Lessons from the success of downtown Springs

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Colorado Springs is fortunate to enjoy a thriving downtown. A student and I recently asked two questions: First, what has made our downtown so successful? And, second, can we apply these lessons to reduce sprawl and improve our urban planning processes? We began by reviewing the urban planning literature. We then conducted interviews with community leaders and surveyed more than 100 downtown business owners and managers to get their opinions about the success of the city’s downtown.

This article summarizes the five factors we found to be keys to the success of downtown Colorado Springs. Later in the article, we suggest how these same factors might be applied to enhance other parts of our sprawling community.

1) Mixed-Use Is a KeyFactor

Over the last two decades, downtown Colorado Springs has embraced the best elements of “New Urbanism” – the idea of mixed-use neighborhoods in which people live and work in high-density, “24-hour” communities. Such mixed-use areas tend to foster a virtuous cycle – as retail density increases so does residential density, which further increases retail density, and so on. Thus, a mixed-use downtown includes not only a variety of businesses, retailers, and public buildings, but also residential housing.

The recent wave of new apartment and loft development projects is a part of this virtuous cycle, and many believe there are further opportunities for downtown residential development. Our research also concluded, however, that the city could do even more to encourage mixed-use development. For example, current zoning regulations and building codes could be revised to encourage more multi-use buildings. Another problem is that the downtown does not have a grocery store or a drugstore, but downtown business leaders and residents are hopeful that the addition of more housing will attract a more diverse set of retailers.

2) Accessibility, Parking and a Positive Pedestrian Experience

To a large extent, a downtown’s success is measured by the daily flow of traffic and pedestrians. Thus, most cities face the challenges of increasing traffic flow and enhancing the pedestrian experience while also providing sufficient parking. We found that most business owners believe the downtown is easy to enter and exit. The city has also worked hard to make the downtown pedestrian friendly. Streetscape – a pedestrian improvement program that got underway in 1997 – has spent several million dollars to beautify the downtown. Sidewalks have been widened and benches and trees have been added. Outdoor eating has been encouraged, and many downtown restaurants now feature outdoor seating.

Downtown parking is tight, but many business leaders are pleased that parking is a problem and believe that a tight parking situation shows that the downtown is a vibrant place where people want to be. Ironically, many cities have found that adding more parking spaces can actually have a negative impact on downtown development. In fact, researchers have concluded that parking should consume no more than one-third of a downtown area; more parking than this reduces density, gives people fewer reasons to go downtown, and hurts the downtown’s character and ambiance.

We also found almost unanimous agreement that the city’s current transit system doesn’t work, and many believe that a radical rethinking of the overall purpose, route structure, and financing of the bus system is needed. The city has recently inaugurated a circulator, an innovative idea that should provide an easier way to travel through the downtown. The needs of nontraditional commuters such as bicyclists have not yet received much consideration. Bike paths through the downtown, as part of the city’s overall commitment to trails and open space, might be an option.

3) Green Space and Public Amenities Are Essential

Parks, public art, and other amenities play a major role in the success of downtown Colorado Springs. The downtown parks are heavily used, and host concerts, rallies, and many other outdoor activities. The Uncle Wilbur fountain in Acacia Park is a huge hit that gives many people, especially families with young children, an excuse to come downtown. Everyone expects Confluence Park to beautify the downtown’s south side and to prove popular with the public.

4) Historic Preservation Is Important

The planning literature suggests that preservation is critical to a vibrant urban area. Historic buildings not only beautify a city and promote its cultural heritage, but these landmarks generate interest from tourists and are a lure to potential residents who seek a unique living environment. Our survey respondents believe that historic preservation has been important to the success of downtown Colorado Springs. Our interviewees also agree that preservation is essential because tourism is such an important part of the city’s economy. Many believe that Colorado Springs must save older buildings such as the City Auditorium because so many of the city’s historic landmarks were destroyed during the 1970s.

5) Public-Private Partnerships Necessary

Our interviewees also agree that public-private partnerships have been a key to the renaissance of downtown Colorado Springs. Public funds for revitalization projects are almost always limited, and many entrepreneurs lack the resources to undertake large projects on their own, so partnerships allow governments and businesses to accomplish together what neither could do on its own. One additional benefit of public-private partnerships is their involvement of people; once business owners get involved in improvement projects, they develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their success.

Homelessness: A Major, Unresolved Problem

The biggest surprise of our study was the extent to which survey respondents focused on the city’s homeless. Many view the homeless as the downtown’s major problem, and believe that the city should relocate shelters and related services away from the downtown.

The urban planning literature offers few ideas for dealing positively with the homeless problem. Complicating any plan or effort to deal with the problem of homelessness is the need to balance humanitarian impulses, issues of personal freedom and community goals. And, of course, any successful strategy will require funding. The city could certainly benefit from and should pursue additional efforts to address homelessness in a systemic way.

Summary: Urban Areas Require a Balancing Act

What have we learned about the success of downtown Colorado Springs? Beyond the five success factors we’ve summarized here, perhaps our biggest insight is that these factors do not work independently. It’s not enough to promote any one of these factors, but it is the successful combination of all five (and probably many more) factors that produces a vibrant downtown. Our downtown works because people can both live and work there, it is accessible and attractive, and it enjoys cooperation between city agencies and business owners.

Another lesson from the success of downtown Colorado Springs is the need to balance high density with the demand for parking. Ironically, too much parking takes up space that might otherwise be occupied by businesses, retailers, and residents, all of which contribute to the success of a downtown area. The success of our downtown may be actually be enhanced by its relative shortage of parking.

We also believe that just one business or one public amenity can have significant positive impacts. For example, the opening of Phantom Canyon several years ago had dramatic tangible and psychological benefits on our downtown. The addition of the Uncle Wilbur fountain has had a similar positive impact, bringing many peo
ple – often families – downtown. It’s also important to emphasize how devastating the loss of just one business can be. Vacant retail space not only reduces density, but it also hurts the morale of other downtown merchants.

Conclusion: Applying the Lessons

Have we learned anything from the success of downtown Colorado Springs that can be applied to improve other parts of our city? Just as the downtown’s success results from a balancing of many factors, the sprawl that characterizes much of Colorado Springs almost certainly results from failing to balance those same factors. For example, outside of the downtown, our city has emphasized accessibility but done nothing to encourage or require mixed-use development. As a result, it is virtually inconceivable for most people living in Colorado Springs that any of life’s daily activities – work, school, buying groceries, other shopping, entertainment – could be done without getting in a vehicle and driving. Accessibility without mixed-use gives us the strip malls that line Academy Boulevard – areas where a person can buy almost anything, but areas that are void of housing, parks, and other amenities that create a sense of community.

Proponents of the New Urbanism advocate the transformation of strips like Academy Boulevard into mixed-use neighborhoods. For example, Academy Boulevard would be divided into a true boulevard with through and local traffic lanes. Revised zoning regulations would require businesses to be built closely to streets as they are downtown, and parking lots would be placed behind buildings. All buildings would be multi-story structures, with offices and retail space on lower levels and apartments on upper levels. The overall aim would be to make strips like Academy Boulevard more attractive and downtown-like, encouraging higher density and less urban sprawl. More people would have the opportunity to live close – perhaps even within walking distance – of where they work and shop.

By not emphasizing mixed-use, the city also gets commercial areas like the new medical centers at Union and Austin Bluffs and just south of the Union Printers Home that may be busy during the day but are dead zones at night. An alternative would be mixed-use areas that combine offices, housing, and a variety of retailers, with parks and other amenities. Such requirements would help make these developments 24-hour communities.

We also know that the opening of new retail zones necessarily pulls customers away from the downtown and other established retail areas. The resulting decline in customer traffic often explains why businesses fail or close. City planners ought to give more thought to promoting mixed-use neighborhoods and to increasing customer traffic in existing commercial areas rather than permitting the development of new strip malls.

All of these points raise the question of what we want Colorado Springs to be. Urban sprawl, strip malls, and the need to drive almost everywhere to do almost anything – these characteristics of most cities are not the fault of developers working single-handedly, but our current zoning regulations and incentives encourage them. If we’d like a different future for our community – one that would create mixed-use neighborhoods with the character of a downtown, if we’d like to see more parks and public amenities, and if we’d like to reduce the amount of driving we have to do, then we, as citizens, will have to take up the cause and work to rewrite existing regulations.

J.L. Stimpert is a member of the Department of Economics and Business at Colorado College.

Melissa Pongtratic is a student at the college.