Prospect New Town – Beauty that is Skin Deep

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I was listening to Dave Ramsey’s syndicated Money Matters show on the radio this week. A teenager called in asking for advice on buying his first car – he only had $2600 to spend. Dave retold a story about a station employee he had circa 2006 who drove an early 80s, maroon, Ford big-body they called “Big Red.” It was terrible to behold, but mechanically flawless. It had belonged to the station employee’s old aunt, and had barely 20,000 miles on it in 20 years. Dave told the kid he could either get a good looking, mechanically unreliable car for $2,600, or an ugly “beater” that was mechanically sound. When he was in high school, Dave would have made a poor choice and gotten a flashy piece of junk. His financial advice to the teen, get a mechanically sound, ugly car.

Prospect New Town, a new urbanist enclave just off highway 287, about a mile south of Downtown Longmont has the new car gloss. Its tagline, “eat, shop, recharge,” is even a catchy variation on the ubiquitous and overused “live, work, play.” I wonder what Don Draper would think? Slick. It features tree-lined streets. It has the luxury brand pedigree being designed by none other than DPZ, the architecture and planning firm of husband and wife team extraordinaire Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The pair literally wrote the book on New Urbanism. This post is not a critique of their legacy or movement; their reputation as visionary planners and architects is secure.

Back to Prospect New Town… The best way I can describe it is as a mixed use village combining a dense, colorful hodgepodge of Northern European, row house, colonial, and Jetsons architectural styles. And by Jetsons, I refer not to an architectural movement, but the Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

But, great cities are more than streets and structures – they are about great parks. Public spaces are at the very heart of the world’s great districts. So with Prospect’s Cadillac pedigree, I expected thoughtful pocket parks and public focal-points, maybe a mini Olmstedian-central park brimming with recreation equipment, public art, community gardens, pavilions, and the unexpected.

What the residents and visitors get instead is a bereft, treeless field near the entrance, and a couple of pocket parks, some benches, and a very average children’s plastic playscape. Except for a few people walking their dogs, it was deserted. After a few minutes, my girlfriend said, “let’s leave, there’s nothing here.”

She’s right. One would be better off buying an old house on the east side of downtown Longmont, back on square city blocks with broken sidewalks, within walking distance of Mainstreet, a bustling downtown, the library, museum, schools built by the WPA, trails, city parks brimming with the art, cool playscapes, and authenticity.

Great urban places start with a pedestrian-friendly, small-block grid, thoughtful plazas, parks, art, an organic mix of uses, and time to become authentic. Prospect is the $3,000 Ford Mustang GT that this former high school kid lusted after – not the hand-me-down, maroon Volvo 240 that he actually got that ran for years. Maybe in a hundred years Prospect will be such a place, a fully realized mini city; however, it feels empty and I expect more – much more. It’s as if they spent 90% of their design budget and effort on the buildings and ran out of time and money for parks, plazas, and the public realm.

If you really want to live, work, and play where you live, maybe forget New Urbanism and go old school…

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