The most common questions that community members are asking me this month are about the scale and pace of development occurring along Highway 133. We each fall in love with Carbondale as it exists at a particular moment in time — often the moment you moved here or the way things were when you were growing up here — and we get concerned when development threatens to change the small town character we cherish. That protective instinct is one of our community’s greatest strengths.
Fortunately, the development we’re seeing today is the culmination of over a decade of proactive planning and community input, designed to channel growth in ways that enhance rather than detract from the Carbondale we know and love. I understand that it can be hard to see that when new buildings seem to pop up every month, so here are a few thoughts to consider as you circle the roundabout and wonder where we’re headed.
1. We planned for this. After years of wrangling over ‘big box’ proposals, the community came together around a vision for a new City Market and a mix of residential and commercial development on the Marketplace property. In 2016, the outgoing Board of Town Trustees approved this plan, along with the Unified Development Code that has guided every step of the process since. The 2013 Comprehensive Plan designates the lots near the roundabout as “new urban,” with mixed-use zoning encouraged. These plans give developers clear guidance on what the community wants, including these details:
a. “Buildings should be the focal point of the site by locating them close to the sidewalk and/or street … while parking should be … less visible.”
b. “Buildings can be up to three stories tall … the street/highway should be faced with three-dimensional architectural elements such as windows, doors and dormers, contributing to an interesting human-scale streetscape.”
c. “A flexible mix of retail, restaurants … and multiple-story, mixed-use buildings which may include residential upstairs.”
Each proposal is evaluated against these guidelines, with multiple public hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Town Trustees. Traffic impacts and water needs are studied, and fees are paid to expand infrastructure as needed.
2. This is what Smart Growth looks like. If you read the ten principles of Smart Growth (smartgrowthamerica.org), you’re likely to agree that the mixed use, compact, walkable development pattern emerging along our main road, with bus stops nearby, is the pattern the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had in mind when they created the Smart Growth framework.
Allowing this kind of development in our town core helps preserve surrounding open space and reduce sprawl by meeting the demand for new residential and commercial space within our existing community. Compact developments generally place minimal additional demands on our water supply compared with large-lot, single-family homes and infill within our core generates less traffic than the alternatives.
3. We need the housing. Rental units are in very short supply, making it hard for businesses to thrive and long-term locals to find a place to live. While you may be shocked at what they’re renting for, 80% of the new units are priced by the free market and these are meeting some of the “missing middle” demand identified in the 2019 Greater Roaring Fork Regional Housing Study.
These are not second homes or Airbnb’s; they are the smallest and most affordably-priced rental units buildable today. The other 20% are deed-restricted to lower-income earners, with prices set by Garfield County Housing Authority. This helps us meet our housing goals at no cost to the town.
4. The building boom won’t last forever. The current pace of development is unsettling to many. If we had seen one new building every year for a decade or so, the pace of change would feel less threatening and easier to absorb. Unfortunately, while we have a lot of community control over development guidelines, we have very little control over the macroeconomic factors that determine when developers actually build.
Like most American towns, almost no new housing was built in Carbondale for about ten years starting with the Great Recession. That pent-up demand, combined with a growing economy, post-pandemic shifts, and low interest rates, led to the building boom we’re seeing today. But this economic cycle will not last forever.
I hope that this context gives you a sense of security that the Carbondale you fell in love with is evolving as the community intended, with great care and planning. While rapid change can feel threatening, I think a greater threat would be a no-growth policy that would close the door to the next round of creative community members, or a policy that encourages sprawl into surrounding open spaces. These renters are going to live somewhere, so questions about climate impact and sustainability should focus on whether new development in another location would have less impact than here.
Check out the Development Project Story Map (www.bit.ly/CdalePlanning) for all the details on what has been approved or is in process, and get involved in Planning and Zoning or Board of Town Trustee meetings. I’ll be at Dos Gringos for “Coffee with the Mayor” this Friday from 8 to 9 a.m., so stop by if you’d like to discuss these or other issues further.