Mont Saint-Michel on the Prairie

43 thoughts on “Mont Saint-Michel on the Prairie”

  1. I just heard a podcast and thought of this post. Why here? Short answer: Denver International Airport is currently the 6th busiest airport in the US but is one of the few with area available to double the number of runways it has, and will eventually become the largest airport in the US. Airports-adjacent are home to huge numbers of international corporations, and Denver is the best positioned in the US to take advantage of growth and the state has a leadership structure that is head and shoulders above most of the rest.

  2. Johnny,

    A few observations.

    Firstly, as a libertarian, I favor low tax rates. But, whatever the actual rate, I feel everyone should pay the same: no one should be given sweetheart deals like the ones described here. After all, the shortfall has to be paid by everyone else. But, being realistic, that isn’t going to happen. As you’ve repeatedly pointed out in your blog, the rules relating to development are now so complex that only huge projects, financed and built by mega corporations, are viable. And those corporations have the political heft to extract tax concessions from local politicians.

    Secondly, whatever politicians may say about sustainability, all that development, as others have already commented, seems to be dependent on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels for the planes bringing people there; fossil fuels for the cars they will drive while there and fossil fuels for the water system.

    On the bright side, at least places like this are pro-growth and this development will provide people with jobs which, hopefully, will pay well. By contrast, places like California these days seem to be just about anti-everything.

  3. So speaking as someone who used to live in Colorado (and went to CU Boulder)..the thing that baffles me more than anything else about this is, “Why There”? I mean, it’s not like this is actually literally the middle of nowhere, it just feels like it. You can go drive for a bit and be absolutely among gorgeous mountains. National Parks and some of the best skiing in the world are just a few hours away. The only possible plus I can see to being there is being close to the airport. Presumably some of this is that Aurora gave them a better deal than anyone else, and I assume the land was super cheap, but sheesh, if I was doing a Colorado vacation and this popped up on Orbitz I probably wouldn’t even think about this place except roll my eyes and shake my head in disbelief. It’s like opening an amazing luxury destination hotel in Burlingame or Rochdale, Queens. (And Aurora is a reasonably prosperous place, so again, did someone get bribed?)

  4. Thanks for studying this for us, Johnny…I think your coverage is spot-on in terms of its current and possible future. I’m fascinated to hear engineers described as pragmatic in their personal assessment of the project; not what I expected!

    Seeing this new resort built in the middle of nowhere reminded me of *another* resort built in the middle of nowhere.

    West Baden Springs hotel was built in 1902, in the middle of forest and farms in southern Indiana. It was quite the fashionable destination in its time. 500 rooms, casino, mineral baths, opera, movies; birds and palm trees and lounge chairs for relaxing inside a 200-foot(!) dome. Easy parallels with “all the bells and whistles” for the new complex in Aurora. It fell out of favor in the 1920’s with the automobile and the changing tastes of tourists. It closed and then reopened as a Jesuit seminary and then a satellite university campus until the 80’s. Then it was more or less abandoned and fell into disrepair until the late 90’s. It’s since been renovated and its current life is (again) a luxury hotel, thanks to legalized casino gambling.

    The services you detailed for the new development in Aurora (lifting stations, power, utilities, car-centric infrastructure, tax breaks, and of course a flow of paying customers) are surely a lot more fragile than what it took to support West Baden. In 1902 in the middle of nowhere, it could support itself with a lower level of (mostly local) services – there was water, food, fuel (coal, firewood) aplenty, and an infusion of paying customers because of the railroad link. I guess you could describe the economic conditions as transient in either case. I personally hate this sort of tacky car-dependent development, but it’s all over my city too. Such a myopic vision of ‘growth’ but it makes sense I guess from a certain view, when the funds to get it built are cheap.

    West Baden has been able to be repurposed several times; so far it’s survived the transient conditions of the larger economy. I wonder if its construction made it more durable than big-box construction techniques today – it survived around 25 years of neglect and freeze/thaw cycles. I do wonder how long all of this stuff in Aurora will last – will it still be useful in 120 years?

    Thanks much for your research and thoughts, Johnny – I’ve been a fan of Greer and Kunstler, et al for many years. Landed here a few months ago; your approach and view are refreshing and pragmatic. I’ve borrowed your phrase ‘failure fixes itself’ a few times 😀

    1. West Baden is built around mineral springs, and is a place of great natural beauty, not to mention golf and gambling. In its original heyday, and again today, people actually wanted to get away from cities to breathe clean air and bathe in “refreshing” waters. (And drink and gamble, too.) The Broadmoor, just down the road in Colorado, was another such place that survives to the present day. So there is a market.

      It might be fair to call the “hotel on a prairie” a degenerated version of West Baden Springs. It certainly lacks the build quality and setting of natural beauty.

  5. Le Hôtel particulier de Denver? C’est magnifique! Seriously though, the larger structures in any given area speak louder than words: water towers, grain silos, cathedrals, castles, skyscrapers, the best damn Hyatt Regency Inn money can buy…

  6. We’re seeing the effects of this kind of development firsthand in my city. Some developer decides to construct a new shopping mall complete with go-cart arenas and ice rinks, usually in a floodplain or something; the shiny new mall cannibalizes the aging malls in the area; the aging malls become decrepit and then go bankrupt; and soon the shiny new mall becomes an aging one. This stuff isn’t attractive, and it isn’t built to last, but we “development” junkies have perpetuated this cycle for at least my lifetime and probably before.

    1. Bingo. You’ve genuinely nailed it here, Nick. The shortsightedness if these garish and ugly developments, so immediately out of place in their natural environments, is so apparent; and their building only pads the pockets of developers. Massive and grotesque waste of resources and material.
      Flee the unclean thing.

  7. I grew up in Aurora, about 15 miles south of here. My parents moved there about a year before I was born(1983 -drive till you qualify). At that point the major 6 lane arterial dead ended into the prairie about 1/2 mile past their house.(Quincy and Buckley). Over the course of my lifetime I have watched Aurora and the exurbs beyond sprawl another 10-15 miles. All supported by a chain of mega projects to keep the sprawl engine alive. There was the ring road(toll) E470, the Aurora Reservoir, DIA, various highway and transit expansions, and most relevant to this article the $700 million dollar Prairie Waters project. Prairie Waters takes water out of the Platte River north of Denver(downstream) and pumps it 34 miles south to the Aurora Reservoir, where it is treated and then pumped back into the Aurora municipal supply before being treated again and pumped back to the river. This is what your engineer means when he says “the city” is the source of the water.

    Click to access PWP%20Fact%20Sheet.2016.pdf

    The Gaylord hotel is just pure stupidity, if I remember correctly the first classified the farmland as “blight” so they could take advantage of some more tax incentives. Then they tried to suck up something like 10 years of state tourism dollars(grants) so that they could bring people to a “Disney-ified” replica of the mountains, Colorado’s actual tourist engine, out on the plains, 50 miles away from any real mountain. Not sure if it made the final plan but they intended to have an indoor ski hill at one point. Hubris at its highest I think.

    All this to say, I have no particular love for my hometown, Denver yes, but not Aurora. It is ironic that posters above mention the military presence in the area. I’ve wondered before about a WW3 type scenario, is there any “there” there worth defending. What kind of soldiers removed by a couple of generations from anyplace of value make. Then again, the profound soulless-ness of the place drove me to become an architect, to try to fight to create places worth caring about.(It was a much bigger fight than I expected back then, as you have described here often, good intentions can only get us so far).

    1. Love the link that shows the water supply and treatment. Lots of machines, lots of technology, lots of energy being used, and lots of professional administrators. It works. But it’s complex, expensive, and fragile.

  8. In regards to the water issue, many in Denver aren’t aware that much of their own water comes from the other side of the Continental Divide and is tunneled to the front range through the Harold D. Roberts Tunnel. Dillon Reservoir is actually Denver water supply.

    With water rights being as delicate as they are, any “reset” in water rights between states could see this water heading west serving some of the driest areas of the country (PHX, Vegas, So Cal) rather than massive amounts of water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River. Although politically unfeasible now, we have to be asking ourselves what this looks like in 30-50 years when there are more people in an even drier area.

  9. Your last post saw us both in 1967 coming and going out of San Francisco. Well, Colorado is in fact where I spent my last year of service when returning from Vietnam in 68 and 69. I’m a recovering romantic that’s not at all moving forward with my particular desfunction. Having so throughly embraced the Jeremiah Johnson, John Denver mythos during those years with a joint in my mouth, that my sensitivity to the realities you present in your sociological autopsy make me understand why there’s a pot shop on every corner in Denver.

  10. Aurora is the home of Buckley Air Force Base. From Wikipedia (Buckley AFB):

    Buckley Air Force Base is an Air Force Space Command base that serves more than 92,000 active duty, National Guard, Reserve and retired personnel throughout the Front Range community.

    Since the return of Buckley Field to the Air Force in 2000, the air base has seen an unprecedented amount of new construction and modernization. New enlisted airmen’s dormitories, the commissary, the base exchange, and the fitness center have all been completed, augmented by the completion of family housing units – the first ones ever constructed at Buckley Field.

    … not to mention the civilians who provide services to the military, directly and indirectly. Money pumped in from the Pentagon can turn a lot of wheels as it flows out across the prairie.

    1. “Money pumped in from the Pentagon can turn a lot of wheels as it flows out across the prairie.” So long as the feds have $$$ to pump. We’re 20+ trillion in debt, after all. Congress can keep raising the debt ceiling, but in the end there have to be buyers of our debt to sustain the cycle. In my own region, I know people who think that it’s the commercial district along highway such-n-such that sustains our local economy. As I see it, it’s the flow of federal $$$ down another highway from the north that keeps commercial highway such-n-such afloat at all.

      1. Perhaps I should have been more explicitly skeptical about the long-term prospects for federal money keeping the Denver area “prosperous”.
        The flow of federal money (including not just defense contracting but Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare) probably provides a lot more support to local economies than anyone realizes.

        1. Definitely should be skeptical about those long term prospects. But in the mean time, the amount of federal money sloshing around here (the Colorado front range) is staggering. Military installations alone bring in mega bucks with Fort Carson on the southern end (Pueblo), Peterson AFB, Buckley AFB, the Air Force Academy in Colo-Springs (where Norad and the Cheyenne Mountain complex are located, to Warren AFB minutes across the Wyoming border in Cheyenne.

          Add to this the major presence of USDA operations throughout the region (the area’s history is largely agricultural, after all) , including Colo State University (one of the many large universities along the front range) here in Fort Collins. Which, incidentally, has attracted large facilities for the NIH, CDC and some others as well. The national park, forest and wildlife management services (fish hatcheries for example) are also major employers and purchasers of local material, supplies and contract services.

          And of course, there’s “Denver Federal Center”; from the govt. web site:
          “The Denver Federal Center (DFC) is located adjacent to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies and is only minutes from downtown Denver. The Center houses 28 different agencies in 44 federal buildings, totaling four million square feet…”

          I know someone who supposedly knows about such things who claims that the federal government is deliberately setting up redundant facilities here as a safety measure; safe from rising sea water, and harder to target.

          Speaking of the many universities (CSU, CU, UNC, DU, to name a few) we cannot neglect to recognize the tidal wave of federal grant money for research projects and student loans that the many tens of thousands of suckers (oops, I mean ‘students’) bring with them from out of state.

          Yep, the entire front range from southern to northern border is looking really prosperous right now. But it’s a boom built on federal vapor paper.

  11. Of managed water, that managed by the various water systems as opposed to wild and wooly rivers, a substantial amount is released back into the environment. Of the amount that is retained for human use about 80% is used for ag. That’s also a dry year figure. The percentage is lower in wet years.

    I was offered a job in Denver once and have visited many times. The attraction has always been lost on me. Someone once described it as Akron with a mural.

  12. I’m pretty dubious about a “destination hotel” of that scale in an area devoid of other attractions, even with the massive subsidies. Were it on the other side of Denver, with easy access to the mountains, it would be different, but it’s not. Destination resorts in areas that already have draws can work (like Atlantis in the Bahamas) but not so much out on the prairie. I don’t think you’ll have to wait 30 years to see this get into trouble.

    1. Popular with families with small children. And it will draw people from the Nebraska and Kansas prairie.

      Not my thing either, but there is a demand for it. America is very diverse.

      1. But larger markets don’t often manage to support such things elsewhere when they are just out by themselves. I don’t see how Kansas and Nebraska can – not that the more populous areas of either state are particularly close (over 7 hours drive from Omaha). It’s not that *nobody* likes a place like that, it’s that there are almost never enough who can’t go to someplace with additional attractions, so places like that end up in areas that are already tourist destinations.

          1. I think the conversation is drifting here…

            My point is that every town in America is rapidly building ever more elaborate and more heavily subsidized destination resort complexes with the expectation that there will be an infinite number of tourists to fill them for the foreseeable future. What if these calculations are wrong? What do we do with the failed 1,500 room things when the casino/ convention center/ family fun binge proves fragile?

              1. Just an FYI, people drive from Houston to Dallas (like a 5 hour drive) just to stay at these places. People will do anything and go anywhere. This could include people flying in to Denver from all over the mountain West region, and not just Nebraska and Kansas. Will this place fail at some point? Probably. Will it fail quickly? Possibly. Time will tell.

                And I am with Johnny in asking what happens if this doesn’t work anymore or at all? The reality is it might just become a shithole. That’s life.

                This reminds me a bit of Jimmy Swaggert’s international evangelical college he tried to start in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When his sex scandal hit, the funding for his college evaporated and a number of buildings, including one 8 to 10 story dorm room, were left unfinished. They remained that way for years. It used to be called 6 Flags Over Jesus because he had hundreds of world flags flying outside the main building. After the funding dried up it looked like an amusement park that had been shutdown. Shit happens.

                1. Oh, and if anyone is ever near Albuquerque or Santa Fe (60 miles apart), there is a good example of failed destination business venture right off the interstate somewhere between the two. It just sits there.

                  Link to a 2007 article on its failing. Maybe a couple of businesses are still open. Always looks like nothing is there when I drive past.


          2. And while Branson is also a kind of manufactured experience, it’s much larger with a lot of different attractions, with a focus on country music that’s hard to find anywhere else but Nashville. It’s also got a lot more people within easy driving distance.

            1. It’s prettier, too, in the sense of landscape/scenery? Plus, as much as I dislike the culture, the roots are more “rooted” than a stucco monstrosity in the sere grasslands of Colokansas.

  13. You didn’t mention the 350 days of sunshine a year. 😉

    One of the scariest speeches I ever heard was a Colorado Supreme Court justice talking specifically about water and water rights in Colorado. It’s grim, as grim as California because Colorado is the headwaters of rivers flowing both southeast and southwest that are governed by interstate compact. As a result it is apparently illegal for a property owner to capture and store runoff in Colorado!

    Water is, or should be, the growth governor (which you said in far fewer words in the post above).

    Hence, Sioux Falls (and Omaha-Council Bluffs and a host of other Midwestern river cities) as growth magnets. Lots of land AND plenty of water.

    1. Water’s tricky. In California only 5% of the state’s water is used for indoor residential purposes. Another 5% is used for landscaping. 10% is used for industry. The other 80% is agriculture. So the overwhelming majority is used to grow food – much of which is exported out of the state. So all the cities could go away and the water crisis would still be with us. It’s really all about farms. Personally, I like to eat so I’m in no rush to cut off the people who produce my food – although farmers might be persuaded to grow different crops (and grow them differently) if the water supply diminished. But that’s a messy political battle…

      While I was in Denver I asked one of the engineers about recycling water. The sewerage treatment process is so good these days that you can drink the stuff that comes out the other end. But there’s the “ick” factor. Typically water companies pump the treated water into the ground and then pump it back up a couple of miles away. Presto! Clean natural water from the earth with no public relations drama. But in Colorado there are all kinds of legal questions about who owns that water so it’s not that easy to pull it back out of the ground… As you said, you can’t even collect rainwater off your own roof in Colorado.

      I’ve written about how places like Hong Kong and Dubai deal with their water troubles. If you throw enough money, technology, and energy at anything you can fix it. But then you get very far down the road of complexity and dependence on things that are seriously fragile. If you read the comments after the post you’ll see people reject my argument because 1) Price effectively rations scarce commodities. 2) Technology really does work. 3) Places with plenty of water are economic failures while the desert cities continue to boom. Shrug.

      1. I fully agree on recycled water…it is one of the largest sources in Orange County, for instance, and also helps to prevent saltwater intrusion into their near-coastal wells. Las Vegas is also returning treated water to Lake Mead “above” their intakes so that they can reuse it.

        Yet, as you point out, reverse osmosis is a complicated technical system that further entwines energy and water. It may use less energy in OC than pumping NorCal water up and over the mountains, but probably more than Midwestern suburban utilities use to pump “virgin” groundwater.

        Although I love the climate in California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, for my remaining 30 or 40 years I’d rather live in a place with 40+ inches of rainfall per year and good groundwater resources with no pre-existing obligations to other places for either. Even with tornadoes and hailstorms and 2-degree (Fahrenheit) mornings like today.

        1. In the good ol’ days, much of Northern California DID see that 40 inches of rainfall. Santa Rosa gets more rain than my sister’s town in coastal Washington.

          But…climate change may be changing that. It’s 75 with no rain in sight.

      2. And regarding agriculture, some applied technology would surely help if water rates rose, but pricing groundwater is probably the trickiest of all legal/political swamps. Pun intended.

        But growing rice and alfalfa in the California desert seems a bit immoral, though the beef and dairy industries can’t thrive without the hay since Western consumers supposedly prefer grass fed beef to corn-fed. But we do have plenty of excess corn in the Midwest: no doubt producers (and Warren Buffett) would love to see hopper-cars full heading west on Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF trains to feed the coastal masses.

        1. BNSF trains are already full of grains heading west for export. Western consumers may prefer grass fed beef if they are aware, but I believe vast majority of beef consumed in the US is likely grain (corn, soybean) fed. People just don’t know what they are eating if that is the case.

      3. The water situation here is certainly tricky. Johnny, (great post, BTW) you mention that you asked someone about where the water comes from. Well…

        I have farmer relatives here north of Denver that were seduced by the various municipalities (Denver and it’s spawn) to sell them their irrigation rights (shares of water ownership) decades ago. Being reassured that the water wouldn’t be needed for decades they took the cash; we’re talking millions of dollars here. Most of the old fools are dead now, but their son’s have had their farming lively hoods ruined because they’ve had their water shut off in recent years. Wells have been sealed and supply canals closed up. That’s how they can build that nonsense out there on the windswept prairie around DIA.

        Without irrigation water, you can barely graze a cow on this semi-desert landscape.

        1. Even in Nebraska there was a legislative proposal this year to tax irrigation wells, i.e. price the shared resource.

          In theory, water is wasted because the price is too low (tragedy of the commons). In practice the culprit is Western water law (“first in time, first in right”).

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