Too many parking lots, too few cottonwoods in downtown

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Shortly after the Colorado Springs was platted by Gen. William Palmer, our city’s original developer, he began to improve the then-desolate town site.

Contemporary photographs show a barren stretch of plain, its monotony relieved only by a few wooden shacks.

Palmer, so the story goes, sent boys down to the banks of Monument Creek, where they dug up hundreds of cottonwood saplings and transplanted them along the soon-to-be grand avenues that would radiate out from the city’s first stake, placed at what is now the southeast corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade.

Of those cottonwoods, only one survives — a fine old tree in the 500 block of North Cascade.

More than 100 years ago, my maternal grandfather built a house at 530 N. Cascade, where my mother and her sister and brothers grew up. Long shaded from the afternoon sun by Gen. Palmer’s tree, the house stood until the 1960s, when it was torn down and replaced with a late modernist office building.

I mourn my grandfather’s house, as I mourn the other downtown structures that fell to the wrecker’s ball during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. And while a new building replaced the old family home, downtown’s heart has yet to recover from the orgy of demolition that took place half a century ago.

Three enormous vacant lots along Pikes Peak Avenue mark the sites of long-vanished buildings. Some, like those which housed bars and pawnshops on Colorado Avenue, were undistinguished Victorian commercial structures. Others, such as the Ute and the Trail theaters, were vital and lively adjuncts to a thriving downtown. And two, the Burns Opera House and the Antlers Hotel, were irreplaceable treasures.

It seems curious and tragic that these sites are more barren and lifeless today than they were when Col. William Bell drove the city’s first stake in 1871. Then there were prairie grasses; now, there’s only asphalt. It’s as if London had never rebuilt after the blitz, as if Atlanta were still in ruins after the Civil War, as if New Orleans had been abandoned after Katrina.

On second thought, those metaphors are inaccurate. Downtown would have been quickly rebuilt after a catastrophic fire or wartime destruction. No tsunami rose from the bed of Monument Creek; no earthquake toppled the proud towers of the Antlers Hotel.

Downtown was overcome by forces more powerful, more lasting, and far harder to combat than any natural disaster.

Call it Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. The breaking wave of capitalism spares no one.

Those noble old buildings no longer served any economic purpose, so down they came. In retrospect, city leaders and downtown property owners made foolish, shortsighted decisions — but even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have confessed to making such mistakes.

And despite the parking lots, there’s a lot to celebrate downtown.

Walking down Tejon Street on a glorious September day, I tried to remember downtown as it was 30 years ago.

The storefronts back then between Platte and Pikes Peak were uniformly shabby. The sidewalks were narrow and cramped. Municipal ordinances forbade, as Mary Lou Makepeace remarked a few years later, almost everything that people like about downtowns. There were no sidewalk cafes (verboten!), no noisy bars and restaurants that stayed open until the wee hours (verboten!), no tenants of any kind in the vacant Cheyenne Building (let’s tear down that eyesore!), no art on the streets (keep the art in the Fine Arts Center where it belongs!) and no Sam & Kathy Guadagnoli building megaclubs (keep ‘em out on Academy Boulevard!).

You could have rolled a bowling ball down Tejon Street at 9 on any Saturday night without hitting a car, a pedestrian, an open business or a stray cat.

Changes to downtown have been slow, incremental and wonderful.

Jack Quinn’s running club on Tuesdays, art exhibitions at GOCA, happy hour at (insert any of a dozen bars/restaurants), country music luminaries at Cowboy’s, politicians fulminating on the steps of City Hall, and the continuous, crowded, multi-block street party that starts at 7:30 every Friday and Saturday night.

But there’s one thing missing. We need to fill those parking lots. It’s time to replace the bitter losses of the past with the joyful commerce of the present.

It’s been a while, but it may be that Schumpeter’s breaking wave is receding, and that Adam Smith’s invisible hand may be ready to pat us on the back, not slap us down. All we need is a developer or two, a tenant or three, and an obliging bank. You go, guys!

And while you’re at it, plant a few cottonwoods.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861