CNU17 – Landing in Denver

CNU 17 has opened on an optimistic note. Denver is a city born of and grown with optimism, like so many other Western cities. Its Stapleton development, its transit system and its environmental strides are evidence of a city trying to develop in a new way to face new and uncertain times. The question will be whether we will have enough money to fund that optimism.

The CNU finds itself in an odd position this year. Events have proven its thinking correct, but at the same time it is a victim of those same events. It's one thing to preach urbanism and transit-oriented development and a remedy to what ails the development world; it's quite another to build it when you're subject to the same liquidity constraints as the schlock developers.

When construction ground to a halt in 2008, it did not discriminate based on the quality of the development. When the money music stopped, almost nobody had a chair. And while completed New Urbanist projects arguably have held their value better than the single-use suburban development to which we've grown accustomed, that by itself won't necessarily help future projects secure financing.

I'm hoping to learn more about the financing prospects at Friday's Plenary Session, "Responding to the Market: The New Frontier of Financing". As of Thursday night I'm not optimistic.

Two years ago, returning home from visiting a school teacher friend of mine in Denver, I sat next to an injured, unemployed construction worker on the plane ride to Chicago. He was in his 20s, square-jawed, stout, with stubble and tousled blond hair, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

Passing the time as travelers do, he told me about how he'd worked in Denver – or the Denver area – for several years doing home construction, specifically roofing work. He had fallen and injured his back several months prior, and although not yet fully recovered, he had tried to go back to work because he needed the money. When he returned to the job site, however, he was told there was no work. The project had not exactly shut down, but activity there had been scaled way back. He was heading to Chicago because a friend had told him there were construction jobs there.

If he indeed found a job it probably didn't last long. The bottom dropped out of the housing market, and the American economy, not long after.

I was reminded of him again today as I arrived in Denver for CNU 17. Gliding into Denver International Airport, we flew over partly completed subdivisions north and east of the airport. Blacktop roads wound through invisible developments. The inhabitant of the odd house here and there, if in fact any of the finished houses are inhabited, must wind through a series of twists and turns between the main road and home, negotiating curves built in anticipation of a neighborhood that never materialized.

Much of Denver in between the airport and downtown seemed devoid of construction. A few new homes in the Stapleton development south of Interstate 70 appeared wrapped in the once-ubiquitous weather guard, and a few cranes downtown marked the site of some high- or at least mid-rise construction. But it's not like it used to be. Just a couple of years ago one could land in almost any city in America and see entire neighborhoods under construction, high-rise building cranes dotting downtown skylines and earth-movers clearing the way for big-box retail strip centers. It was that way in Austin for CNU XVI last year.

Record-high gas prices and the not coincidental tanking of the American economy, which is to day the drying up of easy credit and subsequent grinding to a halt of retail, hit the suburbs particularly hard. Home prices plummeted in the farthest-flung suburban locations faster than anywhere else. Starbucks stores, Home Depot stores, Circuit City stores, giant car dealerships, Applebee's restaurants and malls all closed. It was enough to make a New Urbanist jump up and down and point and shout, "Told you so!"

No one would have heard, of course, what with the crashing all around of the economy.

At the end of the day everyone at this Congress believes New Urbanism has something more valuable to offer than the old suburban way. The farther we get into this new century, the more that will become apparent. My hope is that the money will be there to unlock that value.

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