EDITORIAL: A River Runs Through It… Part One

I met my son Kahlil for lunch yesterday, in Santa Fe — the City Different — on my way to the Albuquerque airport to catch a flight to Seattle. Kahlil had suggested a small restaurant called the Tune-Up Café, located off the beaten path in what was once an automotive repair shop. We caught each other up on family news, and slowly the conversation drifted into the realm of ‘Affordable Housing’ — one of my favorite topics, of late.

Kahlil and I have differing perspectives on the topic.

Kahlil was just starting his junior year in high school when we moved from Alaska to Pagosa; he graduated two years later from Pagosa Springs High School, then headed off to various colleges and universities. He married his high school sweetheart, Miki Ellis, at a ceremony in Pagosa, and they joined the Peace Corps and spent a year in West Africa. New York City was their next stop, then Los Angeles, where their daughter Violet was born. They lived for several years in Denver, and most recently bought a house in Santa Fe, where Miki works as a school counselor, and Kahlil teaches film making at a local college.

You could say Kahlil has watched Pagosa Springs grow up, from a distance. The resident population of Archuleta County was about 6,100 when we arrived in 1993. It’s now around 12,500. Over the years, Kahlil and Miki and Violet have spent numerous holiday vacations in Pagosa — typically around Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July — and this little town has been their “Home Away from Home.”

I’ve been here, in the trenches, pretty much the whole time.

So it’s probably natural that we have different feelings about how far Pagosa Springs has come over the past 25 years, and different visions about where it might be headed. Those differences became apparent during lunch yesterday.

Lately, Kahlil has expressed the belief that Pagosa Springs is on the verge of another growth spurt. That the Recession has ended, for Pagosa, and the community is poised to blossom into something bigger and better.

I know, based on the various community meetings I’ve attended lately in connection with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan update process, that Kahlil is not the only person who’s feeling optimistic about growth. I’ve heard local realtors talking about the revival of the local construction industry; the Tourism Board has been announcing record collections of Lodgers Tax revenues over the past couple of years.

The indications of impending growth are easy to find.

Easy to find, if you are looking for them… and if you are willing to ignore the U.S. Census data that shows Archuleta County population at about 12,500… the same size it was ten years ago, in 2007.

According to an old Danish aphorism:

Det er vanskeligt at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden.

“It is difficult to make predictions, especially when they concern the future.”

The specific predictions under discussion at yesterday’s lunch were especially hazardous, because they concerned a problem that’s already apparent in Pagosa Springs… in fact, all across America: the lack of affordable housing for our working class families, and for the nation’s vast army of unemployed.

The conversation was somewhat theoretical. Kahlil and I are among the lucky ones.. the Americans who have a comfortable place to live. Kahlil and Miki own two houses — one in Santa Fe, and one in Denver. I share ownership of a Pagosa Springs house with my daughter Ursala. Like many in America who own a home, and who can afford to make the mortgage payments, the housing crisis is not of immediate personal concern.

Rather, the concern is based on the general idea that the world is a more beautiful place when we, who are fortunate, extend a hand to those who may not be so lucky.

Kahlil and I didn’t get into the causes of the housing crisis — they are many and varied — but we were in substantial agreement that a crisis does in fact exist. Where we found disagreement was around the proper location, within the Pagosa Springs community, for any future housing aimed at the families and individuals who have to work for a living. Or who have to beg for a living.

We also disagreed about the imposition of ‘design standards’ aimed at defining what our future housing might look like. Kahlil suggested that we probably want some type of design standards, to prevent people from building ugly homes.

We didn’t have time, during the course of a hurried luncheon date, to define the word, “ugly.” But I believe this idea — about the benefits of government-enforced ‘design standards’ — is fairly popular among people who already own a comfortable home. The concern is not that a working class family or unemployed individual would be harmed by living in an ‘ugly’ house; rather, the concern is that the neighbors might see their property values negatively influenced by the appearance of ‘ugly’ housing, next door, or down the street.

Kahlil also suggested that ‘affordable housing’ ought to be located at some distance from any existing neighborhoods — where no one would have to see it unless they actually lived in one of the houses or apartments. Again, his concern seemed to be focused on preserving the property values of existing homes, under the assumption that affordable housing — located in the same neighborhood, and visible to the naked eye — would reduce those property values.

Again, I would say that this is not an uncommon feeling, among people who already own a house they can afford.

Nearly all of the ‘housing growth’ that took place in Pagosa Springs between 1990 and 2007 happened outside the actual town limits, in the suburban areas west of the historic downtown, and in the equally suburban areas to the south and east of town.

In this article series, I plan to take a close look at the old, historic downtown — the residential and commercial part of Archuleta County that has a river running through it. As hazardous and foolish as it may be, we all like to make predictions about the future, and we all hope for the best possible outcome.

What is the ‘best possible future’ for our downtown?

Let’s consider that question. It’s a big one.

Read Part Two…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.