02 July 2008

About Vail

Last week, as a gift from my inlaws, I vacationed in Vail, Colorado. If you're like me and can not ski, summer is an excellent time to visit there.

Vail is fundamentally a utopian community, indeed, arguably it captures almost all of the principals of emerging New Urbanism, while also throwing into stark relief the contradictions of the American economy.

It is an elegant community with predominantly high income people living in small condominums with a predominant housing stock of three to seven story buildings, the eptiome of high density housing. Bus and shuttle bus service is widely used, easily available, and not confined to the poor and disabled as it is in most of the United States. The community is walkable, has abundant bike paths, and confines vehicles mostly to multi-story parking structures through parking limitations. The few roads that exist have traffic circles more often than four way stops, which is both safe and gives the community a European flair.

The community, like almost all cities in their formative stage, had a die cast by a predominant developer and affiliated companies. It is, of course, elaborately planned, but for most of its history the municipal government has been a captive of the developer, which has had a free rein to do as it wishes. The money in the ski industry is in the real estate, not on the slopes. Create paradise, and millionaires everywhere will flock to buy a piece of it at stratospheric prices.

The 2000 census claimed that it had a population of 4,531 people, 2,165 households, and 762 families residing in 2000 (and only about 450 children), but those numbers count only people domiciled there. This grossly misstates the nature of the community.

The census notes that are 5,389 housing units in Vail (about 2.5 per permanent resident household), at an average density of 1,188.1/sq mi, but this appears to omits temporary hotel accomodations, while including large swaths of golf courses, parks, ski areas, open space and a huge swath of interstate highways in the area of the town, so even this measure grossly understates the population density.

Vail has had as many as 1.6 million skier visits in a single season. This year's ski season there began on November 21, 2007 and ended on April 13. Thus, on an average day during ski season, Vail has roughly 100,000 ski visitors, more during the middle of the season (after December 23) and less in the early season and the spring.

The daytime population density of Vail during ski season is on the order of half the population density of Manhattan, and is greater than the most densely populated census tract in Colorado, judged by domiciliary population, Denver's Capital Hill neighborhood.

Of course, in addition to people who are skiing on a given day in Vail, or are sleeping in Vail on any given evening, the bulk of the workers there, who can't afford to live there and don't have some of the scarce supply of affordable worker housing, commute from far away. Indeed, at a mere 100 miles from Denver with both Denver's city center and Vail very close to I-70, Vail is almost within a New York City commute of Denver.

Vail is what America would look like if the economy continues on its current course, with a fabulously wealthy elite (Vail real estate is more expensive than most neighborhoods in Manhattan and it is hard to find dinner there for under $25 a plate), served by a stuggling, low wage, service industry working class.

Few Vail employees are in poverty, by federal standards, but the cost of living is high. The Vail Valley Charitable Fund, one of the leading local charities in the town, provides financial assistance to Vail residents facing major medical emergencies who can't afford to pay for their care (and by inference, often lack health insurance). The middle class between the wealthy and strongly international group of those who visit, and the service class that does most of the work in the community, is small, even though there are a few permanent resident teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, property managers, real estate agents, resort administrators, mechanics, resort administrators and properous business owners who benefit from a massive tax base that supports government services for a small geographic area and small resident population.

The question, of course, is whether Vail is an economically sustainable model for the rest of the country. If it isn't, then one must question what part of its New Urbanist model breaks down without outside infusions of cash driven by unique attractions.

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