Downtown dreams still struggle toward reality

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Several projects such as Daniel Robertson’s Bijou Lofts across the street from Acacia Park are on hold until the economy improves.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about downtown Colorado Springs.

This first story explores ideas about downtown rejuvenation. The following two stories will examine barriers to downtown growth and opportunities for overcoming them.

Downtown Colorado Springs isn’t very cool. But it could be.

That’s been the heartbeat of several discussion forums during the last decade, forums such as Dream City 2020, Imagine Downtown and Operation 6035, to name a few.

And, while evidence of action prompted by the discussions is scarce, ideas for downtown rejuvenation are still alive and awareness of its importance is continually renewed.

Even the mayor took up the issue and created a “downtown solutions” team headed by builder Chuck Murphy.

“The question is, how do we appeal to that young creative class that seems to gravitate to downtown environments?” Mayor Steve Bach said recently.

Dreaming big

Ideas for renovating downtown have included elaborate mixed-use development projects, towering high-rises, sports stadiums, trolleys, an iconic observation deck and more entertainment businesses.

While details of some ideas are blurry and have yet to come into focus, others have plans already drawn and have received city approval but have been sidelined by the economy.

Steve Engel, president of real estate and development firm Griffis Blessing has a project that’s lodged somewhere between dream and reality.

He has plans for 12 acres near Cimarron and Sierra Madre streets. The area, known as City Gate, could be the future home of retail, office and residential development and even a hotel.

“It is a key redevelopment or infill site on one of the two major entryways to downtown,” Engel said. “It’s a great piece of land that is crying out for a higher use.”

He said he still plans to move forward with redeveloping it when the economy turns around.

Griffis Blessing did not invest much toward studying or preparing the land before it became clear the economy wouldn’t support it, he said. But the company did get an artist’s rendering of what the mixed-use development could look like when it’s completed.

City Gate is among several similar projects imagined for downtown.

But developers are likely to hold their ideas close to the chest for now, said Chris Jenkins, president of Nor’Wood Development Group, which has floated a few redevelopment ideas of its own.

“All the dominoes that have to get lined up and fall over in the right order — there’s a lot to it,” Jenkins said. “We’ve had plans and there is a vision, but all of this stuff of the past has seemed like a promise and so it seems like we’ve overpromised and under delivered.”

Jenkins still has plans for Pikes Peak Place, a high-rise mixed-use development on the northeastern corner of Nevada and Pikes Peak avenues. But he said he’ll have to see some signs of vitality downtown before he could responsibly embark on a project of that size.

He said he might consider a smaller version of the project.

“But I hate to do that, because I can still see downtown supporting a project like that eventually,” he said.

The thing he’d most like to see downtown is a viable connection to America the Beautiful Park.

“It’s a tremendous asset, but by and large it’s on an island, not connected to downtown” Jenkins said.

Joining the city to the open space and Smokebrush arts district near the Colorado Avenue bridge is a priority for a lot of downtown dreamers.

Still Dreaming

City Councilman and real estate broker Tim Leigh has one big idea that could fit in the space adjacent to America the Beautiful Park.

When residents voted down plans for a downtown convention center years ago, Leigh did not think that meant the city would oppose having any major events center or anchor downtown.

He proposes The Oly, a sports arena where Olympic athletes and Colorado College students can compete and where other entertainment can come and draw crowds to downtown.

Leigh is not the only one that thinks a sports venue downtown is the ticket to vitality.

Downtown Partnership executive director Ron Butlin said the Sky Sox stadium off of Powers Boulevard on the far northeast edge of town was not strategically or thoughtfully placed. There’s no reason, in his mind, that there couldn’t eventually be a minor league ball park for the Sky Sox downtown instead.

“Wouldn’t it be cool, since the Rockies have Coors Field in downtown Denver, if their farm team could have one here, downtown?” Butlin said. “We could call it Coors Light.”

Rich Walker, a broker with First Properties, proposes a natatorium for swimming competitions.

Andrea Barker, a principal with HB&A Architects, has a million ideas for what downtown could be. In her imagination she can picture a downtown Colorado Springs version of the Manitou Incline. It would be a tower of interwoven stairs people could climb on their lunch breaks topped with an observation deck for tourists.

“It could be that tall wonderful symbol of the city,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have an icon other than the Pioneer’s Museum for downtown?”

Barker is also currently working on a study with an $8,000 grant from the Downtown Development Authority to see if the city’s alleyways could be transformed into inviting and artistic arteries leading to lesser known businesses occupying the backsides of many deep downtown buildings. She imagines outdoor concert space between the backsides of downtown buildings and art displays where blank brick walls are now.

The hurdles seem tall, but other cities like Fort Collins that have redeveloped their alleyways have seen them blossom.

Butlin said he’d love to see getting to, from and around downtown become easier. He imagines a graduated system for parking tickets where first offenders get a warning and rare offenders get away with gentle wrist-slaps.

He’d also love to see steel-wheel trolleys whisking people from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus to downtown past the Colorado College campus and on to the Ivywild neighborhood with a connection to another trolley headed west through Old Colorado City to Manitou Springs.

And then Butlin and Mayor Bach would both like a connection in southwest downtown to a high-speed rail to Denver.

Even without the big ideas and grandest plans coming to fruition, downtown can be cooler, Walker said.

“We might as well accept that Tejon from Pikes Peak to Bijou is going to be an entertainment district,” he said. “Why don’t we embrace that and let it be Bourbon Street West.”

But then, he said the town needs to build on that and add more theater and arts venues and restaurants to offer entertainment and enticements to the city core for people of all ages and demographics.

City Councilwoman Brandy Williams is one who could be classified as a young professional. She grew up in Briargate but found hip coffee shops in Pittsburgh, where she went to college, and misses that atmosphere.

“I want to find the intellectual hang-out downtown,” she said. “I want a place where I can get a drink and talk and solve all the world’s problems over a cocktail. That, to me, would be a perfect Friday night.”

Residential dreams

When Griffis and Blessing’s Engel began raising his family, he sought out the suburban atmosphere and raised his son in the neatly manicured backyards of Colorado Springs’ quiet cul-de-sacs.

But times have changed, Engel said.

“Many of the young creative class would prefer to live in a more urban environment than the suburbs,” he said.

Now, his son, 34, lives in the Pearl District of downtown Portland, Ore., a former industrial zone filled with warehouses and empty rail yards . Since the mid 1990s, the district has transformed into a bustling urban environment with condominium loft conversions, art galleries, boutiques, bars, restaurants and the Portland Streetcar.

“He has very few friends who don’t live in an urban environment,” Engel said.

Many of Engel’s contemporaries have noticed that their adult children also left Colorado Springs and never looked back.

“The paradigm has flip-flopped,” said Councilman Leigh. “The singular driver for the City of Colorado Springs needs to be to enhance the culture so it naturally attracts creative young people. Businesses will be attracted to the community so they can employ these young creatives.”

In this scenario where the economic health of the city depends on attracting a class of people drawn to urban environments, making downtown more attractive to younger workers is no longer a cute idea that can be left to smolder.

“If we want to make this a 24/7 town, we have to have residential development,” Butlin said.

When Linda Hunter announced plans earlier this year to move her jewelry business, Johannes Hunter Jewelers, to the University Village shopping center on the northwest side of town, she said she was “following the rooftops.”

The rooftops have moved farther and farther away from downtown in recent years, stretching to the north and east.

Between 2002 and 2005, more than 3,000 single-family building permits were issued annually, according to Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. Only small fraction were in the 80903 downtown zip code. Very few multi-family permits were issued anywhere in the city between 2000 and 2011, and only a handful of high-priced units were constructed downtown.

Daniel Robertson built all of them. And he would love to build more.

He still has a vision to transform a drab one-story building sitting gutted and empty directly across from Acacia Park on Bijou Street.

The project is called the Bijou Lofts. It includes garage parking and its original design calls for retail on the first floor with four stories of high-end lofts stacked above. The units were originally planned to be large, extravagant and high-priced. But Robertson now believes the market is better suited for smaller, lower-priced units.

While the project is stalled, the Bijou Lofts are far from dead. Robertson owns the building and he’s already demolished the inside of it for the project.

“It’s not even inhabitable for any other purpose right now,” he said.

The Bijou Lofts project was under way when the economy turned and buyers started pulling out of the deal.

Even as it unraveled, Robertson had a few people who remained committed. He had to force one of the clients to take his money back. He kept asking Robertson to keep it because he really wanted the project to happen.

“That’s the thing,” Robertson said. “If you could make the numbers work, I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand.”

Developers like Robertson have suffered some pretty harsh financial blows and are feeling vulnerable even if they have or can get funding.

A number of developers, including Ray O’Sullivan, who had plans to develop a 24-story, 100-condominium high-rise building at Kiowa and Tejon streets, have gone bankrupt.

“The way things are now — so cheap, I keep thinking I should do it now,” Robertson said. “But this just doesn’t feel like [the last downturn] did. I don’t know.”

But the economy hasn’t slammed Darsey Nicklasson, a member of the young creative class city leaders want to attract to Colorado Springs.

Nicklasson, a 35-year-old woman with a real estate consulting business, has picked out a piece of property within five blocks of the heart of downtown, which she considers to be the corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue, where she hopes to construct an apartment building.

“This is one of the first steps for downtown,” she said. “Nobody else seems to be taking it. I can see it, so why not do it myself?”

Nicklasson grew up in Montana got married and moved to Washington, D.C., when she was fresh out of college. The two loved the urban atmosphere, but decided to start a family in Colorado closer to relatives. Though they left the big city, they still crave an urban environment.

“We’re raising our kids down here and we want to make it a better place,” Nicklasson said. “I’m passionate about creating an urban environment.”

What she wants out of downtown Colorado Springs is the anonymity needed to wear a funky pair of yellow shoes that draw looks from strangers but the hometown comfort that comes with knowing the shop owners in the businesses she frequents. She’d like to hear foreign languages and accents as she walks down the street and see all kinds of people from different races and backgrounds.

That would start with attainable rental housing, she said.

She’s conducting a survey to determine what kind of housing she should try to build downtown, although she’s leaning toward the idea to build an apartment building.

“That’s the demographic most likely to be willing to live downtown as downtown is today,” she said.

She has about 12 people ready to pre-lease.

Of course, she believes giving people a place to live in the urban core of the city is the first step to changing it.

Nearly all of the downtown stakeholders would like to see dense residential development downtown.

Griffis Blessing’s Engel said his son’s neighborhood in Portland includes more than 8,000 dwelling units in 100 acres that were built between 1998 and 2008.

That 100 acres is a smaller area than the urban renewal district of southwest downtown Colorado Springs, Engel said.

“It’s just a matter of the market coming back,” Engel said. “It’s a matter of having a market you can build into.”

Read the rest of the series here:

‘Barriers’ block downtown redevelopment
Downtown’s bright spots break barriers