fiscal system to make people realize they can’t keep building out,” says Hester. He also noted that the city has a unique tax structure that enables depreciation.

David Richert considers the situation in Phoenix to be very similar to that in Reno only on a bigger scale. “We have our land constraints—the Indian reservations . . . and the state trust lands. Only 13 percent of the State of Arizona is in private hands,” he explained. However, the city itself has no constraints on water. “Phoenix is in the business. It sells water to other communities,” he noted. But controlling the allocation of water “provides a measure of growth control in other areas. In Arizona, you need a 100-year water supply for everything you do.”

Phoenix is also trying to achieve “a balance of transportation,” with efforts to enhance existing transportation rather than building new. Greenspace planning is also becoming increasingly important within the Phoenix region. As an example, Richert cited the recent introduction of special zoning for drainage washes and meanders. The city also passed a bill to collect taxes to pay for park acquisition. “It won’t be enough,” he added, “because once you start buying land you create a market. Land values go up and you can’t buy as much.”

Cheyenne is a city poised for change. As the “northern anchor” of the Colorado Rocky’s Front Range, Cheyenne is only 90 miles from urban Denver. Because of its strategic location on north-south and east-west highways and railroad lines, the city is looking to capitalize on its potential as a major regional transportation hub. “Regionally, we have a lot going for us as a transportation center. Businesses are looking at Cheyenne because of its proximity to other major centers,” Abel explained. Moreover, for businesses Wyoming has a very attractive tax structure, and Cheyenne is also proving popular for commercial development because it is “ready to build.” The city has many greenways, and the strong pedestrian orientation within the community is appealing to new development and infill initiatives. Already, Abel stated, “once-vacant city blocks are beginning to change, and there’s a new parking structure downtown.” Growth is not without obstacles, however. Specifically, water will be the limiting factor in the city’s growth cycle. Like many western cities, noted Abel, “we’re dependent on our water resources and future enhancements. Without sufficient snowpack to balance out the high mountain reservoirs during a drought situation such as we have now, Cheyenne could be out of water in less than three years.”

Despite this sobering prospect, the city remains more than optimistic about its future. Recently, a local property owner offered the city a massive 17,000-acre ranch that appears to have several water sources, and with them significant development capability. The city has taken the option to purchase the ranch for its water rights, but the city would acquire both the land and its water. “With this purchase, we could double the size of Cheyenne overnight,” exclaimed Abel, adding that “it will force the city to look differently at land use in the area for commercial and urban development. It’s an opportunity to develop the next generation of Cheyenne.” David Richert commented, “17,000 acres is huge. . . . You’ll need a lot of expertise from the private sector. But you’re doing a very progressive thing; your government has a chance to control development.”

Armando Carbonell is a senior fellow and cochairman of the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Planning and Development, and Lisa Cloutier is a research assistant in the department.


Participants in the Lincoln Institute-sponsored retreat for planning directors of western cities: Top row, from left: Mike Abel, Cheyenne; Bill Healy, Colorado Springs; Chris Knight, Las Vegas; John Hester, Reno. Middle row: Louis Zunguze, Salt Lake City; Ramona Mattix, Billings; Ellen Ittleson, Denver. Bottom row, from left: Armando Carbonell, Lincoln Institute; David Richert, Phoenix; Peter Pollock, Boulder. Photo credit: Lisa Cloutier