Another lofty plan for the downtown area

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads …”
And right here in River City, the sugar-plum visioning process was in full swing last week.
At Colorado College, a few dozen intrepid city leaders trudged through the snow to Bemis Hall to view the latest iteration of what was once called the Downtown Action Plan. And a couple of days later, to great fanfare, our local Urban Renewers unveiled plans for a vast new development that will, they hope, arise south of the Colorado Avenue Bridge.
Like its predecessor, the new Downtown Action Plan (henceforth to be called “Imagine Downtown”) is long on ideas and fanciful concepts. Here’s some verbiage from the 100-plus page report:
“… these committed participants imagined a Downtown Colorado Springs maturing into a thriving urban center, teeming with people of all stripes moving between their homes and offices and favorite shops and restaurants. The downtown they aspired to influence would be built on industry and history and culture, and its architecture would be dense, dramatic and richly varied.
“… the area’s attraction as a premier address for business has held. Downtown Colorado Springs today is abuzz with energy and activity — a flurry of ongoing construction amidst the constant hum of automobile traffic, the pleasant blur of pedestrian movement and the vibration of commerce in action …”
“This rendering of Downtown Colorado Springs is part of a digital model … showing added buildings to this digital skyline that have actually been built in other communities. This model will be continually updated as real projects come to our Downtown …”
“The resulting product will grow into a mix of gleaming new corporate centers, warehouse-style residential lofts and projects even more eclectic or iconic … Decorate empty storefront windows … Create an urban downtown lifestyle appealing to younger people and baby boomers.”
And guess what? “It wasn’t merely pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”(!)
Well, I dunno — “buildings that have actually been built in other communities?!?” C’mon, guys, dare to dream! Where’s the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building? And what, exactly, would be an “urban lifestyle appealing to younger people and baby boomers”?
Lots of clubs and lots of benches, I guess.
But about halfway through the dazzling architectural renditions of our very own Sim City, and the purple prose of modern development-speak, reality intrudes. There’s a suggestion that empty storefronts need to be decorated, that downtown visitors encountering homeless men might experience a certain, um, discomfort, and that there may be some, er, conflict between the mega-clubs and downtown residents/merchants.
Meanwhile, City Council unanimously approved a grandiose plan for the oddly-located chunk of land wedged between Colorado Avenue, America the Beautiful Park, a concrete-sided flood control ditch (aka Monument Creek) and the railroad tracks.
Serious players like Chuck Murphy, Nor’Wood, Classic Cos. and Missouri Hotelier John Hammons propose to build a 100,000-square-foot office building, a 250-room hotel and 150 apartments, lofts and condos — all by 2010!
And the city, via the Urban Renewal Authority, is kicking in $10 million to build a 600-space parking garage.
That’s great, but will it happen? Supposedly, the deals with various developers will be finalized by early next year and construction will begin by the end of 2007.
But let’s be realistic. Unless the local/national economy is strong and interest rates/construction costs are reasonable, none of these projects will ever get off the drawing board.
And given that Hammons is an experienced, credible and smart hotel developer, he might also be playing a very cagy game.
His proposed site, well removed from the heart of downtown, is far less desirable for a hotel project than at least three other downtown sites.
Look at Buck Blessing’s site on Cascade between Pikes Peak and Colorado, or the two redevelopment sites on the auditorium block. All three are within the downtown core, close to restaurants, bars and shopping.
But because of Hammon’s otherwise marginal location, he gets multiple subsidies from city government. He gets a $10 million parking garage, tax-increment financing, and, in all likelihood, a sweetheart deal when he actually purchases the land from the city.
Right now, he doesn’t have a nickel at risk.
His potential competitors, by contrast, have already bought their sites, paying fair market value. And once the city’s committed to build Hammons’ garage, the parking enterprise will be tapped out — they won’t be building any more such structures for many years.
So Hammons has put himself into a powerful position. He doesn’t have to break ground until he’s ready to do so, and he may have already iced any potential competitors.
Why build, if you have to compete with a subsidized player? Besides, although the downtown market may be able to absorb a 250-room hotel, can it absorb two such establishments?
So, if all goes as planned, this ingeniously financed and heavily subsidized development scheme may have some unanticipated side effects.
Vacant redevelopment sites on Nevada and Cascade will simply remain vacant, following the old saw, “bad money drives out the good.” Downtown retail, which might have seen a sudden renaissance if a major up-market hotelier had chosen to build downtown, will continue to stagnate. Tejon, downtown’s sole remaining retail corridor, might reach its tipping point, and become wall-to-wall clubs and bars.
Far from energizing downtown, the new development might function as a close-in suburb, creating an entirely separate activity center, drawing development, street life and investment away from downtown’s core.
But that’s life in Sim City, where, with the flick of a mouse, you can build and rebuild, destroy your enemies and accumulate power — until the game turns on you, and you’re toast.
I participated, if marginally, in creating the first Downtown Action Plan, way back in 1992. We had lots of dreams and schemes, and quite a few were realized.
But I don’t think that any of us ever imagined that, come 2006, the heart of downtown would become the Club District, featuring drunken revelry, scantily dressed hotties and thousands of young’uns prowling the streets on weekend nights.
No, we had a rather more genteel, family-friendly plan — with parks, picnics, John Phillip Sousa, baseball and the performing arts (just like Briargate — only downtown).
In other words, we wanted pretty much what today’s earnest visionaries want.
And that’s fine, but downtowns, by their very nature, are a little rough around the edges, hard to tame and train. They don’t have a single organizing principle, like a mall — rather, their nature is determined by the individual decisions of thousands of participants. The players compete and cooperate, act and react. Outcomes are often unpredictable.
So imagine downtown as much as you want, but, to paraphrase yet another old saw, be careful what you imagine.
You might just get it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.