Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Dateline: 12:40 pm August 28, 2013 Filed under:

In honor of the Minnesota State Fair as a bookmark at the end of summer, I’m here to tell a tale of what I did on my summer vacation. I drove west, naturally. My family piled in to the car and drove to Colorado. The great American road trip, we put 2,300 miles on our faithful Mazda 5. Along the way we saw the Mitchell Corn Palace, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, the Rocky Mountains (purple mountain majesties) and the western prairie (amber waves of grain…actually, just corn, oh God, so much corn!) And, of course, some good urbanism. What did you expect!?

Mt. Rushmore

Just past the Black Hills over the border in Wyoming is a little western town called Lusk. Say what you will about rural red states being disproportionately (and somewhat ironically) dependent on federal dollars versus urban blue states, a good Main Street takes no political side. And I’ll be damned if Main Street in Lusk wasn’t walkable and pleasant! We ate at The Pizza Place and admired the pedestrian scale of the street with a lot of truck traffic.


Out in Denver my family rented the lower level of a home we found on AirBnB. We were in the Highlands neighborhood of the city, near Highlands Garden Village, a mostly excellent new urbanism infill project from the 1990s designed by Calthorpe. I give it a 4 out of 5 because internally has excellent design elements, a grocery store (very important), historic preservation, affordable housing and a fascinating cohousing project. My only knock (and it’s a big one) is the commercial buildings turn their back on 38th Avenue, the major commercial street bordering the project. What’s worse, perpetuating the automobile strip with more commercial buildings fronted by parking but at least having activity or placing buildings at the sidewalk but turning your back on them? Sadly I think it is the latter.


I was fondly reminded of home by being in the Highlands the very week a NIMBY battle over density went to court. A group of neighbors who thinks they are saving the character of the Highlands were actually suing to stop three five story buildings from being developed near 32nd and Lowell. Oh, the echoes of Dinkytown rattled in my head as I read about the property values being ruined by these monstrosities. What bothers me is the NIMBYs seem to be preserving the right to develop $900,000 single family homes on tear-down lots but don’t want more apartment dwellers in their precious, perfectly-balanced neighborhood. It’s the same damn story everywhere you look. The interesting wrinkle is the City Council approved a rezoning (claimed by the NIMBYs to be arbitrary) before Denver enacted their form-based code this past year. These three buildings won’t likely ruin the neighborhood, but they may be a little too boxy for the area (think Linden Hills). I’m not going to pretend to know everything about this, but I will keep checking the No Highrises Facebook page.

32nd & Lowell

I love Denver but driving around that city is exhausting, between getting up to Boulder, down to Castle Rock and out to Evergreen. I’m sure FasTracks, the Highway 36 improvements and train to the Denver Airport will help everyday Coloradans, but the fact is Denver is a huge sprawling place with many wonderful destinations located far apart.

What better way to break up the long car ride home across Nebraska than with a stop in a good college town? Lincoln is home of the venerable Cornhuskers and we dined at Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill in the Historic Haymarket in downtown Lincoln. Lots of interesting development is occurring the West Haymarket area, and I found maybe the best mural I’ve ever seen carved in to the façade of the old train depot.


Oh, but downtown Lincoln has so much potential. Indeed, between the Haymarket, edge of campus, office core and state capitol building, there is much to admire, but it is all broken up by an extensive network of massive one-way streets. The downtown would be so much better off if all streets were simply converted to two-way streets. Yes, congestion would likely increase but the downtown would also be better knit together rather than divided at every street as it is today. Nebraska may beat Big 10 rival and my alma mater Wisconsin on the gridiron but Madison beats Lincoln in placemaking and better streets.


Ah yes, the great American road trip. With large cities like Denver, small ones like Lusk and everything in between like Lincoln, who knew it would be so urban?

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