As roads go, Academy Boulevard is a newcomer.
As recently as the early 1960s, there was no Academy Boulevard — just a dirt road running through the unpopulated prairie east of the city limits.
Growth changed all that, and brought with it the unplanned, unanticipated and eminently unworkable suburban model that would characterize many Sunbelt cities.
You start with a lot of vacant land and a road. You build houses, apartments, commercial space, retail space and office space — whatever the demand calls for. You figure out how to finance infrastructure and how to provide everything from sewers to police stations to schools for the new developments.
The road anchors and defines a new linear city.
Developers build shopping centers, malls, big-box stores and medical office buildings. Investors buy them, tenants move in, residents shop and the road grows from dirt to pavement to four lanes to six , and even more.
But then demographic changes bring stagnation.
The neighborhoods that feed shoppers into the road age, as do their residents. Households shrink, merchants shut down or move to newer, more affluent areas, and the linear city becomes shabby, rundown and even dangerous.
We know, or we think we know, how to rescue failing downtowns. You take advantage of the downtowns’ inherent strengths — the historic buildings, the tightly knit street grids, the inherent coolness of being a downtown person, whether you’re living in Denver, Colorado Springs, Austin or Cheyenne.
Downtowns appeal to specific and desirable demographics, both the creative young professionals who drive modern economies and the retired empty-nesters who like the convenience and excitement of a lively downtown.
But how do you deal with mile after mile of half-empty or deserted shopping centers along Academy? Who wants to redevelop these zombie buildings? Who wants to do business there? Where will the new customers come from? How can these functionally obsolete buildings be remade and re-imagined to support whatever’s next for the fading linear city?
The ever-cantankerous Dave Hughes figured out how to revive Old Colorado City a generation ago. Along with then-City Development Director Jim Ringe, Hughes used a special improvement district, community development block grants and private investment to preserve, restore and renovate a dozen blocks of historic buildings.
It has been an unqualified success — but Hughes had some good material to work with.
The Victorian commercial buildings along Colorado Avenue date from the 1880s. They are the tangible reminders of our region’s long history, and have anchored the west side for all of that time. In at least one instance, that affection translated into investment, when Judge John Gallagher joined a group of investors to restore the Argyle Building, which had been erected by his grandfather, J. Arthur Connell, more than a century before.
But what’s to love about a derelict shopping center, or an empty big-box store? There is, as Gertrude Stein might have said, no “there” there. “Move along, folks — nothing to see here!”
There are courageous entrepreneurs and creative building owners who have been resourceful enough to adapt to new realities, to find new uses and to put some sparkle back into the avenue.
But the problems of the linear city are not limited to empty and deteriorating commercial space along the road. The problems are general and systemic, and no one building owner, investor group, business owner, neighborhood association or local government can solve them.
For at least 10 years, local governments have passively witnessed the slow-motion train wreck that has beset Academy Boulevard.
During that time, downtown issues have consumed planners, elected officials and our soi-disant leadership class. Downtown is, compared to the dreary trashscape along parts of Academy, sexy and interesting. Academy is just a road, a place that isn’t a place, where people of no particular significance live, doing God knows what.
It’s just not very … interesting.
So what should be done?
For starters, let’s have a meeting (isn’t that the way all projects, worthwhile or not, come into being?). Let’s round up the players — first the folks who live, work and do business along much of Academy, and then representatives of the city, the school districts, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments and all the other entities whose actions, or lack thereof, impact the linear city. Let’s come up with a way to measure and chart the decay, and a plan to arrest it.
It might be that the problems of the linear city will be solved by the market. Neighborhoods will revive, new businesses will fill yet-unimagined niches and Academy Boulevard will magically regain its former luster.
But maybe not.
Maybe this is a long-term, secular decline which can only be arrested by a combination of private and governmental action. If so, we’d better figure things out soon — and, last I looked, Dave Hughes is too busy to take on another project.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.