Parking lots stark reminder of lost history

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

If you want an easy visual lesson about the economic impact of historic preservation, I’d suggest three Saturday afternoon strolls.
Stroll No. 1: Start at Bancroft Park, in historic Old Colorado City. Walk west on the north side of the street to 27th Street, cross Colorado Avenue and walk back on the south side of the street.
Stroll No. 2: Start at the intersection of Pikes Peak Avenue and Cascade Avenue, on the south side of the street. Walk east to Weber Street. Cross Pikes Peak and return to starting point.
Stroll No. 3: Start at The Stagecoach Restaurant in Manitou. Walk west on Manitou Avenue to Ruxton. Cross Manitou and return.
What do you see?
In Manitou and Old Colorado City, you might be in Boulder, Pasadena or Santa Fe. Renovated historic buildings line streets where they have stood for a century or more. The sidewalks are thronged with people enjoying a summer weekend — shopping, buying an ice cream cone, getting a cold one at a friendly neighborhood bar or just walking the dog.

View of the former Burns Theatre, as the Chief Theatre, from the window of the Gazette Telegraph building. From the Pikes Peak Library District’s Online Digital Photograph Archives.

Business is good; life is good.
But Pikes Peak Avenue is another story.
You start at a parking lot, where a plaque informs you that the first stake of the city was placed there in 1871. What was arguably the finest building ever erected in Colorado Springs, the 1912 Burns Opera House, stood there until 1973, when it was torn down.
Forty years later, the site is still a parking lot.
As you continue down Pikes Peak, it doesn’t get much better. A single movie theater, Kimball’s, enlivens a street where four once stood. There are still a handful of fine old buildings on the street — the Exchange National Bank building, the Mining Exchange Building and the Post Office — but many are gone, replaced either by parking lots or by drab, characterless office buildings from the 1960s and 1970s.
And at the western end of the avenue, where once the graceful towers of the historic Antlers Hotel framed a picture-postcard view of Pikes Peak, there now stand a couple of generic medium-rises, blocking the view.
The extraordinary buildings that once lined Pikes Peak fell to the wrecker’s ball in the name of economic development. The businessmen/politicians of the day thought they were making rational economic decisions, maximizing the value of their property by getting rid of useless old buildings.
They were wrong.
Despite tens of millions of dollars in private and public investment in downtown Colorado Springs during the last four decades, downtown is still struggling.
What would Pikes Peak Avenue be — and, by extension, all of downtown — if the historic buildings still stood?
Would the Antlers have become, like the Oxford in Denver, the Strater in Durango and the Boulderado in Boulder, an upscale historic hotel? Would Pikes Peak Avenue be lined with boutiques, bars and restaurants? Would new luxury hotels be under construction to serve our booming downtown?
We’ll never know.
And while it’s easy enough to tear down old buildings — just look up “demolition contractors” in the yellow pages — it’s infinitely harder to preserve them.
Old Colorado City and Manitou were preserved because of the efforts of energetic, committed residents who were simply unwilling to see the historic fabric of their communities torn apart.
But they realized that preservation doesn’t happen by itself.
Buildings get razed because it makes, or appears to make, economic sense to take them down. And buildings get preserved for the same reason.
In 1973, half of the 50-odd Victorian commercial buildings that comprise Old Colorado City were vacant. City bureaucrats, concerned about the deterioration of a once-thriving commercial district, considered acquiring them, tearing them down, and offering incentives to some kind of “manufacturing facility” to relocate there.
It seemed like a good idea at the time — get rid of a bunch of crumbling eyesores, build a shiny new factory and provide blue-collar jobs for all of us westside layabouts.
But Dave Hughes, newly retired from Fort Carson, had other ideas. With the help of a few farsighted city officials, he crafted a plan to revive the entire district.
The city would spend money on infrastructure improvements and low-interest financing would enable property owners to renovate their buildings. Property owners created a novel entity called a “business improvement district,” which would generate needed revenue. Renovation would cost a lot less than leveling the buildings and subsidizing new construction, so it seemed to make sense.
And, as anyone who has visited Old Colorado City can attest, the plan worked. An area that was once moribund, generating no tax revenue and producing no jobs, is now a vibrant commercial district, home to scores of businesses, employing hundreds and delighting thousands of visitors every weekend.
In Manitou, the methods were different but the results were the same. The city might be quirkily individualistic, but residents treasure the town’s historic character.
During the last two decades, three of the city’s major historic structures (Barker House, Cliff House and the Spa) were vacant and deteriorating. But rather than simply condemn them and bring in the wreckers, Manitou officials worked to facilitate renovation and rebirth.
Each building was different, and each one required different strategies. But the goal remained clear: to recreate the city by renewing its past.
Downtown Colorado Springs might have lost the opportunity to recreate its heritage. Much of our built history has simply disappeared. Yet a beautiful, vibrant downtown is well within our reach if city officials, downtown boosters and downtown property owners start using the same playbook.
For starters, worry about downtown’s heart, not its periphery. Don’t put city money/tax breaks/ infrastructure improvements into projects half a mile from the center of downtown, when the center is defined by three enormous vacant parcels and the long-neglected City Auditorium.
Pay attention to architecture, to design and to a living streetscape. Consider the Cascade Avenue side of the new county courthouse — a flat, dreary, featureless expanse of nothing. It could, and should, be used in architectural texts, as an example of anti-urban design.
Work together to create design guidelines that encourage a livable, walkable and delightful downtown — and then pay attention to them. I know, I know-we’ve already got these great guidelines and they’ve done so much good!
And look at Tejon Street from Boulder Street to Colorado Avenue, lined with shops, low-rise buildings, lofts, bars, nightclubs, restaurants and people. Why is it so alive and why is the rest of downtown so sleepy by comparison?
Listen to the experts.
No, I don’t mean a bunch of overpaid “consultants” who’ll whip up a report, fly into town, do the Power Point thing and leave with a fat check. I mean Dave Hughes, former Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison and former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace — people who have been there, done that.
And finally, don’t e-mail me and tell me what a good job you’re doing. I’ll e-mail you — when I see beautiful buildings rise from those desolate vacant lots.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at or 227-5861.