What makes the 'Boat different?

Community leaders gather to talk about Steamboat's unique design

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Walk through the downtown historic district and make a careful inventory of the buildings and their qualities that make Steamboat Springs different from almost any place else.

That was the strong recommendation Monday night of architect Dennis Humphries and urban design specialist Ron Straka. They were speaking to the Lincoln Avenue streetscapes workshop hosted by the city of Steamboat Springs and Main Street Steamboat.

In attendance were members of the historic preservation community, city staffers, City Council members and curious residents.

"Mountain towns are all becoming the same. What makes this place identifiable?" Straka asked the gathering. "What makes it Steamboat?"

Straka was the deputy director of urban design for the city of Denver for eight years. During his tenure, he played a role in the development of Coors field and the Pepsi Center, among other cultural facilities that are stimulating Denver's economic vitality.

The same fundamentals that make large downtowns come alive can be scaled down to smaller cities, Straka said. He thinks the details and craftsmanship of buildings translate into energy.

However, it isn't enough to make a list of desirable design qualities, Straka said. They must be distilled into a set of guidelines. The guidelines must combine to make a framework that lets developers know what a community's goals and limits are and still allows those developers to be creative.

Councilman Ken Brenner told Humphries that in addition to two major urban renewal projects being handled by city government, more are on the way. He predicted that the availability of inexpensive capital and the strong economy will continue to push the pace of renewal in downtown Steamboat's historic district.

"We may be seeing more and more of these," Brenner said. "We need to consider the impacts of incremental change. How big is too big in downtown? When do you lose the character of what we have in downtown?"

City Transit Director George Krawzoff said his experience during 25 years of living in Aspen taught him that the more a resort community does to make its downtown district appealing, the more it attracts outside influences that transform the community.

"Our biggest problem in Aspen was that the more we succeeded in making it really nice, the more dollars came to chase that" lifestyle, Krawzoff said.

Humphries has been retained by the city to develop a maintenance plan for city-owned historic buildings, and to restore the Depot Art Center. He received the 2004 Governor's Award for restoration of a historic Denver school building.

Humphries said he thinks Steamboat has a great opportunity to set standards for the character of its downtown. He urged civic leaders not to grow frustrated if they feel unprepared to have all the influence they would like to have on current projects such as the proposed redevelopment of the Harbor Hotel.

"The sooner the city gets its act together and establishes a (design) framework and a process, the better," Humphries said. "I think there will be other Harbor Hotels."

Corner building sites such as the one the Harbor sits on at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue are important because they present two façades to the community, Humphries said.

He suggested the city might begin by crafting design criteria for future development of new corner buildings.

"There are key catalytic sites, where, if the right things happen," they will spur desirable outcomes up and down the district, Humphries said.

By identifying three or four of those catalytic sites in the downtown, he said, and seeking to partner with developers, the community could begin to exert more influence on the future face of historic downtown Steamboat.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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