Wandering through downtown the other day, I was struck by the strange disconnect between what our businessmen, politicians and downtown promoters say as opposed to what they actually do.
What they say: we want a vibrant, vital, robust (see how well I’ve absorbed their buzzwords) downtown, with a stimulating mix of retail, restaurants and bars, residences, offices, art galleries, theaters, restored historic buildings … a festive mix of everything that anyone might want. And what do we have?
We have lots of dreams and schemes, lots of plans and scams, but not much else.
Tejon Street, our premier retail avenue, our feeble imitation of Madison Avenue, is littered with empty storefronts and shuttered buildings.
The free shuttle that downtown boosters hoped would be a pleasant and convenient downtown amenity has morphed into something entirely different — call it the “Homeless Shuttle.”
On any given day, the brightly painted yellow and green buses cater mainly to shabby, feral men — the homeless drifters who have long called downtown home.
And when they’re not dozing away the afternoon in the comfortable seats of the shuttle, you’ll find them taking their ease in the shady precincts of Monument Valley Park, just off Boulder Crescent.
This park, featuring terraced flower gardens, quiet gravel paths and spacious western views, is frequented by homeless men, whose very presence intimidates other would-be users.
And come evening, you’ll find them seated comfortably on the concrete planters along Tejon Street, begging from passers-by.
These folks represent a small subset of the homeless population. They’re not the people, in my opinion, that we ought to be focusing resources on; rather, we ought to spend our energy helping the young mother whose boyfriend has just abandoned her and her baby in a motel room.
And we do help them — but somehow, whenever we hear the word “homeless,” we think of these men.
I’d suggest that rather than expanding the facilities that cater to feral single men in the downtown area, we ought to devise ways to reduce their presence, not increase it. The truth is uncomfortable and simple: because of these men, suburbanites are disinclined to come downtown — amenities or no amenities.
And as for historic buildings, well, if you’ve ever noticed the two handsome bungalows on the south side of St. Vrain Street, between Tejon and Nevada Avenue, go take a last look.
They’ll be demolished in a couple of days, to expand the adjacent parking lot. They’ll join an illustrious roster of downtown buildings that were sacrificed to appease the Great God of Parking, including the Burns Opera House, the Trail Theater and a dozen others.
And as every study of downtowns across the nation has discovered, people do not come downtown to see parking lots — in fact, flat lots both create and accelerate blight. Don’t think so? Imagine downtown as it was when all of those empty lots at Cascade and Pikes Peak avenues, at Pikes Peak and Tejon, and at Nevada and Kiowa were occupied by four- and five-story buildings.
It’s dismaying to realize that the former site of the Burns Opera House on Pikes Peak has remained a vacant lot, generating no sales tax, minimal property tax, no rent and no employment for 41 years.
But it’s hard to blame lot owners, when City Council, egged on by the daily newspaper, seems disinclined to build parking structures with the money collected for that very purpose.
And council’s not exactly committed to historic preservation, either, as it continues its decades-old policy of neither maintaining nor restoring the once-magnificent City Auditorium.
Is it because the city and its enterprises are so broke that they can’t afford to fix it? I don’t think so, at least, judging by the magnificence of Colorado Springs Utilities headquarters in the South Tower of the Plaza of the Rockies.
So here’s a modest suggestion. Let’s toss council and the Utilities bosses out of their comfortable digs, and move them into the crumbling, non-air conditioned City Auditorium. I think we’d see the fastest renovation of a major historic structure in American history.
And what would we do with the empty space at the Plaza of the Rockies? Why not make it a comfortable refuge for the homeless beggars of Tejon Street — call it the Homeless Club.
I’m sure that landlord Chris Jenkins would be delighted — why, he’d be contributing to the revival of the City Aud, which he has long supported, and doing his share to provide affordable housing.
Chris, give me a call and I’ll be glad to show you how well this scheme pencils out.
Chris? Chris? He must have hung up …
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 241.