Stalled developments, a slowing economy and interstate construction projects limiting access have put downtown Colorado Springs in limbo, suspended it appears between a resplendent past and an uncertain future.
Less than a year ago, three substantial developers seemed poised to launch major projects. Ray O’Sullivan and Sam Guadagnoli had put together a partnership to build the Cooper Tower, a 24-story hotel/retail/loft project on the southeast corner of Kiowa and Nevada.
Just next door, Chris Jenkins planned an office/retail project at Pikes Peak and Nevada avenues. The multi-story building was to be called Pikes Peak Place.
And two blocks to the west, Buck Blessing intimated that residents might soon see a spectacular new building on the half-block he controls on Cascade Avenue between Pikes Peak and Colorado avenues.
Since then, Jenkins has torn down the old bus station, which occupied the site of Pikes Peak Place, but has deferred plans for the new building indefinitely.
Steve Boyette, a member of the O’Sullivan/Guadagnoli group, said the Cooper Tower project is still very much alive, and that negotiations are taking place with three potential hotel partners.
Blessing has made no statements concerning any project on the Cascade property.
Downtown retailers had supported the developments, which they hoped would bring more residents, workers and visitors to the city’s core — the closure of the Cimarron and Bijou street bridges, which is part of the Colorado Springs Metro Interstate Expansion project, also hasn’t helped with.
Another factor compounding the retailers’ problems is the nighttime economy of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, which have driven up rents and scooped up prime retail spaces.
During the past decade, landmark shops like The Chinook Bookstore, Hibbard’s, Art’s Hardware, Hathaway’s, Whickerbill Gifts, the Gray Rose, the Design Center, Lorig’s, Roger’s Shoes and, most recenlty, MichelleChocolatiers & Ice Cream have closed.
And while attrition is normal in any retail environment, there’s a difference. Of the 10 stores, not one has been replaced by another retailer. Five of the storefronts are vacant, one is a bar, one is a bar/nightclub, two are restaurants and one is a real estate office.
Shannon Dougherty, who moved her upscale women’s clothing boutique, Couture, from Kiowa Street to Tejon Street last fall, is concerned that sales haven’t improved as much as she had expected.
“My April was just the same as last year in the old store,” she said. “I’m really surprised. Maybe it’s the bridges, or maybe it’s the economy … We’ll see.”
But while downtown during daylight hours can be somnolent, it wakes up after 5 p.m., after the destination retailers have closed and the destination bars, restaurants and nightclubs have opened.
By 10 p.m. on most Friday and Saturday nights, the streets are overflowing with people. There are lines half a block long in front of the popular Tejon Street clubs, enormous establishments which can accommodate hundreds of customers.
Business is good for restaurateurs and bar owners, so much so that they don’t hesitate to make major investments in their facilities.
Jose Muldoon’s, a downtown fixture for more than 25 years, re-opened last week after a complete renovation. Co-owner Luke Travins characterized it as a routine business decision.
“It was getting a little tired, and we just thought it was time to redo it,” he said. “The weekend was just insane, we were really busy. Next time, we’ll open during the week so we can work out the bugs — not on the weekend.”
Travins said that the renovation was budgeted at $600,000, “but it may be more. We still haven’t gotten all of the bills.”
Two blocks away, Guadagnoli and his wife, Kathy, did a lightning makeover of their mega-club Rum Bay.
Guadagnoli said that such clubs must continually re-invent to remain fashionable, which for him includes installing an “Ice Bar,” and idea he said he got while in Japan.
The bar is a glass-enclosed walk-in freezer, with icicles hanging from the ceiling and a bar encased in ice. Patrons don down jackets before entering.
It’s an odd and expensive gimmick, but Guadagnoli said it will pay dividends.
“People get bored in a hurry, I get bored in a hurry,” he said. “There’s nothing like this in town, so everybody will have to see it once.”
The Guadagnolis also revamped the downstairs bar area, and created an outdoor patio to accommodate smokers and patrons who prefer to be outside on summer nights.
Asked how much had been spent on the renovations, Guadagnoli passed the buck.
“Kathy Guadagnoli doesn’t know how to spell ‘budget,’” he said. “She just keeps spending until it’s right.”
Greg Timm, a downtown lawyer/developer who recently closed his motorcycle dealership, is concerned about the erosion of downtown’s retail presence.
“We may need to do something to help retailers,” he said. “When I closed Biker’s Dream nobody said a word to me. And losing places like Chinook, and now Michelle’s, those are destination retailers that build traffic for everybody else.”
And despite an April that was “beyond terrible,” Chris Sonderman of Terra Verde, a signature downtown retailer, is optimistic.
“Closing the bridges has definitely affected us,” she said. “But the infrastructure had to be repaired at some point, and I’m not sure that there’s ever a great time to do this.”
Sonderman said she thinks that the bars and restaurants ultimately help retailers.
“I definitely think that Jose’s remodel will help us, and it’s good to have the clubs, because they bring young people downtown,” she said. “They do what young people do, but they’ll settle down, get married and buy from us.”
To succeed downtown, Sonderman said, retailers need to be experienced professionals, not eager amateurs. The bars and clubs have helped boost property values, and that has contributed to higher rents, which leaves little margin for error.
“Near-downtown neighborhoods are thriving, more and more people work downtown, and fixing up I-25 and the bridges will make access much easier,” she said. “There are some vacancies, but they’re already starting to fill.”
“I’m amazed at how many people are downtown during the day on weekends,” he said. “Uncle Wilber is a big draw, the stores, the ambiance. Downtown is unique. We think it’s only going to get better, and we’re putting our money on it.”
If downtown is in limbo, Sonderman said that it won’t last long.
“May looks good, and the bridges will open eventually,” she said. “Downtown will be fine. We just have to keep it young and fresh.”