Quality land development and quality of life go hand in hand – or so says Scott Smith, chief operating officer and manager of La Plata Investments, developer of 9,600 acres in the Briargate community for six of the last 22 years.
Briargate today represents the culmination of vision, land studies, planning, building, economic boom and bust, marketing and community evolution. Its neighborhoods are home to more than 22,000 residents and more than 8500 households. Smith recalls the earlier days when the project was in receivership – just before La Plata purchased the area from the RTC in 1995. “Today our community lies at the northern point of arrival to the city,” says Smith, “so it’s important to create a quality environment.”
Since 1995, La Plata Investments, owned in part by the Loo family and High Valley Group, has dedicated its resources and corporate talent to make sure the families of tomorrow have a place to take root, work, play and build a life. For those new to the region, the area is home to four high schools, three middle schools, and eight elementary schools in District 20. Briargate’s boundaries extend west to Highway 83, north to Black Forest, east past Powers Boulevard (adjacent to Wolf Ranch) and south to Woodmen Road. A total of 105 miles of arterial roads have been constructed on the property since 1978, including the Briargate interchange paid for by La Plata and dedicated to the Colorado Department of Transportation in the mid 1990s.
Known for its popular residential communities that appeal to a wide spectrum of home seekers, Briargate attracts everyone from first-time buyers to executives looking for a retreat on the Pine Creek Golf Course. Thanks to the city’s rapid growth, its neighborhoods have become a Pikes Peak region realtor’s and builder’s paradise. According to La Plata’s best estimates, Pine Creek is about 50 percent built out, with other new home sales underway in Briarwood, Sagewood, The Heights at Summerfield and Timberwolf Crossing. Plans are already in the works for other new residential neighborhoods, pending resolution of the Preble jumping mouse conservation issue.
The infamous endangered rodent, whose natural habitat protection by the Colorado Department of Fish and Wildlife, is slowing completion of a crucial section of Briargate Parkway and Union Boulevard. “We are working diligently with the State to accommodate the guidelines they’ve established,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, several projects, including the new Penrose Hospital facility, have been put on hold until the problem can be worked out.”
It may sound easy to take property, divide it up into various uses and zoned areas approved by City Council and Planning Commission; put in the basics such as water and sewer lines, gas taps, telecommunications lines, curb, gutter and landscaping; and sell the land to builders or sub-developers. According to Smith, on the good days, that’s what happens. On other days, however, the whole process of creating a community within a community is a whole lot more complex.
As a result, La Plata relies heavily on public/private partnerships to move progress along. The Cottonwood Creek bridge on Austin Bluffs Parkway, for example was privately funded by La Plata and other developers, allowing the City full use of the bridge — and three years in which to repay the investors. Another significant public/private partnership involves the innovative 5.7-acre detention pond park, developed by La Plata, Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation, District 20, and the Pine Creek Village Association. Each entity contributed $100,000 toward the park’s development. The Pine Creek Playfield (opening this June 20) may be used by the school district and the local community on a reservation basis.
“Back in John Venezia and Lew Christensen’s days,” he says, referring to two of the original Briargate founders, the developer actually brought in an Urban Land Institute (ULI) team that studied the topography, soil, access and natural features of the entire area. Their expert recommendations on the best neighborhood designs, roadways, shopping districts, schools and parks were incorporated into the original master plan.” Smith is an active ULI member, and sends members of his team to its workshops and annual meetings.
But La Plata Investments will also put its own signature on the burgeoning northside community – and according to Smith, will build a balanced tax base to support future schools, parks and infrastructure. “We plan to create a general improvement district, financed with funds from an upcoming bond issue that will support projects like the Union, Powers and Austin Bluffs extensions. They provide crucial access to our neighborhoods,” says Smith. “We have also participated in much of School District 20’s planning process. I’ve helped design the land lease for the Classical Academy and have worked with Gary Coulter since 1999 on the new Challenger Learning Center,” he added, noting that La Plata and District 20 enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
A real point of pride is the company’s successful Briargate Business Campus which is near completion. The PBC and mixed-use zoned site hosts a number of Colorado Springs’ most prominent companies and organizations. Focus on the Family purchased 80 acres at the intersection of Briargate Parkway and Explorer for its headquarters, while DPC Development (responsible for the new T. Rowe Price building) and Prime West developed two office parks. The much-heralded Lifestyle Retail Center (just under one million square feet in size) will break ground by mid-summer 2002, and La Plata just announced plans for its new employee and pedestrian-friendly Briargate Crossing, a 110-acre mixed use combination of offices, stores and multifamily development, northeast of Briargate Parkway and Union Boulevard, bordering the future Union, Briargate Parkway and Powers Boulevard extensions.
“By building a tax base through balanced mixed use communities, we can provide for better schools,” said Smith. “That, along with the land we dedicate for future schools and recreation (to date, Briargate includes 95 acres of dedicated school and park land) represents our commitment to Briargate families today and in the future.” Illustrating his point, Smith mentions the recent opening of the T. Rowe Price offices in Briargate Business Campus. The building’s owners pay more than $160,000 per year in county taxes, he says, offsetting property taxes for the equivalent of 410 single family homes.
In creating a lasting, well-financed infrastructure, a balanced work-play-live-worship sense of community and innovative public/private partnerships, La Plata’s goal is to continue to build on the original Briargate tradition. “We are proud to foster an active Pine Creek Homeowner’s Association and the Briargate Business Campus Owner’s Association. We promote strict architectural controls, quality signage and well-designed and maintained landscaping. Just look at our sidewalks – they’re wider than most and were created for strollers, skaters and joggers,” says Smith.
Looking to the future, Smith estimates that Briargate is only 50 percent complete. Entire parcels in the 25-square-mile master plan remain to be developed. Based on La Plata’s track record so far, the best is yet to come.