Boulevard of oblivion

Academy Boulevard awaits redevelopment effort

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.

Business explodes

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.

Powers’ popularity

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.”

3 Responses to Boulevard of oblivion

  1. The revitalization that occurs on Academy Boulevard needs to be given much more creative thought than conventional “redevelopment” in this City. It was very disheartening for me to see the abandoned Citadel Crossing strip center replaced with yet another Strip Center and Lowe’s. This was very short-sighted of the developer, and I will not be at all surprised to see the Lowe’s fail twenty years from now, leaving us with the same problem. Les is correct that it can be very difficult to redevelop South Academy. If we simply replace the failed big box stores with new big box retail, it too will fail when it is no longer new or fresh.

    When redeveloping Academy, the demographics really need to be given a lot of consideration. Many people who live in the area do not own automobiles, so redevelopment needs to consider other modes of transportation, especially the most basic of them all, feet. Additional residential needs to be a pivotal part of any redevelopment. Without that basic ingredient, the 24-hour sense of place will never be realized. Form-based codes need to be in place codifying the form and framework of the future, not just the use. With form-based codes in place, changes in market can be realized for our buildings. Without them, our big boxes and strip centers do not have a chance to be anything other than suburban retail. The City should realize at this point what happens to suburban shopping centers after the initial and even secondary tenants have left. All it takes is a shift in the economy or a closure of a major chain to make a shopping center or even an entire corridor become a ghost town.

    I hope we can learn from the “solutions” that have created the mess that Academy has become. Let’s also keep an eye on Powers, it is destined to have the same problems as Academy twenty years from today.

    “We can not solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

    John W. Olson
    Colorado Congress for the New Urbanism

    John W. Olson
    February 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

  2. “voter-approved bond issue”.. what in tarnation is that?

    ;-)

    AE10.

    atomic elroy
    February 19, 2010 at 4:24 pm

  3. Actually, according to the history of the area, it is time to start developing Marksheffel Road. At the same time the raw pasture land north of town is passed as an ‘urban blight’ area and approved for some more big box stores. We need more sprawl, more streets the city cannot maintain and some streetlights to turn off.

    What might make more sense is to improve roads to the point it is attractive for shoppers to reach the existing malls in the north end of town and concentrate on infill for some of the already blighted areas such as the area just southwest of the county courthouse, south Nevada Ave and let project 6035 work on ways to make south Academy attractive to new green business, software and manufacturing firms.

    Rick Wehner
    February 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm