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`Cookie-Cutter' Homes Suit Some Critics' Taste After All

Yes, it's suburbia. But at 25, a Denver-area master-planned community is finally getting some respect--if grudging.

July 24, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — This is the biggest, fastest-growing master-planned community in the nation. And, quite possibly, the most insulted.

"The ugliest and most embarrassing feature of the Front Range," a resident of nearby Denver declared in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News.

"One big smush of beige puke," a Denver councilwoman sneered to Westword, an alternative weekly.

And from a post on Cyburbia.org, a forum for urban planners: "Highlands Ranch represents the nexus of all that is soulless and evil in the world."

The brickbats have been coming for a quarter-century now, ever since the Mission Viejo Co., flush with success at master-planned communities in Southern California, bought 22,000 acres of scrubby prairie beyond the southernmost fringe of the Denver suburbs and began spreading asphalt.

Denver residents bemoaned the invading army of homes -- in matching earth tones on eighth-of-an-acre lots -- marching across the once wide-open valleys at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

They mocked Highlands Ranch as the epitome of sterile suburbia, with garages but no front porches, a multiplex but no museum, a Wal-Mart but precious few mom-and-pop shops. The stereotype was cemented when National Geographic magazine ran a picture of Highlands Ranch in 1996. It showed a dizzying panorama of rooftops, one after another after another, so close they practically touched.

You can still see views like that from certain streets in Highlands Ranch.

But as the community celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, praise for the Ranch is coming in from some unexpected quarters.

The homes are indeed boxy and beige. But many of them back up to greenbelts. And those that don't are rarely more than a few minutes' walk from an elaborate trail system that links 19 neighborhood parks, four community gardens and thousands of acres of open space that provide habitat for elk, coyotes, foxes and the occasional mountain lion and bobcat.

With major streets wide enough to serve as airport runways, the community is undeniably designed for cars. But Highlands Ranch soon will be connected by light rail to downtown Denver, 12 miles away. And many of the newer neighborhoods consist of densely packed town homes within strolling distance of markets, cafes and fitness centers. The new Town Center, a shopping district anchored by an independent bookstore and a pub, is surrounded by brownstones with a distinctly urban feel.

"There has been an effort to incorporate a lot of smart-growth principles into Highlands Ranch," said Pam Kiely, a land-use expert with Environment Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Would she live there herself? "Personally, no," Kiely said, the distaste evident in her voice. But professionally, she's much more worried about the environmental effect of the resort homes springing up on 35-acre plots of remote Colorado farmland than she is about Highlands Ranch.

Indeed, for all the carping, Highlands Ranch may turn out to be a model for master-planned developments, said Robert Fishman, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan.

The community started out as your typical cul-de-sac heaven, but its new, mixed-use neighborhoods lend it more variety and texture, said Fishman, who envisions a similar evolution in Southern California suburbs such as Irvine.

The ultra-chic Denver magazine 5280 even ran a recent essay on "finding happiness in the Front Range's least-hip 'hood" -- a full page devoted to the joys of Highlands Ranch, with a bare minimum of snarky asides.

With a population close to 90,000, Highlands Ranch is one of the bigger metro areas in Colorado, though it remains unincorporated. Residents are overwhelmingly white (91%, according to the 2000 census), affluent (the median household income tops $86,000) and well-educated (60% of adults have a college degree).

It is also heavily tilted toward families with young children. Eleven percent of the population was younger than 5 during the last census -- and just 3% was older than 65.

It was that demographic that drew Megan Chard to the Ranch, despite herself.

Chard, 35, grew up in the suburb of Littleton, Colo., and fled for downtown Denver as soon as she could. In love with the sometimes rowdy, sometimes gritty atmosphere of urban life, she vowed she would never move to a soccer-mom suburb, and especially not to Highlands Ranch -- "never in a million years."

Then she and her husband had their first child. Suddenly "transients in the alley, hypodermic needles on the sidewalk didn't look so good," Chard said.

With an average home price of $385,000 -- but many available in the $250,000 range -- the Ranch was more affordable than many suburbs closer to Denver. And it was full of kids: running from one backyard to the next, biking to the local park, splashing in the pools at the four recreational centers.

At first, Chard was so sheepish about her address, she justified it by telling friends: "We moved here for the kids."

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