About one year ago, city planners presented the “Academy Boulevard Corridor Revitalization Plan Update” to city council.
First conceived during 2007, the report focuses on opportunities characterizing abandoned shopping centers and weed-strewn vacant lots as “redevelopment opportunities.”
The plan defined the corridor as that portion of Academy and surrounding neighborhoods that extends from Maizeland to Drennan roads.
But, despite the optimistic calls for revitalization, little has changed and it remains a picture of commercial decay.
“It happens everywhere,” said former planning commissioner Les Gruen, owner and president of Urban Strategies, a commercial real estate consulting firm. “You can applaud the city’s recognition of the problem, but (comprehensive area redevelopment) is very difficult to do because of the demographics you’re fighting.”
Academy, like all other deteriorating arterials, once had its heyday, but it has a peculiar history.
Since 1950, Colorado Springs has had four “main streets.”
There was Tejon Street, Nevada Avenue and Academy Boulevard, and now Powers Boulevard has joined them to enjoy a time in the sun as the city’s major commercial artery.
Tejon and Nevada were part of the city’s original plat, while Powers was a planned arterial.
Academy just happened.
The route evolved from a wagon track to a dirt road, from a dirt road to a paved street, and from a paved street to a six-lane boulevard stretching 15 miles from Cheyenne Mountain to the Air Force Academy.
But as Academy shouldered aside Nevada and Tejon, and was eclipsed by Powers, the once-dominant “main streets” declined.
Retailers hopped over to the east and north, seeking new markets.
Downtown booms, declines
The automobile created Nevada, the city’s first modern commercial boulevard.
U.S. Highway 85-87 connected Colorado Springs with Denver, Fort Collins and Cheyenne to the north and with Pueblo, Trinidad, and Santa Fe to the south. By 1950, the neon lights of motels, roadhouses, drive-in burger joints, used car lots, pawnshops and bars lit up the night, beckoning the weary, the hungry, the thirsty and the penniless.
But growth was accelerating and with it, change.
In the city’s north end, Cut-a-Corner, one of the earliest supermarkets in the state opened during 1949 at the intersection of Weber and Fontanero streets. And two years later the Bon Shopping Center opened a few blocks away on Wahsatch Street, servicing the then-new Bonnyville development.
Downtown, the city’s then unrivalled retail center, was unaffected by such early strip centers. The city’s core boasted half a dozen movie theaters, three sporting goods stores, five shoe stores, three department stores and more than a dozen hotels, as well as the city’s leading automobile dealers restaurants, pharmacists, and hardware stores. Nevada fed the city’s residents into downtown, while businesses to the north and south served tourists and travelers.
When Interstate 25 opened during 1958, the city entered into an era of swift, irrevocable change. I-25 drained through traffic away from Nevada, and businesses suffered. Downtown began a prolonged decline as retailers headed for the exits, following the rooftops to the burgeoning suburbs.
By 1970, Academy Boulevard started its 30-year reign as the city’s chaotic, lively, unplanned and apparently haphazard collection of big-box retailers, strip centers, auto dealers, apartment complexes and office buildings.
Thanks to Academy’s designation as U.S. Highway 83, state and federal highway construction money was available to build, maintain and improve the route.
During the early 1960s, some city officials embraced the idea of making Academy a limited access throughway which would speed traffic around the city’s eastern perimeter. That idea came to naught, thanks to sustained lobbying from developers who wanted to maximize the development potential of their properties and the demands of growth, which created a ready market for developable parcels.
At its zenith during the 1980s, Academy was the commercial heart of Colorado Springs. The boulevard was anchored at the north by the newly opened Chapel Hills mall, at its midpoint by the Citadel mall, and at the south by the Satellite, an iconic 1960s high-rise condominium/hotel. To many, Academy’s future seemed as promising as its present.
But even as Academy’s malls, strip centers, and big boxes dominated Colorado Springs, a rival appeared.
Pursuing the elusive dream of an eastern bypass, a high-speed route from I-25 to the airport, a city-county task force established the final route of Powers Boulevard.
Powers would be different, according to elected officials and planners. It wouldn’t be the Wild West. Access points would be restricted to designated intersections. It wouldn’t be a free-for-all commercial hodge-podge, like Academy, but a useful high-speed arterial that would open up the undeveloped plains on the city’s eastern fringe to orderly, planned development.
Financed by a combination of developer-created special improvement districts and a 1989 voter-approved bond issue, Powers drew interest from developers large and small.
During 2000, Norwood Development opened the First and Main Town Center between Constitution and Carefree on Powers. At its opening, First and Main featured a 16-screen Cineplex and the city’s first iMax theater.
“Retailers chase demographics,” said Norwood Development Vice President FredVeitch, “and the demographics of the area that we serve (with First and Main) are very attractive.”
Today’s retail leviathan includes 53 merchants, and is anchored by five major retailers. First and Main caters to the affluent families in the city’s northeast quadrant, offering the kind of post-mall retail experience that shoppers now seem to prefer.
Blight overtakes Academy
But as Powers flourished, much of Academy declined. Almost directly west of First and Main, shopping centers at the once-vibrant intersection of Academy and Palmer Park are largely vacant, deserted by national retailers such as Longs Drugs, Hobby Lobby, and Ross Dress for Less. Farther north, the decline is less apparent, but visible, as long-established businesses such as Liberty Toyota moved to the Woodmen/Powers corridor.
As ripe as Academy Boulevard might be for redevelopment, some warn that such plans should not be approached too hastily.
Veitch noted that even the best-intentioned redevelopment efforts may have unanticipated side effects.
“Look at the Woodmen/Academy deal,” he said, “building that intersection may impact a (nearby) grocery store. To the extent that you lose retail, especially a grocery store, the surrounding neighborhood is impacted. For there to be a collaborative effort, you have to have collaboration. I’ve toured what Dallas and Atlanta have done with revitalization, and have seen how they’ve succeeded. You get everybody on the same page, and that may not be the case here — we’re very compartmentalized.”
Will Powers and its now-healthy development meet the same fate as Academy in years to come?
“There’s always that possibility,” Veitch said, “but we’ve tried to have a greater degree of sustainability. We’ve tried to create a sense of place, and build a community. When we spend the money to face a Best Buy with brick on four sides, it doesn’t necessarily increase our rent — but we hope with that, and things like no-contact parking, and summer concerts in the park, we’re making a place that people will feel comfortable with and have a sense of ownership.”